On a humid August night in 2013, I made a decision that every Jalop makes at some point. I decided to go out for a drive, particularly to blow off some steam. I returned home to my family a completely different human being, torn apart by my experience.
I shouldn’t have returned home at all that night. I should have been dead.
There was a fair taking place at my old school, and I was going to meet some other friends there, but before I went, I decided that I would go for a bit of cruise, so that I would arrive a much more relaxed person. I took a short trip to a town where the roads were long and curvy, much like the driveways of the wealthy people whose million dollar homes set the beautiful landscape surrounding the roads.
I had reached a town about 20 minutes away when I decided to head back by taking a route that was relatively familiar near my cousins’ house. I ended up on a road that was near the ones that we had driven on so many times before, but I was a unaware of the twists and turns of this particular road. Given my status as a complete stranger to this stretch of asphalt and the lack of any light other than my headlights, I made the right decision and drove about 5 MPH under the speed limit and proceed with caution.
Then, I made one of the stupidest mistakes in my life.
A driver in a luxury crossover/SUV (I’m thinking Acura, but it was hard to tell) who must have lived close by resented my cautious driving and decided to tailgate me. His LED headlights filled up my mirror and blinded me. I would have rather been staring straight into the sun. In order to see, I sped up. I was an inexperienced driver outside of my comfort zone.
The extremely important person behind the wheel of the leather-filled lazer cannon turned into a hidden driveway, and I could see again. Unfortunately, the sight before my eyes was a turn that was approaching all too quickly.
I slammed my foot into the brake pedal so hard that my calf muscles almost burst through my skin. I was slowing down, but not quickly enough. The steep decline of the road made the Honda Accord that I was driving feel as heavy as a loaded Toyota Tacoma.
At this point fight-or-flight kicks in. Time slows down as my sympathetic nervous system goes full throttle, and my reflexes and feel for the car become so optimal that I could give Mark Webber a run for his money.
The understeer is all too much that I’m faced with either some degree of steering or braking. Whether the computer kicks in or not, a combination of both isn’t happening. The turn is a sharp turn to the right that starts to straighten out and then gets even sharper with no warning or indication of it doing so. I make the first part of the turn as the outside tires scream for mercy. As the turn begins to sharpen again, I realize that I won’t be able to make it with standard measures. My choices are to pull the handbrake or to stop steering hard right since I was heading for a tree. I have zero experience with a handbrake while in motion. If I softened my steering up a bit, I would avoid the tree, but find myself in a wooded area avoiding many more.
I come to the conclusion that the odds of me sliding into the tree are higher than coming out alive if I pull the handbrake, so I head for the wooded area.
This all happens in about 3 seconds. The next 3 seconds would be even worse.
I enter the thicket of trees at about 25mph and travel about 175 feet in total before coming to a stop. The first tree passes on my right. A second on my left.
I navigate past a third tree, but a branch comes off and leaves from the tree cover my entire windshield. I cannot see a thing. I steer using the short term memory image that remains in my head before the leaves covered my windshield and by feeling the suspension move about. At this point, I have to work on the assumption that when I feel a wheel rise and the spring tighten, that wheel is approaching the trunk of a tree.
I’m screaming the Our Father. I want to cry, but I can’t afford the tears. My parents love me. I have a wonderful girlfriend. I have the best friends in the world. As far as I’m concerned, I have seconds left on this planet. All I want to do is tell everyone that I love them and how much they mean to me. I can’t do that now though. A few more trees pass.
The branch blows off, and I can see again. I can tell my memory only serves me so well because the tree on my left is a lot closer than I thought it would be. I navigate around the last of 11 trees. The car dips down into a ditch and rises again immediately.
I’m airborne in a Honda Accord on the worst night of my life - a night that I have relived through in bits and pieces hundreds of times due to flashbacks.
The car comes to a halt. The electrics work because there are plenty of lights flashing at me, but I later learn that the car is totalled. The gas pedal is useless. Somehow, some way, there is not a scratch on my body. Honda deserves credit here for making a car that I would trust anyone’s life in, but the real savior here for me is God. Both police officers told me that I should have been dead. The neighbors said that I should have been dead. I was told by the police that people go off the road there all the time but that nobody had ever gone as far as I had without hitting a tree. They were in complete shock when I told them that I didn’t need an ambulance. I was in complete shock for months. It still hits me now and again almost 2 years later.
All of this could have been prevented if I didn’t speed up for the tailgating driver.
Following the accident, I had constant flashbacks, each of which activate that same slow motion. My body would twitch randomly. My sight would vanish for a split second, and I would be behind the wheel again in complete darkness. If a movie has a car accident that even remotely resembles mine, my eyes immediately shut and my hands grab the fictional steering wheel in front of me. In those moments, I sometimes involuntarily ask for help. After the flashback ends, I can feel desperate and hopeless. I have bouts of anxiety that I hadn’t had before. For months, I was sleeping so much more because my limbic system was constantly on overdrive during the day. My hearing was also heightened to an intolerable level of range.
That’s just from a quick car accident. If you think that’s bad, imagine what it’s like to return home from war with this disorder.
I can only report what I remember in such detail because of how horrific it was to me. The car was replaced, but my mind may never be the same again. This is one lesson that you don’t need to learn from experience. Whether you’re trying to set a personal best on a racetrack or you’re just dealing with a person tailgating you, the wrong decision behind the wheel could kill you. I was lucky. Instead, I just face the difficulties of a mental disorder that honestly gets easier to deal with each and every day. That’s me personally. Some people don’t have the fortune of saying that. So, do yourself a favor.
Don’t find out who you would be in that situation. Respect your limitations.