I thought I was fine right after my car accident. I'd slid off a rain-slick highway in Michigan onto a grassy median and knocked myself out.
I woke with the top of my head feeling slightly sore, wondering why there were so many trees and shrubs in front of me. And where were all the cars?
Before I could reach for my phone to call home, I saw a deep-blue Michigan State Police car pull up behind me and two blue-uniformed officers came out to check on me.
I exited my SUV with no problem and was apparently too coherent to be drunk because they only asked if I felt all right and if I needed help getting home. I didn't. They cut the deployed airbags and then got in their car to lead me back onto the road.
Driving home under the speed limit, I noted at some level that I'd had a very lucky break: while I'd gone into and out of a ditch, at least there was a median. Five or ten minutes further north there was no median and I would have merged with southbound traffic and ended up dead or close to it. The fact registered, but didn't take root since I was calling home to tell my husband what happened and that I'd be there soon.
I was still shaken when I pulled into our driveway, but the whole thing felt a bit dreamlike. Had I really gone off the road?
Three days later, my husband took me to the ER with what was quickly diagnosed as a concussion: I was nauseous, dizzy, couldn't stand or see straight. Several hours of tests didn't find any other damage and I was advised to take things easy for a few weeks, though my avuncular GP gave me permission to teach my classes at Michigan State University if I was driven there and back, and otherwise rested at home. Easy-peasy, right?
And then the panic attacks started. As a mystery author, I watch a lot of crime movies and series, but suddenly I couldn't tolerate them. Watching a movie or TV show with a car chase of accident of any kind left me shivering and afraid, my heart beating so hard that my head hurt. I was reliving the moments of waking up confused, and experiencing something worse: the knowledge that I had escaped possible death or at the very least terrible injury by minutes.
I stopped feeling safe in the world and gradually became afraid of even driving to the local supermarkets. I had to steel myself for the short trips, reminding myself that there was no highway driving involved, no heavy traffic, and there sure as hell weren't going to be any dangerously slick roads because I stayed in if it was raining or if there was even a forecast of rain.
Worse than the way my world was starting to shrink were the vague dark nightmares that thrust me from sleep and left me almost breathless and terrified—as if the nightmare still had its claws in me and was determined to draw blood and drag me down. My GP prescribed Xanax for the panic attacks and it worked when I was awake, though the nightmares continued.
But in the middle of all the mental and physical turmoil, my writer's brain was minutely noting each and every symptom, each and every shock, each and every moment of terror. One thing was very clear: I could use this someday.
Journalist and author Janet Malcolm once wrote that "Art is theft, art is armed robbery."
And I wonder now, can you steal from yourself?