5 Important Lessons I Learned From Being in a Car Accident

This is the only photo I have from that night. It is haunting, but it doesn’t capture all the feelings; only time has aided in helping me make sense of those.

On the night of December 4th, I was driving home from work when I was blindsided going through an intersection a block away from home. Isn’t that interesting? People always say accidents happen in proximity to where you live – perhaps that is because people are less apt to pay attention, but in this scenario, I wasn’t given any time to react.

I braced for impact and opened my eyes to see my vehicle filled with particulate dust that I could not identify and my airbag deflating in front of me. That part plays out in slow motion in my memories, but the rest of the events are on fast forward. Today, I am pressing rewind to write the story of the lessons I learned from being in a car accident.

1) When it comes to trauma, your rational brain goes offline

I have read about this, but this was my first time experiencing it. When you experience trauma, the part of your brain responsible for logic and reasoning goes quiet, and you shift to survival mode. That played out in very strange ways for me; I understood that I needed to get myself safely out of the intersection, but what I should do next was beyond me. I couldn’t decide whether to call my insurance company, the police or my husband, so I did none of those things. Instead, I paced around in the snow alternating between checking my person to ensure I was physically intact, and hyperventilating because I was shocked. Which brings me to lesson #2:

2) If you witness an accident, stop to check in and offer support

Nobody stopped to see if we were okay. Cars honked in dismay because we were blocking the intersection, and maneuvered their way around us, but there was no reassurance or emotional support in those moments. This is the part of the story where I lost some hope for humanity (but don’t worry, it was quickly regained). I think people assume if you have exited the vehicle and appear okay, you are okay…but people may not be okay.

The first contact I had with a person was when a police offer arrived, and that takes us to lesson #3:

3) First Responders deserve a whole lot of recognition for the role they play

Being in an accident was the most terrifying experience of my life, and I have never felt so alone. Police officers, firefighters, and paramedics spend their entire careers showing up to support people who are having the most terrifying experience of their lives, and this must take an incredible emotional toll. I know this now, because it is hard for me to recognize the person I was in the moments after the accident.

Remember that whole “rational brain goes offline” thing? As I was being hooked up to monitors and having my vitals checked in the back of an ambulance, my main concern as I bawled between words, was that the driver of the other vehicle never acknowledged, apologized, or checked to see if I was okay. I was really fixated on this as a theme, and this beautiful team of people did everything they could to ensure I was physically okay while also providing a kind of reassurance that made me feel a lot less emotionally broken. Speaking of emotionally broken, lesson #4:

4) The damage after a car accident extends beyond the event itself, even when the physical wounds heal

Let me start this by saying that manual therapy is magic for healing the physical wounds. As a chiropractor, I witness the healing we do with our hands in the transformation of my patients, but being on the receiving end of care was a reminder of the power of therapeutic touch. Our bodies are so adaptable and resilient and it is amazing how quickly wounds can heal; chiropractic and massage treatments made the first few days bearable, and offered feel-good moments of peace in the weeks that followed.

The car was totalled, and I had some whiplash and wicked migraines, but from what people could see on the outside, I was not terribly injured. What was going on inside was a completely different story; the stress of the accident itself paired with a really complicated chain of events involving insurance, and rental vehicles, and treatment, and buying a new car, and experiencing post traumatic stress while driving made for a very challenging time.

It was also something that was difficult to talk about because I carried a sort of guilt for feeling this way given that I was alive, no one was hurt, and the situation could have been much worse. Knowing that people in my life had been deeply affected by car accidents and lost loved ones made it feel almost inappropriate to articulate what I was going through. I was for the most part quiet, and selective about who I reached out to during this time. Which brings me to my final lesson from the accident:

5) People are inherently good and the world is full of kind souls

The support I received from my community in the weeks following the accident gave me so much strength. People in my close circle and from the far corners of social media universe were reaching out to me and reminding me daily that I was strong, and resilient, but that I could also be sad, and broken, and taking my time to heal. Every one of these interactions validated my feelings and made me feel seen, and more than made up for the hopelessness I felt in the moments immediately after the accident. Gratitude and sadness can be experienced in the same breath, and while there was grief, there was also an immense sense of gratitude for the people in my life.

So there you have it – 5 important lessons I learned from being in a car accident. I am writing this 10 weeks later, after taking my time to piece together my reflections from the event and pull the nectar out of what was at the time, a fairly traumatic incident.

I’ve got a new car, complete with all of the latest safety features, and extra large windows to maximize visibility, and this has made the transition back to driving feel enjoyable (even if it’s also a little guarded at times).

The license plates – dented and scarred – were salvaged at the scene, and are now mounted on my new car as a reminder of the lessons I am taking with me as I drive forward – bruised but still good – on this road we call life.