I remember seeing trees.
The feeling of flying.
Flying toward the damn trees.
This was how it would all end for me. My worst nightmare coming true on that highway with my 18 month old in the backseat. What a stupid way to die, I thought. My hands gripped the steering wheel as my vehicle spun through the air. I braced myself for the inevitable as the trees got closer, panicked for my son and what would happen to him.
We hit the guardrail, the passenger side snuggled up as close as it could get. The barrier saved us from plummeting head first off the overpass into the trees at least 50 feet below us. I couldn’t register what happened, just that we stopped flying and it smelled strongly of metal and smoke. The airbag deployed and I was covered in powder, my to-go cup of coffee from lunch spilled everywhere. My son screaming in his car seat jolted me back to reality and I cautiously opened my door to get him while vehicles sped past at 65 miles per hour.
A woman frantically ran toward me while calling 911. She looked so relieved to see that I was okay, and then terrified when she heard my son crying. It must have looked as bad as it felt. She watched for cars as I unbuckled him and gingerly lifted him out of his seat. He was physically fine but emotionally shaken. The next thing I knew, we were being escorted to another woman’s car, her soothing voice telling me the police and ambulance would be there soon.
A stern officer approached me, asking me how I felt and if my son was alright. A friendlier EMT helped us into the ambulance for a once-over, the sweet men entertaining my child while the officer questioned me. I had just merged onto the highway and was trying to move left into the middle lane. My blinker was on, I wasn’t distracted, I checked my side mirror and looked to the left before moving over. Suddenly, there was a larger vehicle right next to me and my front driver’s side made impact. Due to shock, I overcorrected and spun out several times, finally stopping against the guardrail.
I asked where the other driver was and I was told witnesses didn’t see any other vehicle involved in the accident. It happened so fast it looked like a single car collision. So I sat there in disbelief, fuming and thinking I was victim of a hit and run.
The ambulance drivers were nice enough to get my son’s undamaged car seat out of my vehicle and drive us to a nearby Toys R’ Us while I waited for our ride home. I wandered around aimlessly and showed him toys while my whole body shook with adrenaline. My paid off vehicle was totaled. The burn marks from the seat belt singed across my chest the only physical reminder of what happened.
We made it home safely and our insurance agent received call from a woman who said I hit her. After the impact, she exited the highway, pulled over and called 911. The officers on scene didn’t relay their information to each other. According to her, she was already in the lane when I merged into it. I’m still not sold on that detail.
Laying in bed, I replayed the accident in my head. The impact. Those fucking trees. My brain kept repeating it like a visual earworm. Sleep did not come easily that night or for many nights after. Any time my mind had the opportunity to wander, it found itself back on that highway. The events of that day became a never-ending nightmare.
Inability to get the thoughts of the accident out of my head led me to be terrified of it happening again. Every night, I laid in the dark thinking about my to do list for the next day. If driving was necessary, immediate fear would consume me. Even if it was just a simple errand in the neighborhood. If plans with friends involved getting on the highway for any substantial distance, I couldn’t go. Evening news of car wreck fatalities were a huge trigger, making it impossible for me to shut my mind off at night.
The worst part was the shame I felt for how consuming these thoughts and fears had become. It took seven months for me to admit the severity of my anxiety to my husband. I told him about the months of sleepless nights and the constant replay of that wreck in my head. The accident left me emotionally traumatized beyond repair. I told him I needed to talk to someone who could help me work through this. His support gave me the push I needed to make an appointment.
I made sure the counselor was close enough to my house. My nerves were shot as I entered her office for the first time. She sat in the cozy office with her notepad and asked me to tell her why I was there. I opened up about the accident, the loss of our family dog a month prior, the loss of twins about a month before that. I explained to her the panic I felt every time I had to get behind the wheel. After listening to my story, she told me I was suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Anxiety and Depression. So much had happened in my life in such a short amount of time that it’s no wonder I was struggling, she said. She felt that medication and counseling would do the most good. I was reluctant to start medications because of the positive pregnancy test I had taken that morning. We happily agreed to revisit that topic further into my pregnancy.
As the months went by, I learned tools to help me redirect my thoughts when they began to drift back to that highway. We cut back on the amount of local news we watched so I wouldn’t have to see stories of fatalities every night. I busied myself with books during those late night hours. My fear of dying was irrational and unfounded. I can’t stop the moving train that is forever hurtling toward me. Why spend so much time worrying about it?
My doctor OK’d a low dose of anxiety medication in my second trimester. In combination with counseling, I could feel myself slowly crawling out of my black hole. With a little pep-talk and a prayer, I could drive relatively far distances on the highway without having a full-blown panic attack. No longer did I dread crawling into bed each night.
My sessions became fewer and far between. Both of us agreed I didn’t need therapy once a week anymore. Around my third trimester, my counselor set me free. I cried. Not seeing her anymore felt like I suffered a loss. She brought me such peace and clarity without judgement or criticism.
The relief I feel from no longer struggling daily with my fears has helped me to be a better wife and mother. My true self fought her way back to the surface. I no longer feel like I’m drowning in a sea of negativity that I created. I still take medication to help control my anxiety. There are moments when the thoughts resurface. Instead of letting them pull me under, I remind myself the thoughts aren’t based in reality and push them aside. My experience taught me to make the best of this life and focus on the good instead of worrying about the bad. I survived to create another life and watch my children grow, and there’s nothing depressing about that.
About the author: Gina Nichols is a stay at home mom to two boys in Austin, Texas. She’s addicted to coffee, online shopping and Fixer Upper. She blogs at http://www.lovelymessylife.com