Just before The Accident, I tried to explain to my therapist why I was afraid of riding escalators. My fear at the time was that an escalator was going to break up underneath my feet and eat me alive, grinding my body through its gears. I couldn’t stop imagining how it would sound: a whirring, followed by a sticky sort of thumping. I became convinced that the only way to know whether an escalator is safe or not is to count the number of screws on its platform: an even amount means it’s safe, odd means dangerous. Small signs from the universe to thank me for paying attention.
Obviously that’s insane. I’ve lived with OCD for two decades and I’m used to these kind of thoughts; they take root in your mind and guilt you into thinking that because you’d had a Bad Thought the world was going to end. In the span of time it takes someone to say “that sounds like bullshit” you’ve already run through a million imagined scenarios where you’re murdered by what is probably the safest mode of transportation in the universe.
I spend a lot of time living inside my head, worrying about doomsday situations that will almost certainly never happen. As a result, I fail to pay attention to the ones that might.
On the drive to Mt. Baldy, depending on which route you take, you’ll probably pass by a sign that reads “Sonny Bono Memorial Highway.” You’d think that someone like me would have recognized that as an omen. I know, rationally, that omens aren’t real, but the thought just won’t fuck off. I don’t even remember if I paid attention to the sign that day or if I saw it on a subsequent drive, but I keep thinking that I should have somehow known.
The strange thing about memories is that no matter how often you scrutinize and revisit them, they degrade even quicker than an old VHS tape. My nightmares have shifted from hyperreal re-enactments to visions of black nothingness accompanied by a vague sense of dread. I wake up suddenly and grab my head because I hear the sound of bone crunching and I swear to god that it just happened and I run to the mirror and peel back my lip to make sure my teeth are still where I left them when I fell asleep and they are, no matter how often I check. I remember it’s not real, and I wonder how much of it even was.
I no longer feel that what happened to me even happened to me, but to a completely different person. When small talk steers toward upcoming ski trips I stand outside of my body and watch the conversation from above, barely registering that I’m there. I sometimes doubt whether I am even alive right now; whether the life I’ve experienced for the past year has been a prolonged dream I had in the minutes before I died that day. I see a photo of a friend on skis, getting ready to take the same slope, and I wonder if it’s a sign from the universe that none of this is real.
These photographs remind me that it was real.
Here’s what I actually remember: closing my eyes and bracing myself, the deafening crunch of my teeth bending inwards, laying on my back and asking my boyfriend if my face looks okay, seeing dark spatter against the snow and wondering whether it was mine (of course it was), worrying that I was going to stain the Patagonia jacket I had borrowed, telling ski patrol “I feel nauseous and very tired,” the world turning lime green or maybe pink or both. David Bowie had died the week prior and I had obsessively listened to “Space Oddity” on repeat and nothing else since, and when I lay in a stretcher on the ski lift the brace prevented me from moving my head and all I could see were the clouds in the sky, and “Space Oddity” was stuck in my head. The medic knew I was afraid and said “don’t worry, when we get to the bottom multiple sexy firemen will be waiting for you.” He was right; they were sexy.
I have to joke about it because if I don’t, I’ll panic. Even as I write this in a warm room, my cold hands shake uncontrollably. All I did in the ambulance and the emergency room was stare at the ceiling and laugh at how absurd this entire situation was, which was just about the only thing I could do with my entire body strapped to a stretcher. I tweeted jokes about how I can’t ski. I took some truly gruesome selfies. When I got scared because I’d felt a warm liquid dripping down my arm (which I couldn’t see) a medic very seriously told me I’d touched hazardous waste, then said “nah, you bumped into a soap dispenser.” Laughing is truly the only thing we can do when we are confronted with horror.
All things considered, I was lucky. I wasn’t dead. I didn’t have irreparable brain damage. I didn’t lose any limbs. The worst thing that happened in the ER was that they made me get a tetanus vaccine and I, terrified of needles as I am, tried to refuse until they were basically like “getting this tiny shot will be less scary than skiing into a tree, dumbass” (it was). There were no dentists in the ER so all they could really give me was a diagnosis of “severe facial lacerations” and a pamphlet labeled “dental avulsion.” I texted my dentist photos of my teeth around midnight that night and he was able to find a capable maxillofacial surgeon to perform the reimplantation and stitch shut the hole I’d bitten through my lip.
People always talk about how terrible the word “moist” is but look at “reimplantation.” The restoration of a bodily tissue or part to the site from which it was removed. The unfamiliar dissonance of “impl.” The cold procedural “-tion” ending. The way my Chicago accent pronounces taysh like I’m saying the A as I trip over a rock. “Reimplantation” is a bad word because it does a great job of hiding how truly messy and imprecise the procedure itself is and makes it sound like someone is going to gently transport your potted succulents into a sunbathed outdoor desert garden.
When I walked into the office that morning, the maxillofacial surgeon looked at me with the most pity anyone has ever glanced in my direction. The needle that he used to inject my gums with anesthetic was so formidable he had to numb my gums just for the injection.
The only way to replace teeth is to essentially force them back into the gum, lock them down with wires, and pray they don’t come out again or rot from the inside. He grabbed one tooth at a time and moved it back to its correct position, then I’d look in a mirror and tell him whether I was happy with where it was. The anesthetic, no matter how much of it he gave me, wasn’t enough to mask the pain as the clotted blood underneath the teeth pressed up against my exposed nerves. The assistant held my hand and I wept while the Barefoot Contessa prepared a summer berry salad for Jeffrey on the TV in my room.
Sometimes my tongue catches the back of my teeth and I realize how different they feel now. They’re more or less back in place, but displaced just enough that it feels uncanny. It’s just not my mouth. I’ve always had nightmares about my teeth falling out but those have stopped altogether. When I do remember my nightmares, my teeth have already fallen out, and I lay immobilized choking on them. It’s an effort to not compulsively check my teeth, looking for signs of decay, anything to indicate something’s wrong. I’m afraid of the darkness inside my own mouth.
I’m afraid of a lot of things.
Cars braking too suddenly and making me lurch forward. Inertia. Darkness. Snow. Blood (horror movies used to be my favorite, but now I can’t stomach them). Laying on my back. Anything that touches my face. Mountains. Needles. Straws (I’m worried the vacuum they create in my mouth will pull my teeth out). Videos of people skiing. Food getting stuck in my teeth (I’m worried it will contaminate my teeth and cause an infection to spread). A co-worker tossed a tiny thing to me once, six months after the accident, and when it hit me in the head I had to hide under a desk because I couldn’t stop crying and checking whether my teeth had fallen out. I know it sounds completely insane, but in that moment I was convinced that I was there, on the mountain, and it was real. I panicked so much I thought I was having a heartattack. When I went to urgent care, the doctor told me I seemed stressed and prescribed me Klonopin.
It’s so fucking embarrassing. What do I tell people? I never went to war, or saw bombs go off, or dodged machine gun bullets. I willingly did something risky that I wasn’t good at and suffered the consequences. I feel like a fraud when I say I have PTSD, and that it’s made worse by having OCD. I feel like a fraud when my therapist tells me I’m Depressed, and I realize I’ve been leaving old banana peels in my car for two weeks because I don’t notice they’re there. Like I can’t be this fucked up. I can’t be the kind of person that stares off into space blankly and gets teary-eyed when someone mentions they’re going skiing this weekend.
So I convince myself that it never happened. That it isn’t real. I make jokes about how I french fried when I should have pizza’d. I lay awake at night, in the darkness, trying to recall it as it happened — the way you wake up from a nightmare and start telling yourself gentle, sweet things to lull yourself back to sleep and dream of something else, I try to convince myself that there could have been another way, that if I’d just given up on that hill after I fell the first time everything would’ve been okay. If I’d seen the patch of dirt, I could’ve dodged it. If I’d put my arms up differently, I would’ve suffered nothing more than a sprained wrist.
When I studied the philosophy of horror films, my professor at the time talked at length about monsters, and how they are meant to demonstrate society’s faults. He read aloud a quote from Euripedes: “We Greeks believe that solitude is very dangerous. Great passions grow into monsters in the dark of the mind. But if you share them with loving friends, they remain human; they can be endured.”
I am human. I have endured. I am not a monster.
It took me a long time to develop the photos I took in the week I spent laying in my dark apartment, hiding from the world and drinking through a straw, after The Accident. I knew I would need them to remember. But I’m clumsy (I mean, I’m the kind of person who skis into trees) and as I wound the film back into its roll, I realized I’d let the light leak in.