06 January 2013

My Big Break

Caveat lector: this post includes some detail about physical injury. If you're squeamish about these things, please don't read this! ETA: I mention this later, but the accident I'm describing happened a couple of decades ago, so I am absolutely fine. 

In my last post (a million years ago), I mentioned that I've experienced a pretty serious accident that resulted in a lot of injury to my upper body. Some of you asked about that or commented on it, so I thought I would elaborate on it for a few reasons: first, it is a dramatic tale about me, and, uh, this is my blog. Second, if you've never suffered a serious injury, broken bone, or skull fracture, it might help you to know what it's like from a writerly perspective. If you're not a writer, it might help you to know what it's like from a human perspective. Finally, although I was a horror / grimdark fan before the accident, going through such a visceral experience really helped me appreciate body horror that much more.

Also, because of this event, I am a cyborg. (Or, at least, titanium-reinforced.)

Here's what happened. In the summer between second and third year university - about 22 years ago - I moved back home with my parents. Second year of school was the first time I'd lived away from home, and that was really good in all the ways that a first taste of independence can be. Moving back in with them, not so much fun. I wasn't having much luck finding work, and I wasn't sure how to go about supporting myself when I moved out in third year. Also, I had fallen in love with someone deeply inappropriate for me, and who I knew my parents didn't like.

To soothe myself, I got into cycling. I rode my bike all over the small town where my parents lived and deep into the concessions and farmland outside of town. I felt a sense of freedom on the bike that I couldn't feel in my living situation. It was a weird summer, full of arguments and testiness and ingratitude and the kinds of big feelings one has at age twenty.

One day in late July, my dog escaped from the backyard. He was a little white terrier, the dog my parents gave me when I was thirteen. He was pretty much the only family member with whom I wasn't chronically annoyed that summer. It wasn't anybody's fault: the gate latch just hadn't caught. My mom and I set out to find him. She took off in my grandmother's Toyota. I got on my bike. At a major intersection in town, I was trying to turn left. The oncoming car was turning left too, so no problem. As I was heading into my turn, a van pulled around the oncoming car and sped through the intersection. It struck me, or I struck it - things get fuzzy at this point. Basically, I bounced off it, flew twenty feet, and crumpled into the road.

For years, I had vague impressions of what happened in the next couple of hours. Those impressions seemed dream-like, or as if I had made them up: a certainty that I was going to die; a memory of swearing at people who were reaching to touch me; a trip in an ambulance; people shouting. Later on, I worked with a hypnotherapist to recover the memories and to release some of the trauma associated with the accident. I know now that what I thought I'd invented was the memory. It was just shrouded in a kind of veil, where I couldn't access it directly.

I was taken to a burn / trauma unit. They didn't give me pain meds because I had a head injury, and they needed  to figure out how bad it was first. My experience of having a severe injury and no medication is that I seemed to retreat into a little room in my mind, where the pain wasn't really directly accessible. Whatever I was going through, I think didn't really get written into memory, or wasn't experienced directly. When people talk about prey animals going into a kind of trance as they die, I think about what happened to me during those hours. Nature has its mercies.

Eventually they took me in for surgery. I remember sucking hard on the anaesthetic. I wanted to be knocked out.

Sum total, these were my injuries: two broken wrists; one broken elbow, one smashed elbow; one broken humerus (that was a compound fracture, my only compound fracture); one broken collarbone; one broken head. I was not wearing a helmet. (Sue me: I was trying to save my dog.) My brain was pretty much fine. The fracture was hairline. It bled like a mofo, though, so much so that the blood poured out of my ear and knocked loose my bones of hearing. Those are the little bones that sit in your ear canal and amplify sounds. The accident partially deafened me. I also lost my sense of smell - caused by damage to the sensory area of the brain - but it eventually returned. (This is a pretty interesting phenomenon: more info here).

Because everything was stabilized through plates and pins, I was able to start moving my right arm very soon after the accident. There was more swelling in my left arm, which prevented me from using it at first, but it soon followed. I had a big bruise on the inside of my left leg where the bicycle seat had hit me as I flew off the bike, but that was my only lower body injury.

The doctors told my parents that I would be in the hospital for five weeks. They told them to tell me it would be three weeks (I had a bit of a bad attitude about the hospital). I was out in two. I think the main reason for this is that I was in relatively good shape when I had the accident. After all, I'd been cycling all summer. I was able to hook my feet under the metal rung at the end of the hospital bed and use that to sit up. I was soon walking around freely. Miraculously, I didn't experience any vertigo. A few days and a blood transfusion after the accident, I was feeling pretty energized. The pain was bad, the hospital food was terrible, but I was healing. I went home after two weeks.

The dog, by the way, was fine. Somehow he crossed the highway on his own without anything like the problems I'd had. One of my cousins spotted him trotting down the street. She nabbed him, checked his tags to verify that he was indeed our dog, and deposited him back in our yard.

There were a few long term aftereffects from the accident. I went on my own course of rehabilitation after the surgeon who worked on me turned out to be a bit of a dick. I took up tai chi, and that, as it turned out, opened up a huge vista of all kinds of cool stuff for me. I suffered from PTSD for a lot of years, which mostly involved feeling really nervous any time I had to cross the street. I don't much care for cycling, although I can do it and do somewhat enjoy it, so long as I'm nowhere near car traffic. I have a good sense of what it's like to be wholly dependent on others for the little things you take for granted (brushing your teeth; independent bathroom usage; feeding yourself). I was told that I would have arthritis by the time I was thirty-five. I didn't, and I still don't, mostly because I stretch all the time. I was also told that the range of motion I had six months after the accident was all I'd ever have. That was also not true - see above re: stretching all the time.

A lot of people who pursue a spiritual path (as I do) will talk about an event in their lives that really started them on their path. One of my mentors calls it your "Mac truck moment." I think of my accident as a big spiritual redirect. Without the accident, I might have taken a lot longer to try tai chi, and thus might have taken a lot longer to learn about energy and energy healing, about the holistic approach to healing, and about meditation. In the context of my life as a whole, that's how I assign meaning to this absolutely dreadful event. In the context of my life as a writer, it goes into the big bundle of things I've experienced that will probably show up in my fiction at some point.

Questions: ask 'em if you've got 'em. Stories of your own: tell 'em if you want.


Mina Lobo said...

Ms. Squeamish, here. Read the first paragraph and prudently made straight for the comments section. Hoping you are well and recovered and whatnot. :-)

Andrew Leon said...

Wow... It sounds like you're actually kind of a superwoman!

I've been clipped by cars twice while on my bike, but I managed to stay up both times. Being out in traffic kind of freaks me out, though, and I won't let my kids ride in the bike lane, only on the sidewalk.

Georgina Morales said...

I have never been involved in a serious accident that left anyone injured (other than neck pain from whiplash in a car accident.) However, through my years working in hospitals an ER, I've seen quite a lot. What happened to you was very serious and you were very lucky. That being said, doctors tend to give very grim perspectives to patients but if you are determined, most of the times you will surpass all of them.

I'm happy you got the best out of such an unfortunate thing. You also have a very cool catch phrase with you being kind of a super woman. =)

Best of luck in this 2013!

Unknown said...

I was once in a bike accident, and just like you, I’ve never been able to cycle the same way ever since. I’m even quite scared to drive as well because I’m afraid that I might crash. However, I’m glad to know that you’re much better these days. What happened to the driver of the other car? Was any legal action considered at some point?

-- raleigh Crowl

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Mina: I am super fine!

@Andrew: I guess it could be a problem in some places, but I have no complaints about anybody riding on the sidewalk. As a driver, I am super cautious about getting anywhere near cyclists.

@Georgina: I am sure that you've seen all kinds of things from working in an ER. May your experiences forever inform your dark fiction! Agreed, totally, that my experience was very serious and I was lucky, although it might have been luckier to avoid it altogether! Such is life. I wouldn't trade any of it, since it's made me who I am.

@Raleigh: It sounds like you've got a wee bit of PTSD going on. Mine was similarly subtle, and mostly showed up as hyper-vigilance in traffic-y situations. I was greatly helped through professional hypnosis. A good hypnotherapist can take you into the memory of the accident and help you change how it sits in your subconscious, so you don't feel automatically alarmed when you're in situations that trigger you now.

The guy who hit me sued my parents for damage to his vehicle. I kid you not. My folks' insurance paid him off, and that was the end of that. I wasn't in a position to think about the legalities, and my parents were pretty much just worried about me. In retrospect, I am fine, so it's ancient history now.

Selah said...

Hey there! Wanted to let you know how much I've loved reading your blog since we bumped into each other during last year's campaign challenge. Tagged you in the beautiful blogger award meme - here's my post for the rules!

Bluestocking said...

When I saw the title for the post, I was happy you got a publishing contract--then I read on :P

I'm so sorry that this happened to you, but like all experiences, you've been able to mine this in your writing. And trauma scenes are so hard to get right! I have one in a wip I still kick around every now and again.

Unknown said...

Elizabeth, I’m glad to know that you’re okay now. I totally agree with your advice for Raleigh, and I hope he can work his issues out using your suggestion. I’m sorry to hear that your parents were sued by the other guy. Did they ever consider a countersuit before their insurance company settled the main suit?

- Javier Hoppes -

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Selah: hey you! Thanks so much for the award. I'm honored!

@Bluestocking: If you ever want me to take a look at that trauma scene for you, I can see if I can help you with it. Don't know if my experience would help you at all, but you never know!

@Javier: No, my folks were too busy worrying about whether I was okay. It's all water under the bridge now, and I really am fine. I don't feel that I need compensation. Somehow I feel that, in my situation, going for money would somehow have kept me stuck in a victim mode, if that makes sense.

Elizabeth Twist said...

p.s. Javier, well played. That is some of the most subtle spamming I've ever seen.