Behind the Wheel Fears (Part One)

Saint Daddy taught me how to drive. I was twenty-one years old. He was the only person I really felt comfortable sharing my ineptitude with, and he bravely took on the task of taking me on the road.

I care a lot about how how people view my intelligence and capability. And I did not like the idea that someone might think I was bad at it.

Saint Daddy never made me feel stupid. Saint Daddy is wonderful.

I had a bachelor’s degree, a mortgage, and a full-time professional career with benefits before I had my driver’s license.

A few weeks after I passed my road test, something catastrophic happened. It was one of those things that changes the course of your life forever. Occasionally, we all experience specific events that we can point to and say, with certainty, that it changed our lives.

I was in an accident.

I crashed my car.

I drove a little purple Plymouth Breeze. I was on my way to work. I had already been at work earlier in the day, but I had to go back for an important meeting. I had considered staying at work between meetings, but the prospect of being able to take a fifteen minute nap on my couch was too delicious. Rarely, do I have such opportunities. I went home.

Saint Daddy, whose title on that day was officially “boyfriend,” walked me to the car. I was telling him about a social engagement that we had been invited to.

I waved to him as I drove away.

I did not buckle my seatbelt. This is important. If I had, I may not have been alive twenty minutes later.

It is amazing how tiny little decisions create us. If I had worn my seatbelt, something I had always done and always have since, I would not have married Saint Daddy. I would not have had my three beautiful children. My life would have been a full stop instead of a pause. In failing to be fully safe, I kept myself safe.

I drove the old highway to work. It had been bypassed and the road was quiet, windy, and tree-lined.

The day was perfectly lovely. The leaves were just beginning to change. It had rained earlier in the day, but the sky was milky white and filled with clouds.

It was precisely ten miles between my house and the turn to my work on this road.

About halfway between those two points is a stone quarry. The road turns sharply and loose stones and gravel often litter the road.

I was aware of this. I had navigated this road many times over the previous month.

What I did not consider on my drive to work that day was this combination of facts: sharp curve, loose stones, and rain earlier in the day.

The road itself was not wet, but those loose stones were wet underneath.

When I hit that sharp curve, I was going precisely two miles over the speed limit. I cannot remember the posted speed limit, but I can remember that detail. I remember saying it to the officer at the scene. “How fast were you going?” he asked. I told him my speed and added, “It was only two miles over the speed limit.”

The wet loose gravel prevented me from getting traction, my wheel jerked around in my hands, I tried to control it, I avoided using my brakes as Saint Daddy had told me to do in these situations, and I careened wildly across the road and up the steep embankment separating the old highway from the bypass.

I remember that wall of green coming toward me. I remember not knowing how to stop it. I remember the loud thud as my car slammed into the embankment. I will always remember that sound.

The next thing I was aware of was how hazy my vision was. Everything looked out of focus. My periphery was non-existant. I was climbing out of a window on my hands and knees, glass littering the ground around me.

It was pure adrenaline and instinct that took me out of the car. Without that, I would have realized my injuries doing so, and I may have simply waited, lying on the ceiling of my car, for help.

When I stood, I noticed my left arm.

It hung limply and at an odd angle. It was clearly broken.

There I stood, knowing that I needed help, missing a shoe, my phone somewhere inside the car, and my arm broken on a road that might go fifteen minutes without a passing car. There were no houses in sight.

I started screaming. “Help! Please! Anyone! Please! I need help!”

No one would hear me. I yelled anyway. What else could I do?

I spotted a van in the distance. Silver and heading the opposite direction from the one that I had come.

The man driving the car pulled over to the side of the road and rushed to me. He helped me walked to his car, where his wife and two children sat. He leaned me against the hood of his car and he dialed 911.

“Can you please call my fiancé? He’s home right now. We live just three miles from here. Please?”

I know I already said Saint Daddy was only my boyfriend at the time, but even in my shock, I understood next of kin rules. Even “fiancé” is not worth much, but it is better than “boyfriend.”

He said, “We should wait for an ambulance. They’ll call someone for you.”

I do not know how long it took for the ambulance to arrive. I do know that when it did, they still did not call Saint Daddy. They told me to wait until they decided whether or not I needed to be life-flighted and then which hospital to take me to and then until I got there and then until I saw a doctor and then until my nurse checked on me again.

While I was moved to the ambulance, my neck properly supported, my eyes being repeatedly checked for dilation, a police officer began asking me questions.

Where were you coming from? Where were you heading? When did you leave home? Do you have your license on you? Was that your car? How fast were you going? Were you wearing your seatbelt?

Home. Work. 4:45. It is in my bag. Yes. Two miles over the limit. No.

“I’m going to have to cite you. I’m sorry. But not for the seatbelt thing. I know you can’t see what I’m looking at, but if you’d been wearing your belt, you’d either be dead or paralyzed. You must have rolled with the car. You’re lucky.”

Lucky.

It would take a long time before I felt truly lucky.

First, I needed Saint Daddy.

Saint Daddy has always been an instantaneous comfort to me. I needed him. My head was bleeding, my arm was broken, and…

“Can you feel that?” the EMT asked as we drove down the mountain to my second closest hospital. The nearest hospital did not have an orthopedic surgeon on call that night. So we went to the second closest one.

“Feel what?” I asked, my head strapped to the table, stabilizing my neck and spine. I could not see what he was doing, but I knew he was concerned.

“Okay. That’s all I needed to know.”

He told me jokes the whole way.

I was wheeled into the emergency room and my friendly EMT left me with the medical team there.

The doctor came in and released my neck. A nurse cleaned the glass from my scalp as the doctor continued to evaluate me.

“Can you feel that?”

This time I saw what was happening. The doctor was rubbing my left hand. I could not feel it. I shook my head. “Can you move your hand at all?” I tried. Nothing.

“Can I please call my fiancé? Please! He is the only person I really know within hours of here. Please.”

A nurse brought me a phone, and he was on his way to me. No hesitation.

Saint Daddy had known that I never showed up to work. I was expected there at 5:00. I left home with enough time to get there before my meeting. When I did not arrive by 5:10, my boss called my emergency contact, Saint Daddy, and told him that I had not arrived, wondering if maybe I might have stopped at a store on my way in. At 5:45, he called Saint Daddy again. “I just thought I’d let you know that she never arrived.” Saint Daddy got in the car and immediately drove the whole way to my work to see if he could find me. But the wreck was already cleaned up, and there was no sign of me. After that, more than an hour went by without his knowing where I might be.

I cannot imagine what that hour was like for Saint Daddy. If I am not sure where he is for five minutes, my mind starts to wander to catastrophe. I am not sure I could survive hours without information.

Maybe it is because of what I was going through, maybe Saint Daddy drove more than two miles over the speed limit, maybe he was already halfway to me when I finally called him, but I swear he was there faster than humanly possible.

The doctor came back in and talked to us. The x-ray showed a triple break in my humerus. The lack of feeling showed nerve damage, but “I’m not an arm guy. I’d deal with leg injuries, but I’m not great with arms. I’d rather not take on your case. We are going to arrange transportation elsewhere. Hang tight.”

The next doctor, the best nerve guy in the state, confirmed nerve damage. He wanted to see me in a week for a follow-up. Maybe time would clear up the swelling and the issue. He set my arm. It was the most painful experience of my life. It was nearing morning. I had not slept. I screamed out in pain, losing my vision as my brain focused on overcoming what was happening.

The lack of mobility and feeling did not clear up. When the week ended, we scheduled surgery.

My mom came up for the surgery. She would drive me the hour and a half to the hospital and drive me home afterward. Surgery, however, took longer than anticipated. I needed two pints of blood, and I spent the night at the hospital instead of going home.

My doctor, the nerve guy, said that I had utterly destroyed my radial nerve. “Ground it to a pulp. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s not dead, though. It may start to work again.”

The next four months were filled with appointments. My orthopedist wanted me there twice a month. I saw a physical therapist. I was told that I would never use my left hand again without a miracle. Although, there was a surgery that gave me a 70% chance of getting back a similar amount of movement. My physical therapist released me. There was nothing she could do for me. I wore a metal brace twenty four hours a day. I could not put on my own bra or pull my own hair back.

I prayed. I hoped. I prayed.

One evening, I was able to twitch my wrist. Within two weeks, I could type with both hands.

My doctor said, “You’re a miracle. Someone’s looking out for you up there. You must come from good stock.” He wrote about me in a medical journal. I named Sleepy after him seven years later.

After two months of not driving, my mom brought me her car. A coworker had been driving me to work, and one day, she simply chose not to. She said she was sick of making the extra stop and she left me to figure it out. Mom came again to save the day. She told me I had to get back on the horse, so to speak.

I was terrified. I worried about everything repeating itself. I took the bypass instead of the old highway. I drove five miles under the speed limit and cried when cars sped by me in the left lane.

It took five years before I drove the old highway to work. Even thinking about it, sent me into a tizzy of flashbacks.

I still hate driving. I think I will always hate driving. I am terrified of it in bad weather. I panic on unfamiliar roads and feel anxious at high speeds. If we are together, Saint Daddy always drives. It is an unspoken rule. I would rather not do it. Even if we are taking “my” car somewhere, I would rather he be behind the wheel. He has always liked driving. It is very win-win.

For the rest of my life, I will be unable to extend my arm fully. I will have areas of my hand that are nearly numb. I will have parts of my arm that are hypersensitive. My “funny bone” will be a little more exposed than it should be. I will have a nasty scar that runs the length of my left upper arm. And I will have a fear of getting behind the wheel.

Driving is one of those fears that I confront on a nearly daily basis. The sharp stab of anxiety is mostly worn off. I am aware of the tension in my body every time I get behind the wheel. I am just a little on edge. But the fear is more like a dull permeating ache now. I feel it everywhere, but I can survive it.

When the weather is bad or the roads may be icy or the turns come too quickly or I am not sure where I am going, that dullness becomes much more defined.

I have gotten to work after driving in the snow with red half-moon indentations on my palms from gripping the steering wheel.

After ten years, I have stopped believing that would improve.

Yes, I will always be afraid to drive, but some fears are unavoidable.

Some fears need to be confronted every day, even if they never will be overcome.

Fear will not stop me. I will not let it.

My accident defined a large part of my life, but it will not define me.

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