Ten years ago I was in a car accident. I was a passenger and it was out of my control. I ended up with broken and shattered bones, a life-long scar, and some emotional struggles that come maybe once every few months.
A little less than a month ago I was in another car accident. I was sandwiched between two other cars. I was the driver of my vehicle, but was not at fault. I walked away with a concussion, a few bruises, and a burn. Although this accident was less serious physically, the emotional toll it has taken on my mind has far surpassed the first.
I have lost all faith in other drivers. When on the road, I live in a constant state of fear, tension, and paranoia. I have to constantly remind myself that no one wants to get into or cause an accident. I am constantly checking my rearview mirror to see if the person behind me has left enough distance between us. When I’m coming to a stop, I brake gently and long before I need to just to make sure the person behind me knows “hey, there’s going to be a stop ahead”. I leave more room between myself and the car in front of me but still find myself slowing down to give even more room.
When the car behind me is following too closely for comfort my heart starts to pound. My entire body unconsciously tenses. My fist clenches. My breath catches until they back off. Even at speeds of 25 MPH I find myself fearing for my life. I have to remind myself to relax. I have to remind myself that “I am safe. I am centered. I am grounded”. I try to focus on 5 things I can see, 4 things I can touch, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell, and 1 thing I can taste.
After a lot of thought and analysis, I’ve figured out why this most recent accident affected me more than the first. It all falls down to control. I didn’t have control in either accident, but the first was preventable. The first happened because a driver ran through a stop sign. That can easily be avoided. I can control how I handle stop signs. For ten years I have made a full stop at every single stop sign. For ten years I have watched any cars at or approaching the intersection for any sign that they won’t adhere to the rules of the road. In ten years I have had no problems at stop signs.
This most recent accident was caused by the driver behind me not paying attention. He didn’t brake. He didn’t slow. I saw him in my rearview mirror. It’s amazing how many things can go through your mind in a matter of 1-2 seconds. “This is really happening. I’m going to be in another accident. He isn’t stopping. Oh God! He isn’t stopping!” How do you stop something like that from happening? How do you prevent it? How do you tell the driver behind you “Hey! Pay attention! We’re all suddenly stopped up here!”
I keep quite a bit of distance between the car in front of me and my own, but I’m always reminded that that distance won’t stop the person behind me from hitting me. It only stops me from being pushed into the car in front of me. I can never control the person behind me. I can’t keep him or her from hitting me, I can only have faith that they will be paying attention.
How do you learn to trust strangers again? How do you learn to put your faith back in people when day after day you see people swerving over lines, speeding, passing in no passing zones, blowing through stop signs? How am I supposed to let go of this fear when people keep reinforcing it?
I find myself sitting at a local diner during lunch. I’m relaxed, enjoying my favorite food. Suddenly, without warning, I have a vision of a car crashing through the window and slamming into me. I’m sitting at a red light. Humming along to my favorite song when I see the car behind me coming up too fast for comfort. Suddenly I’m hit with a flashback. I see a silver bumper. I see white air bags. I see smoke and smell sulfur. I’m driving on the highway. My cruise is set to exactly the speed limit (who would have known this speed demon could be tamed) and I’m enjoying the sunshine. The car that’s passing me inches to side and nearly crosses the line. My mind is now filled with images of my car spinning out, of blood, of choas.
My ears ring. My heart pounds. My chest tenses. My grasp on the wheel tightens. My eyes grow wide. No car crashes through the diner window. The car stops in time. The car passes me without incident. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. I tell my body to loosen up. My ears slowly stop ringing. My heart finally slows to its normal rate.
How do I stop this paranoia and fear? How do I make people understand I have no control over it? I feel like I’m not me. I feel like someone else is inside my head. I feel crazy. Why does the choice to be happy have to be so hard?