Saturday, October 8, 2011


The injuries:

I woke up in the ambulance, wearing a cervical collar and strapped to a board. I was bleeding heavily from two massive head wounds, and my body was in terrible pain. 

I had a compound complex depressed skull fracture the size of a silver dollar in the center of my forehead. The end of the towbar in my trunk (in the front, under the hood of my '71 VW Beetle) had come up through the dashboard and bashed a hole in my head, partially collapsing my right eye socket and lacerating the dura mater in several places. I was leaking cranial fluid. The paramedics didn't know if I would live or die.

I also had a large, three-cornered tear along my jawline. My skin was hanging open far enough that you could see inside and watch the muscles of my throat working when I swallowed. 

I had a severe concussion and Grade 3 whiplash-- it would be months before I could move my neck on its own without using my hands to position my head.

My knees had been embedded into the steel of the dashboard, leaving dents 2 inches deep. I had no feeling in my kneecaps. I still don't.

Every inch of my body was covered with bruises. It looked as if someone had dipped their fingertips in paint and played piano on my skin. Red, green, yellow, purple, blue. Everywhere. It seemed that no blood vessel had gone unscathed.

The seat belt bruise was really something. A wide, deep red band ran from my left shoulder to my right hip, with tendrils radiating outward across my chest. On my hip was an enormous black medallion, eight inches across and striated with impossible colors. Black. So black. And then burgundy, purple, green. It took well over a month to fade.

At first, after the surgery, I couldn't see at all, because my eyes had swollen to the size of a man's closed fist and I could not open them. This lasted for about four days.

After that, when I could open my eyes again, I still couldn't see much. My right optical nerve had been damaged by the shards of bone from the break in my skull, and had left my field of vision drastically reduced. 

Do this: press the heels of your hands together, and then your fingertips, forming a circle. Hold the circle up in front of your right eye and bring it toward you until your hand touches your nose, keeping your eye in the center of the circle.

Now imagine that everything outside of that circle is just gone. Black. Like you're wearing a mask or trapped behind a locked door with only a peephole to look through. Only the locked door is your own head.

That was my first real sense of claustrophobia-- being trapped inside my own body with no escape. I began to panic during those first few weeks. The panic lasted a long, long time. I don't think it ever went away, in fact. I just got used to its presence over time, and stopped consciously noticing it was there. 

In the coming months, my field of vision would expand somewhat, even more than I was told was possible by my doctors, although it would never go back to normal. I have double vision around the edges of the field now, not correctable by glasses. My right eye is no longer synchronized with my left and can wander independently to alarming angles. My peripheral vision is impaired, especially on my left side. Depth perception is sometimes difficult. At first, I had to hold my head awkwardly to the side in order to see where I was going. Stairs were a nightmare. I still have a noticeable tilt to my head that often makes people think I am looking quizzically at them. 

The truth is that I do it to mitigate my double vision, and have been doing it for so long that I can no longer tell that my head isn't straight up and down. Sometimes I only realize it when my ear touches my shoulder. My world is canted permanently to the left.

Many other symptoms came to light in the weeks after the accident. For instance, I had lost my sense of taste and smell. Or rather, everything tasted and smelled the same. It wasn't certain whether this would be permanent or not. It ended up fading after a few months.

My extremities went numb and fell asleep very easily, as if I were an old woman. My circulation had been compromised in the impact, and again, it wasn't certain whether I'd regain normal function or not. I didn't. I fidget a lot now, cross and recross my legs, switching sides frequently, toss and turn in my sleep, because if I don't I'm all pins and needles. It's difficult to be physically comfortable, even now, after all these years.

Worst of all, in those early weeks, it slowly became clear I had sustained brain damage that affected my vocabulary.

As you might imagine, especially if you know me well, this was a significant discovery that was very, very difficult to accept. I had been a gifted student, an excellent communicator, a lover of words, a lifelong reader. And I wanted to be a writer.

All of a sudden, my vocabulary was diminished. I hadn't lost the ability to speak, or even enough words that the loss was immediately noticeable. But it soon became clear that I had little of my extended vocabulary at my immediate disposal. I'd lost all my ten-dollar words, my mother said. They were just gone.

No one could tell me whether it would be permanent or not. "Time will tell," my doctors told me. "Time will tell." 

In the meantime, I found myself rephrasing sentences to get around strange gaps in my inner lexicon. I spoke very simply. I often had that "it's right on the tip of my tongue" sensation, knowing I knew the word but unable to summon it when I needed it. Like a victim of stroke or aphasia, I could describe the word I wanted, but couldn't recall it on my own. Once again, I felt trapped within myself, locked away from the very thing that made me me. 

Many months later, I began to realize that once someone suggested the word I was looking for or I found it in my thesaurus, I'd have that word back for good. I imagined that I could actually feel my brain rewiring itself, sending a little spark down each darkened hallway and lighting it up. Word by word, I found what I had lost and made it mine again.

It took about four years.

The other significant "soft" symptom that took a long time to realize but has ended up being the most insidious of all (and will be a major theme in this blog) was the disconnection that happened, in that moment of impact, between my thinking brain and my emotions.  Before the accident, I had been a rather exceptionally sensitive girl. I cried often, felt deeply, and wrote and spoke with a passion driven by a profound emotional awareness.

After the accident, I didn't cry for more than three years.


  1. As I've sat with this post for the last hour, the word "horror" keeps running through my head and the phrase "living the nightmare".
    My god. My god, you really truly nearly died. You were nearly ripped limb from limb. Your head was almost ripped off. Is that right? if not, that is how I feel it. It feels like a metaphor too--the separating of your head and your body, where the trauma has been sitting.
    Your description of the claustrophobia and the panic remind me of how I've imagined it would be to live in a coma. And you weren't, but you were...are?
    I think I said this in the last post, but again, it's so clear that your feelings are rewiring themselves too--I find myself feeling such emotional pain when I read these posts.
    I'm having an image of the grim reaper, and his scythe. He came for you, and you fought for your life, but came back bearing the scars, inside and out.
    What an incredibly intimate journey you are taking us on. Thank you.

  2. I'm remembering the first time we came to your house, and you had a migraine. We went into a dark room to see if a little hypnotherapy would help. Now I'm finding myself wishing to go back to that moment (though I'm always here if you want to do more of that). I'm wondering what might have been different if I'd known how much your head has had to manage - both in terms of trauma and healing. And I feel myself in my imagination, holding your head gently in my hands. Maybe too intimate for how long we've been friends. But there is something in you, and in your writing, that invites closeness - maybe that we both have sisters?? And then there is the writing. In light of your last post, I want you to know that I am loving the rawness of your descriptions. When I was younger and studying eng lit/creative writing, I thought that "good" writing was about artfulness. Now I'm aware that the art for me is in conveying the experiences of characters (real or fictitional) in a way that is true to them. The straight-on description of your injuries and recovery feels so true, so physically and emotionally close. I am there with you as a reader, and feeling very blessed that I get to call you friend, that you are the girl who lived.

  3. @Sarah and Julie: My god, what a blessing it is to have therapists for friends! You are so insightful and generous with your comments, and it is so helpful and validating to hear from you. Thank you!

  4. Oh good! I was worried I was being too therapisty!

  5. I could never have imagined the magnitude of the trauma you have endured and are healing from. My jaw is in my lap and my stomach is in knots. When you told me years ago that you "had been in a bad car accident" I had no concept of the utter desolation it left in its path. The fact that you survived is nothing short of a miracle. You are meant to be alive. What you bring to this world is irreplaceable and of the utmost value. You are irreplaceable and valuable. I am so thankful that you are alive today and that I get to call you my friend. I know unearthing these feelings and experiences has been excruciating. I do know, however, that the process of reconnecting the pieces of yourself that were shattered and fractured by the impact will herald a new chapter in your life. My wish for you is that you will find a sense of wholeness and freedom within your own body, mind and emotions. And on your way, you always have a friend in me.

  6. KateTheGirlWhoLived30 October, 2011 21:18

    Thanks, Amy. I appreciate the support!

    PS: I am taking this opportunity to thank you AND to test my new comment system. ;>

  7. I am looking down at my right arm now because it's shaking. You have put this horrible experience down on paper/pixels with such *clarity* that anyone reading it would have a visceral response.

    The two sentences that hit me hardest were:

    "Worst of all, in those early weeks, it slowly became clear I had sustained brain damage that affected my vocabulary."


    "After the accident, I didn't cry for more than three years."

    I do not know what being in a car accident that almost kills you is like. I know what numbness is like. These two sentences are ... very clear. Simple. Matter-of-fact. Their very format articulates numbness to me. It's like somebody looking across the table at you in a coffee shop and saying, conversationally, "And then all four of my children died in a fire."

    I'm sure you know the phrase "thousand-yard stare" from your research into PTSD. This entry feels like that to me.