This is not the kind of light, happy, mood-lifting article as the ones you can find in the rest of the magazine. But hopefully, you will find something positive knowing that anxiety and trauma can affect everyone, even when you least expect it. It is okay to feel down. Nobody is free from feeling it, and nobody is alone suffering from it. Protecting our mental health is an ongoing battle that affects us all in similar ways.
The lights, the scream, the blood. That is the sequence I can’t get out of my head. It’s there when I try to sleep. It there when I’m having a shower. It’s there when I’m in the car, going somewhere, or when my family are talking to me.
Two months have passed since it happened, but as I try to write this, my hands are still shaking as they were on that day. I was driving home after work. It was a cold, rainy night, and I hated driving on days like these. As I was going up on a hill, I was blinded by the lights of the car coming on the opposite side of the road. Then all I could hear were screams, and all I could see was blood.
A woman has crossed the road running from the rain, hoping to get to the supermarket on the other side of the street, and ended up on top of my windshield. Thankfully she wasn’t seriously injured, but from that moment on I wasn’t myself anymore.
I felt like I was watching a movie, that wasn’t really my life, it couldn’t be. Although trauma can look a lot of different ways for a lot of different people. This is a common reaction to a traumatic experience. It’s the brain’s response to frightening events. It is called ‘acute stress response’ and happens in order to help us react faster in the face of perceived danger, by triggering changes in the nervous and adrenal systems. Any event of violence or grief can make your body go into ‘acute stress’ mode.
The release of adrenaline lowers logic to allow faster, spontaneous, and intuitive decisions. On that day, I dialled the emergency call numbers for the first time without even thinking. Bystanders tried to give me an umbrella but I didn’t feel the rain. I stopped the blood coming out of the bruise in her forehead but it didn’t felt like it were my hands holding the gauze. All this had a neurologic reason behind, and similar things happen to other people in traumatic situations.
More than 10 family members of the victim, who lived nearby, lined up next to the emergency team. They never accused me of anything, but as I stared at their faces, knowing I had caused them pain, all I could feel was guilt.
I remember the words of the police officer telling me ‘it could have happened to anyone’, but it happened to me. Would have been any different if it happened to a more experienced driver? I guess I will never know the answer to that question…
When the police arrived to talk to me I immediately opened the door of their car ready to go with them and be punished as they considered fair. Turned out it doesn’t work like that. I had never been interrogated by police officer before, I had never done the alcohol and drug tests, never had filled a report. Many things happened for the first time on that day which I will remember forever.
After the accident, I didn’t allow myself to feel better. How could I be feeling slightly happier, how could I move on when I was feeling responsible for someone’s suffering?
Most people still don’t know this happened. I don’t know how to talk about it. It still doesn’t seem real. I ignore every question about my sudden decision to stop driving. And every so often, on very random circumstances, the flashbacks are back.
This is because our body’s response to frightening events can lead to chronic problems. Symptoms include trouble sleeping, feeling on edge frequently, being very easily startled, anxious, or jumpy, having flashbacks, or avoiding things that remind you of the event. Sometimes these go away after a few weeks. But they can last much longer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of people experiencing anxiety, depression, denial and anger as part of the grieving process, which goes hand in hand with trauma.
The only way to move forward is acknowledging and accepting our feelings, reaching out to friends and family or a mental health professional, and taking care of ourselves and our mental health. Most people recover on their own with time. We only have to stay patient.