I was in a serious car accident 11 days after my 18th birthday in 2006. I suffered a brain injury, and had to spend six weeks in rehabilitation. I’m fine now.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about this for a while now, so I figured I would start with the facts.
On the one hand, my accident has absolutely nothing to do with my life now. It almost feels like it happened to another person. On the other hand, it has everything to do with my life now.
Because of my accident, a few things happened:
1) I got a brief taste of what it was like to live as somebody else.
2) It helped me be myself more fully, or it turned me into myself.
3) I decided that there was no way I could continue to live in the town where I had grown up. I had to get out, as soon as I could.
After my accident, I was unconscious and/or unresponsive in the hospital for 10 days. The doctors told my family that in addition to a broken collarbone, tailbone and pelvis, I had a moderate brain injury but that they couldn’t be sure of the damage until I woke up. When I did, the injury was downgraded to mild, but I still had to spend the next month in rehab (not the drug kind) to relearn some physical and mental skills.
In rehab in Atlanta, I met people with the saddest stories you could imagine. There was my roommate in the inpatient facility who had been a beautiful, popular college freshman until she was thrown from a car that her friend was driving. She had lost the ability to walk, eat on her own, or communicate except by grunts. There was another girl close to my age who had escaped Hurricane Katrina only to have a serious brain injury a few months later. There was a man who had been shot in the head and whose injury left him with aphasia, making him unable to speak.
This was my first encounter with people who were truly, truly different from me. Their injuries were much more serious than mine, and most of them had a long road ahead of them to–at best–a partial recovery. We didn’t really belong in the same facility–as in, I didn’t belong. It was here that I understood the true meaning of empathy for the first time: not really while it was happening, as I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to articulate this to myself at the time, but afterwards.
The accident also affected my personality in subtle ways. When I came back home after the accident, I acted older. More serious. Probably less fun. More patient, but less willing to waste time doing things that I didn’t enjoy. Less tolerant of large, loud crowds of people. Are these characteristics, most of which I have today, a result of the effects of the accident on my brain, a result of experiencing a trauma, a natural consequence of growing up, or a little of all three? I’m not sure, but I know that when I came back from the accident I was different. My best friends stayed in my life, but because I was not the same as before, I lost touch with the girls I had been friends with from school, because they were the same. And that’s okay.
Finally, my accident made me 100 percent certain that as soon as I could get out of my hometown, I was gone.
Jackson, Tennessee, though not really that small compared to many other small towns, is the kind of place where everyone pretty much knows everyone else. My father was a professor at a local college, a columnist in the local newspaper, and had been one of the pastors at our former church for a long time. My siblings and I had gone to multiple schools and participated in different community activities. So our family knew a lot of people in town.
After my accident, news spread quickly in the way that it only does in a small town. My dad wrote about it in one of his columns in the paper. All of our family friends showed up at the hospital, prayed, sent flowers and gifts, gave money, and were generally amazing. I’m thankful for the outpouring of support to this day.
But the result of so many people knowing about the accident is that my life came to be defined by it. Not by people who knew me personally, but by friends-of-friends and old classmates and acquaintances and random people in the grocery store. Because of my accident, I didn’t go away to college like I had planned. Instead I went to the local college, and this of course meant that it was even harder to get away from what had happened.
The first couple of years after my accident, people I didn’t know would routinely try to talk to me about it. Two memorable examples: While waiting for my food in my college dining hall, an elementary school acquaintance asked me if I had any “effects” (as in mentally) from the accident. A few months later, a woman I had never met before messaged me on Facebook and asked me to reach out to a family at her church whose daughter had just been in a car accident.
What I know is that people’s response to my accident show some of the best things about living in a town where everyone knows everyone else. In a small town, you are known. You are cared for. But what I also know is that because of the accident, I needed to live someplace where I could choose to be anonymous. Let’s be real–I was always moving away from Jackson. I had always wanted to live somewhere bigger and with more things to do. But the accident gave me a very important reason to want to get out.
I was back in Jackson last year for two weddings. One stranger at each of these weddings brought up the accident to me. “Weren’t you the girl..?” Remember that this is ten years after it happened. Yes, I said, and smiled.
So this is the story. I don’t talk about it much. I doubt most people who know me now have ever heard me mention it, and you probably won’t. It’s not that important, but in a way, it is.
I have a scar from the accident on my left temple, where broken glass had to be removed. Though I always cover the scar up with makeup, in a weird way I’m proud of it, too. It shows where I’ve been. I earned it.