In retrospect, shattering my skull was the easy part.
Trauma recovery is a tricky beast.
On a lovely summer morning in 2011, as I was cycling to work, another cyclist ran a stop sign into my incoming path. I hit her full-force; the impact shattered every bone in my skull except for my jaw. One surgical report described the injuries as “the impact of a metal baseball bat swung at full force to the eye socket and cheekbone.”
But enough about that. This article isn’t about the accident.
It’s about recovery from trauma, and just how twisted that journey can be.
Though the collision and the accident itself sound traumatic, I don’t have any actual memory of the impact. But given the nature of my accident, most people (myself included) assumed that if I could just get back on a bike, that would be the catalyst of my recovery. And five weeks after my accident, I did just that. It wasn’t exactly easy, but it certainly wasn’t terrifying. The next step to recovery, I was told, was awaiting a typical two-and-a-half-year period to elapse before going an entire day with no thoughts of the traumatic event. So I just plugged along, waiting for my two-and-a-half-year milestone. My recovery was right on schedule.
The problem was, when I closed my eyes at night, hazy visions and memories would begin to play on a permanent loop in my mind. I just couldn’t make the visions recede, and I couldn’t stop reliving them. It was akin to seeing a hot burner, and knowing if I touched those memories I’d burn myself…but putting my hand out anyway.
This went on for well past two and half years.
The worst moment of reliving these memories was my one (and only) post-accident massage; lying on the table, I experienced a bout of PTSD so intense that it felt as if I were hallucinating.
So that’s where I was stuck. While I was physically recovered, I hadn’t been able to process the memories out. And that essentially is the nature of PTSD; one doesn’t remember, but relives. But because I wasn’t the stereotypical Hollywood movie war veteran waving a gun around, or sobbing inconsolably, I just assumed that these disturbing pseudo-memories would eventually cease. Someday.
Five years after the accident, I stumbled upon a Salon.com article, by Mary Elizabeth Williams, describing surgical treatment being just as, or even more, traumatic than the accident itself. For many people, life-saving treatments received are often so violent that they leave the patient with psychological scarring far worse than the original event’s. And just like that, everything began to make sense to me. It became obvious what was truly behind my horror-film memories: In the words of fallen hero and all-around douchebag Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the bike. It was my terrifying, grisly experience in the ER, and the subsequent weekly reconstructive treatments that I’d come to refer to as my “Mengele” sessions, that were haunting me.
Now I understood why I had refused to go to the dentist or get my hair cut for over a year; I had come to associate caregivers who touch my head with torture. That massage had triggered all my memories of lying on the ER table, helpless, while enduring the most terrifying episode of my life. And every time I lay down to go to sleep, I was lying down on that table. It was no wonder I couldn’t get past it.
Though I had consented to and endured the treatments and surgeries, I hadn’t been able to process the entire experience, or go near it emotionally. That was one stove burner I couldn’t touch.
Williams’ article listed one of the precise reasons why I hadn’t been able to deal with my lingering trauma: We’re not supposed to be traumatized by someone genuinely helping us. I am supposed to be grateful for those doctors who saved my eye, reconstructed my skull, and prevented permanent disfigurement. And I am grateful, absolutely; but that doesn’t make the trauma any less real. And there was one other significant reason for my inability to process, noted in the article: I wasn’t entirely sure it had happened. Between the narcotic painkillers and the sheer terror, I wasn’t certain if I had superimposed a scene straight out of “Saw” into my memories.
So what to do with this new insight?
Much like the Four Stages of Grief, there are Four Stages of Traumatic Recovery. The third stage is “Constructive Action,” which can mean volunteering with accident victims, or testifying against your attacker in court. I hadn’t progressed beyond the first two stages for five years…until my Ignite Talk proposal about the accident was selected for the 2016 O’Reilly OpenSource Convention (OSCon) in London.
Ignite Talks are a very specific format: Five minutes, no more, no less, with twenty accompanying slides that auto-advance every fifteen seconds. There is zero room for error or hesitation- even breath intake must be planned into the timing. It is a hyper-caffeinated, jump-off-the-ledge-into-the-abyss style of presentation. In short, I was going to get up in front of hundreds of people, force myself to say what happened to me as fast as possible, and force everyone to hear it. But most importantly: I wasn’t going to let what I had come to think of as “my pet demon” roam around in my head, in secret, anymore.
Presenting the Ignite Talk was one of the most frenetic, charged moments of my life. The rapid-fire Ignite pace, the sheer terror, and the audience energy gave me an adrenaline rush akin to five shots of espresso served with a side of meth. It was exhilarating, liberating, and when those five minutes were done I received a standing ovation along with an enthusiastic “FUCK YEAH!” from several attendees.
But…I hadn’t expected the talk to be cathartic and healing as well. Giving the speech itself, as well as the many hours spent drilling it beforehand, had transformed that private horror film on perma-loop in my head into something finally…outside myself. Overnight, it felt like ten pounds of anxiety and gunk had been power-washed out of my brain. It’s one of the hardest transformations to explain to those who’ve not had a traumatic, life-changing event, and managed to crawl out the other side.
Strange as this may seem, I consider myself fortunate to have experienced all of this- the trauma, the recovery, and the subsequent growth. It’s given me the confidence to step into the unknown, and the courage to know I can take a hit and still remain standing. It is a powerful, eye-opening experience.
(no pun intended)