January 19, 2015. I woke up from the strangest, longest dream I’d ever had. Like any other dream, I could only recall pieces of it. I remembered friends and family crying by a hospital bed. I remembered a childhood friend wiping blood off a mangled face. But more so than anything else, I remembered darkness. Black. Endless.
Only later would I realize that those “dreams” were real. They remain my only recollection of the 2 weeks I spent in the hospital after the car accident.
When I woke up, I weighed 130 pounds and could barely see out of my immensely swollen eyes. I had been driving my brother and I to a frisbee game when we were T-boned by a Toyota Sequoia. My face smashed into my brother’s skull. Objectively, my brother’s skull won. My nose was destroyed, I lost 1.5 teeth, I fractured my right eye orbit, and I partially split open the front of my forehead.
But my brother hardly went unpunished. He suffered a grade three concussion. His memory constantly reset itself for days after the accident. These are things I was told, and am grateful that I do not remember, because my imagination alone haunts me.
I woke up after 9-hours of surgery to put my face back together. The months following were the longest of my life.
I watched my brother suffer through headache after headache, forced to catch up on school work and exams by indifferent administrators. But, even when all the forces in the world conspired to push him down, he continued to stand up. He trudged through his semester of hell. One year later, he was accepted to the college of his dreams. He is the strongest person I know and I could never be prouder.
I suffered through my own recovery. I ate pureed food for a month while the metal in my face settled. I took Xanax every morning for the pain. I cried in my sleep, frustrated at my own helplessness.
But none of that was comparable to the pain of feeling utterly, completely alone.
That’s not to say nobody was there for me. I felt an outpouring of love when I woke up. I got enough cards and chocolate to last a lifetime. My family was, and always will be, my greatest supporters. But I was waiting for my “best” friends. My ride or die squad. The people I thought I would take a bullet for. Just to reach out. Check in.
I made a Facebook post the Monday I got home, letting everyone know I was conscious and functioning. I waited eagerly for my friends to reach out. Tuesday went by without a word, and I told myself they were still in school. They were busy. The weekend would tell a different story. When the weekend went by without any contact, I started to lose hope. All I wanted was someone to pretend that I was more than a fleeting thought. That they thought about me as much as I thought about them. And someone did. One of my best friends from my first semester at college. I am forever thankful to her for keeping me sane during my recovery.
But ultimately, I lost my faith in others. There were maybe 10 people I expected to reach out to me after the accident. A 10% success rate on your “best” friends isn’t a great place to be. But I never blamed them. Instead, I blamed myself. When had I become so reliant on others? Did I expect the world to stop for me? I believed that my dependencies had become my greatest weakness, and I resolved to only be dependent on one thing from then on: myself.
I became a machine from February until May. I wanted to completely rebuild myself, from the ground up. I went to the gym twice a day. I regained my original weight, and then some. I signed up for summer classes at UVA, and then at the London School of Economics. I was going to make up for all the time I had missed.
Fast forward to today and I’m graduating with the class of 2018, the class I entered college with. I made up for my lost time. Yet, I can’t help but think that I should have been making up for my lost feelings instead. Looking back on college, neither my majors nor my activities have defined me. Fleeting moments with precious friends have always made all the difference. It’s Tuesday poker nights followed by early morning ICE classes. Conversations that go for hours after the last ember fades away. Tipsy dancing on the tables at survivor hour. Falling asleep in a pile of leaves outside a fraternity house. Sleepless nights with two monitors and two friends in the California room. Frantically running around a pool table at 12AM. Crying into a friend’s arms throughout the night. These moments and more have made me the person I am today.
The accident will always stay with me. Even after two and half years, I don’t recognize myself. I constantly see a stranger in both pictures and reflections. But I know now that I can no longer let the accident define me. 3.5 years of college has taught me that just because life goes on, doesn’t mean you should let it pass you by. Embrace the moments that break you down just as much as the ones that build you up. At least then, no matter what happens, you’re truly living.