You can run from all kinds of things, but your mind will find you. Two years after a life-threatening car accident, my mind found me on a balcony overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The only sound were the steller’s jays who lived in the trees surrounding the balcony, the faint hum of traffic in Oakland, and the grumpy old woman who lived behind us, squawking at her landscaper about the vegetable garden they were putting in for the spring. Two crows were ganging up on a hawk in the tallest pine tree in the area, the one that obscured the sunset for a brief time in the early spring, when the sun set in the very middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. My cat was lying, as cats tend to, on her back in a patch of sun.
This was a stupidly beautiful scene that I will never forget. It was a tease: a preview of a dream being lived out by what I deemed to be more deserving, older, affluent neighbors: the founder of Wired magazine, the author Michael Lewis, countless professors and tech tycoons.
But this was my home for a time, a 450-square-foot perch in a rundown student-filled building in a neighborhood otherwise crammed with spectacular, unattainable real estate. I had run away here with my boyfriend, who had also been in the car accident. I had watched him hurl out of the back of a pickup truck on vacation in Mexico, hitting the side of the tour bus that had just hit us, somehow not rolling under the bus. Somehow not dying. The driver had been trying to pass us on the left, so he could keep surging over the speed limit, so he could get his tourists to their southern destination more quickly. He did not see when we started to turn left, off the highway, entering the left lane to do so. We had been going to an underwater cave to swim.
A bruise to the rib, a piece of glass lodged in an elbow, scrapes that have now faded, minor misalignments improved by the hands of a chiropractor or massage therapist: these were our only injuries. Walking down a dusty street to a payphone that afternoon while Colin got an x-ray, I experienced the biggest high of my life. I was drunk on life, on gratitude, on God. I called my sister to tell her that we had almost died but hadn’t. Later, the tour bus driver would hand banknote after banknote to a police officer, a massive pile of money, the only legal process that arose out of the thing. We got nothing, but then why should we have? We were riding in the back of a pickup truck, a practice so common and so deadly in Mexico that the government runs TV advertisements warning people not to do it. The one we saw, while sitting on a bus riding to Tulum the first day of the vacation, showed a cartoon of a family piled into a truck, a red circle around the truck, and a line through it. Simple enough.
Oh, but we were only going a few miles. Never mind that we were on a two-lane highway with a speed limit that no one paid any attention to. “That bus is coming up really fast,” I remember saying, watching the black and white square of the front of the bus get alarmingly bigger as it came towards us, going the speed of a train, I remember thinking, not a bus. How fast must the driver have been going? But what did it matter? The man driving our pickup truck, the boyfriend of the daughter of our hotel’s owner, had been smoking weed while driving. But what did it matter? People driving by had pulled off the side of the road, leapt out of their cars to help us. That mattered. Everyone survived. That mattered. Later that night, back at the hotel, eating a free meal and drinking free wine, the least our companions could have done for us, the boyfriend would obtusely compliment Colin on his “battle scars,” huge, wide scrapes covering his entire back. That didn’t matter.
Because seemingly everyone and everything is on the Internet, there is a set of people who indulge each other’s car crash fetishes on the Internet. After the accident and a week of recovery at home, I was back at work, at the web startup in New York City that I had been working at for the previous two years. As startups tend to go, we used a bunch of social media sites including StumbleUpon to promote the content we published. I remember “stumbling” through StumbleUpon, adding to my collection of random webpages that I deemed worthy of being thumbed up, and one of these car crash photos came up. The crash had been in Mexico, according to the description below the photo, and showed a red car, stopped sideways in the middle of a highway. Four people had been riding in the car, but the top of the car had been sliced clean off by another, bigger vehicle, which was way off in the background, at the side of the road. The heads of all four passengers had also been sliced off, so there were just four headless bodies sitting in the car, frozen in a way that made them look like they were still moving at whatever ungodly speed the cars had been traveling when they collided.
It was a cloudy day the day of the accident in the photograph. There was fog in the air, and a dense jungle in the background, and mountains. It all looked so beautiful, if you blocked out the foreground, of the red half-car and the beheaded bodies within. Why does bad driving so often come to beautiful places? I remember rolling my head away from the image on the screen, but being unable to actually turn my eyes away. It was as if I wanted to bask in it, to honor the delicateness of human life, to focus on it so deeply that I would never forget it, that it would be on my mind from each second of my life to the next, forever. You could say I was reminding myself that it could have been so much worse, but the truth was, I was having a hard time appreciating that. I was too fixated on the fact that it had happened at all.
I had a bottle of Klonopin that was not prescribed to me, but to my boyfriend, stashed in a little organizer drawer under my desk, a drawer that otherwise included office supplies like paper clips, pens and Post-Its, symbols of an easier time, when I could keep things straight in my head, and actually had a desire to. I would take 25 milligrams of Klonopin whenever I felt like it, once a day or every few days, which was usually as soon as I got to work. I didn’t feel that it was doing anything worthwhile, but it was exciting to take it. I was trying to replicate the adrenaline high we had felt the night of the accident. We would both try so hard to get that high back over the next few months. Nothing worked. The withdrawal symptoms that I experienced on Klonopin — mostly manic inattentiveness and overblown sadness — were far worse than whatever I’d wanted the Klonopin to silence. (Klonopin, I now know, is widely recognized as having some of the worst withdrawal symptoms of any prescription drug. It is not, I repeat not, to be trifled with).
I took the Klonopin because I thought it was my right. The pills were so casually prescribed. We were both exhibiting PTSD symptoms, and mine, we both agreed, were worse than Colin’s. I didn’t want to ask for my own prescription, because that would be somehow more legitimate, and more risky. We shared the same doctor — what was the difference? This is the state of American medicine. I did not realize how much I needed help — a therapist’s help, not pharmaceutical help. We are conditioned to think that our problems are pill-sized holes that can be easily filled. There are only a few labels we throw around these days, despite the fact that there are thousands of conditions listed in the DSM. That means, ridiculously, that I suffer from the same thing that war veterans suffer from. I believe that, but I still find it strange. Shouldn’t we all get our own labels, a big, personalized map of what’s wrong with us, and pet names, proper names, to describe it all? What happened to me is not “Liz.” It has a different name, a more sinister name. It is important to make that distinction, if a person is to recover from a trauma. It took me several years, and a very good therapist, to learn that.
The therapist also explained something to me that fairly blew my mind and helped my brain start to reconfigure itself on the spot: the brain doesn’t always totally process the difference between, say, someone dying in an accident, and everyone surviving. The brain is far less traumatized than it would be had it witnessed someone dying, but it still recognizes that life has split: there is before, and there is after. It is hard to explain in words how the brain does this. But it has everything to do with our sheer proximity to death. The experience of feeling death, of seeing it approach, and then at the last minute retreat, is not easily shaken. Some people are better at shaking it than others.
About naming: the therapist, in the midst of a few sessions that did more for me than any pill ever could, asked me if there was a name that friends called me growing up. Groups of friends across several continents tended to call me “Lizard.” The therapist wanted me to describe what these friends saw, what I thought inspired the name Lizard, besides the obvious. This was hard to do. I realized, or rather, I vocalized for the first time to another person, that I was not this person anymore, that I had not been this person for awhile. Certainly, I had grown up since the days of Lizard, but I also felt that I had grown old, that this message from death, which briefly blinked before me and then went dark again, had calcified something in me. But how cruel to life, and cruel to oneself, to give up just because everything had almost been taken away. Nothing had been taken away. Here we are. Life will end, but not yet. It was the “but not yet” that I had trouble with. I had seen death thundering toward me at 120 miles an hour. Once bitten, twice shy.
In an essay in the new literary magazine The American Reader, the writer Stephanie LaCava talks about her fixation on car crashes, born of the fact that her mother was in a serious car accident when LaCava was a child. After that, “I always believed I would die in a car crash,” she writes. Her mother’s accident is “a mass that glows neon mint-green in the dark” and is never quite gone from her mind, “now and again reemerging into consciousness, mutating to accommodate facts, anecdotes and miscellanea.” This made me wonder whether naming something, or objectifying it in a specific way, could help tackle it, and shelve it somewhere in the mind forever. At that point a trauma is just a memory, an acute memory, and a permanent one, but at least it has a shape. But the accident itself was never the problem for me — or at least, it stopped being the problem after a few months. The accident itself was an undersea earthquake; the tidal waves it created were more damaging than the earthquake itself. As LaCava experienced, the original event “mutates.” It is not just itself, its fairly innocuous self. It is always shapeshifting.
This is PTSD. It turns out the human mind has more than just the fight-or-flight response in its survivalist arsenal. It also has the ability to hibernate, to flee inward. Julian Ford, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, recently explained PTSD in Psychology Today as:
a shift from a brain in which the stress, reward, and self-reflection systems operate in learning mode — enabling the individual to explore and enjoy the world, to gain and remember knowledge that enriches life — to a brain operating in survival mode. A brain in survival mode is on the defensive and prone to negative emotional, cognitive and behavioral reactions.
PTSD doesn’t injure the brain the way that a traumatic brain injury does, he says, although the symptoms of the two conditions can be similar. Instead, PTSD causes the brain to be “hijacked by primitive areas that are essential to survival.” It’s a mental injury, activated necessarily by some kind of contact with death, virtually anything, Ford says, that’s considered “life-threatening.” After the threat, the parts of the brain involved — the amygdala and hippocampus, the midbrain, and the prefrontal and cingulate cortex — stop their usual “dialogue” and exhibit a “struggle for control that leads to hyper vigilance, impulsivity, and dysphoria.”
Like LaCava, I, too, fixate on car accidents, though less so today than I did in the year or so following the accident. My ears still perk up when the subject comes up in conversation or in the news. Sometimes I obsessively follow a mysterious accident. I want to know why death occurs in some cases and not others. I want to brood over some kid’s recklessness, or a father’s poor judgment, or a mother’s highway-bound unraveling.
I don’t often think of our own recklessness, the two of us sitting so foolishly in the back of the pickup truck, Colin aiming his little video camera at me, moments before he and the camera flew out of the truck bed, the camera ricocheting into the grass by the side of the highway, the screen smashed. The camera became a symbol of the event: because the screen was smashed, it was no longer usable, but the hard drive still worked. We got all the videos off it. The camera was a time capsule of before.
But what is before? What does before matter if there is after? The best way I can explain the difference between the two is that before, we seemed to have been standing on solid ground, and after, we were standing on ice. The ice was thick; it was safe to walk on. But I was convinced that it was going to crack at any moment. A less sensitive mind, like Colin’s, was able to see that the ice was safe. But I stood still with my eyes closed tightly, hoping not to trigger any kind of movement beneath me.
My brain could not seem to do much beyond the basic requirements of existence. I began drinking more coffee, more and more coffee, until eventually I was drinking a venti Starbucks every morning. I did not realize at the time that people with anxiety, arguably a cousin of PTSD, are supposed to go easy on the caffeine. So the coffee made me nervous, but still the neurons would not fire. I quit my job. I lost a couple of other valuable work opportunities. I felt foggy. I felt as if I was sleep-walking. My productivity slowed to a virtual standstill. Yet I still did not see a therapist. The Klonopin was far behind me, but several days a week I drank coffee and wine, antidotes to each other. Occasionally I popped a Tramadol, a fairly strong painkiller left over from Colin’s post-accident stash.
It wasn’t enough to close down to the degree that I was closing down. I also became hypersensitive to New York, its sounds and smells, its competitiveness, its costliness, its excessiveness. I moved so many times as a child — small traumas unto themselves — that I decided moving was the natural next step. “Pain has no memory,” as a coach of mine used to say, and my brain has always been quick to forget the pain associated with moving. Colin had been in the city for 12 long years. He was ready to leave, or at least theoretically ready. It turns out that moves are traumatic for adults too.
There was no better treatment for me than another person, a trained person. I had known this all along, but it took me so long to get there because it took me so long to get anywhere. I could move across the country, but I couldn’t necessarily act. I mistook movement for action, and I mistook a change for a solution.
But a year later, I would finally be sitting in a therapist’s small office in Berkeley, the windows wide open to show a cluster of the city’s impressive variety of trees, and its predictably perfect blue sky. In the quiet of Berkeley an inner voice, a voice that knew what it was talking about, that knew something was not right in my head, grew louder. This voice said, correctly, that no amount of caffeine or alcohol was going to heal me. This voice said that I used to loved my work, but didn’t now. This voice said that basking in the sun, watching an Anna’s hummingbird surge 30 feet in the air and hover there, scanning his territory, was not going to heal me, although it certainly helped. I had to stop dancing around what had happened. I found a therapist on the Internet who knew exactly what to do with me. There was no dilly-dallying. There was no long-winded talk of my relationship with my parents. We were there to work. He sent me back in time and escorted me through the previous four years.
“We need to get Lizard back,” he would say, which was hilarious, but effective. It was such a cliché of therapy, that idea of getting a person out of the hard shell of fear that they have, for whatever reason, created around themselves. I couldn’t believe this cliché had happened to me. But it had, and I could waste my days away inside the shell if I wanted to, or I could come out of it.
Standing on the side of the highway, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I’d thought of my grandmother. At the age of eight, she lost her father, brother, sister, grandfather and an aunt in a car accident. The car was at a railroad crossing, and her father drove onto the tracks after a train had passed, not realizing there was a second train behind the first one. My grandmother was back at home with her mother and infant sister. After that day, her mother would often tell my grandmother how special she was, how treasured, how she had stayed home that day for a reason, that God had other plans for her. She became a talisman for her mother, a mascot.
Understandably, my grandmother, who lived to 91, never got over this massive tragedy. After a couple of glasses of wine in the summers, our dinner conversation would often turn back to it. We would all have tears in our eyes, but usually she would turn positive, talking about her mother’s sweet superstition about her, her insistence that my grandmother was protected, was lucky, and that she would live a long time. She may not have sought help for this tragedy, the way subsequent generations have tended to, but she found a way out, or at least through: her husband, her children, her friends, her town.
My grandparents also drove out to California to live for awhile in the late 1960s, once all four of their children had grown up. My grandmother used to tell me that she spent most of time they were in Santa Cruz crying and reading. She missed home. They would end up driving back to Nova Scotia after a year. My grandfather now describes Santa Cruz as “too different,” though I know part of him wishes they’d stayed longer. But my grandmother needed home. It was, roughly speaking, the scene of the accident, but it was also a town filled with buildings her father had built, and where her mother had lived and died, at the age of 104. This was where she was destined to live out the long life her mother had predicted for her, and she insisted on this destiny.
After our comparatively innocent accident, I looked around the hot, frantic scene and immediately felt that I had received the same gift my grandmother received at the age of eight, that there was a connection between the two events. I felt her presence, or whatever presence had conspired to keep her home with her mother that day. In the muddled, messy months — or years, really — that followed the accident, I lost sight of that idea, an idea that kept my grandmother on course. But I knew it was there. It would always be there. In order to see it again, I would have to choose to.