WARNING: Some of the content below is very graphic…and it’s sad. It just is.
Pain: mine, yours, theirs. Is mine real? Can I truly understand yours? Does hearing mine make yours hurt less?
When I was little, there was a lot of it. But I didn’t understand it. And I certainly didn’t talk about it, mainly, because I was horrified. But also because I knew that it would make people sad to think of me being sad. I didn’t want anyone else to be sad, so I just didn’t talk about it.
This was the impetus for what came to be a lifelong survival tactic. I would seek out others whose pain I thought to be worse than mine, whose pain was real. This would give me a perspective of how trivial mine really was. Maybe I could even help them feel better. Maybe I would feel better. Sometimes I did. And sometimes it all just made me feel worse.
Admittedly, for the most part, I really didn’t believe pain was relative. I tried to empathize with my friend’s sadness over a broken heart or a fight with her boyfriend. I mean, I tried. But I couldn’t shut off the voice inside. “Really, you think that is pain? I could tell you what real pain is, but it will make you sad…and I don’t want you to be sad”.
On the rare occasion that I did share my story, it was done with a tone of indifference so that I didn’t make anyone uncomfortable. I would remain detached while describing the last few minutes before my father’s last breath. I would even leave space for some comic relief if necessary. I would be laughing, and my friends would be crying. But I didn’t want them to cry. So I quit telling my story.
I trained myself to just listen, to offer advice when appropriate, to empathize but not draw too much attention to my pain. I just listened to yours. Yours could not possibly be as bad, right? Besides, I needed to cry, and I could only cry because of your pain, not mine.
“As bad.”: this is what gives pain its power- I compare mine to yours, you compare yours to mine, whether to minimize or justify it.
We all know we are going through different versions of the same thing, that we all have the same pain to varying degrees. We all know sharing our stories and naming our pain will help us heal. But we all still default to either believing ours is all there is, or that it’s nothing at all. We don’t want to be the victim. We don’t want to be the cause of more sadness or pain. We don’t want to be exposed or weak or stigmatized.
We don’t want to be in pain.
So this is how I tried to navigate my story- perpetually trying to find ways to deal with it while not exposing it. I minimized it, numbed it, or found ways to trivialize it.
But this time I can’t. This time, it’s too big. There is no hiding it. And I can’t find anyone else’s that will allow me to trivialize it or help me gain a perspective. This time, I just have to go through it…I have to feel my way through it.
I was flying back to Texas after spending a month in Paris. How bad could my life be, right? I had just spent a month in Paris. But I spent it by myself, completely heartbroken in every way possible.
On the flight to Paris, I truly believed we were going to make it. He was going to do whatever it took to make it work. Maybe he could even come to meet me in Paris at some point. But none of that happened.
I was furious with myself. Not because I was sad. I deserved to be sad. I was furious that I couldn’t stop crying over him, while their parents couldn’t stop crying over them, all three of them…all dead.
But I wasn’t. I lived, I was flying back from Paris, all limbs and organs intact, save one.
I was in the right-hand lane, trailing about 6 feet behind the car in front of me who was in the left lane. I heard them hit the other car, and then they hit me…or I guess I hit them.
I still don’t understand what happened. I’ve replayed it in my head over and over, trying to make sense of it. I was told a car full of three 22-year old boys swerved into our lane coming from the opposite direction…going 80 miles/hour.
They hit the girl in front of me and then catapulted into my lane. The car spun around 180 degrees, and I slammed into the two boys on the driver’s side. I didn’t have time to hit the brakes. They were my brakes. And they all died.
I tried to throw the door open to get out. It was jammed shut. I finally forced my way out and stood, paralyzed, staring at the car in front of me…their car.
Everything was a complete blur of lights and distorted shapes- scraps of metal, severed bumpers, a license plate crumpled up like a piece of trash, orange shards of broken headlights… the smell of smoke, gas, fumes, burnt rubber.
I remember how quiet it was. I could hear the slight buzz of traffic off in the distance, and the sound of fluids spewing out of our cars. The crunch of shattered glass underneath my feet seemed offensive as I stumbled to the side of the road.
I tried to take it all in, not even seeing the crowd of people gathering around me. I frantically began to call the only person I knew in Arlington. He didn’t answer. So I just sat there, methodically pulling blades of grass from the ground, my entire body violently shaking- either from shock or the relentless chill that infiltrated the mutilated cars in front of me, all empty, save one.
The driver, his head, was distorted in a way that reminded me of a painting by Dalí, tilted back as if it was melting down his back. Blood poured out of every part of him. The boy directly behind him, the other one I hit, his head was thrown back too but facing away from me. I could see his left arm dangling out of the shattered window, blood pouring out of every part of him.
And I just sat there, watching, pulling cold, wet blades of grass out of the ground. I watched the policeman approach the car to access the damage. I watched the fire department arrive and cut them out of the car. I watched the ambulance crew descend, put the two boys on stretchers, situate them inside and drive away.
I found out later that night there was a third boy in the car. They didn’t even bother pulling him out.
I continued to sit there, waiting for him to call me back until someone finally realized it was me who was driving the other car.
Two hours later, after enduring question after question, I was asked the final one.
“Do you have anyone who can come pick you up?”
“Can we give you a ride?”
“No. I’m okay, thanks. I can walk.”
The onsite counselor finally insisted on taking me home. She was understandably worried.
“Do you have anyone who can come over?”
“What about friends or family you can call?”
“Um, yeah… I will try to call someone. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I mean, I’m still alive, right? I’ll be fine.”
I have this weird thing I do on planes. Sometimes I just can’t commit to watching a movie, so I watch whatever the person next to me is watching. I can’t hear it, so I just kind of make up my own story.
We were about an hour away from the Dallas/Ft.Worth airport, and I was in an absolute state of panic about what I had to deal with after we landed. So I watched his movie instead. I hated it. It was stupid. Just another story- one kid, trying to fight back, experiencing disappointment and heartbreak. Oh, and his girlfriend died. That was legitimately sad. But it happens. Death happens. He might as well learn how to deal with it while he’s young.
It finally ended, and the man took off his headphones. I looked at him and made some asinine comment about how trivial it all is.
“It’s life, man. Pain is real”, he replied.
“I’m sorry, but no it’s not. It’s a movie. You want to hear real? I watched three boys die a month ago; three boys I hit died a month ago. That is pain. That is real.”
He closed his laptop and turned to face me, his pain palpable…
“I am so sorry.” He looked back down, and repeated, almost in a whisper, “I’m sorry. I know what you are feeling. I know because my wife and son were in a car accident. My wife and son…they died in a car accident.”
There were so many things I wanted to say to him. Instead, I laid my head on his shoulder and cried.
The reality was and is, pain isn’t about “less or more or relative,” His pain was mine, and mine, his.
I keep hearing stories like this. About pain- all of us wondering what the fuck we are supposed to do with it.
It seems to always be here, somewhere on the spectrum. But we need to live our lives, so we try to hide it, dismiss it, numb it, or for the bravest among us, heal it.
I’m not quite sure how to do that, exactly- heal it. I do know, however, how I won’t…by hiding, dismissing, or numbing it. I’ve tried those; they only feed it.
What I have finally come to terms with is this: We all bleed the same. The source of our wounds may differ, the extent of the damage may vary, but in the end, the results are the same: we bleed, and it hurts. And we have to find a way to transcend it if we are going to survive.
This is what I want for all of us, to figure out how to transcend it, to transform our wounds into epic scars we can learn to love. But this won’t happen if we don’t give ourselves permission to feel our pain; to acknowledge that what is happening or has happened is terrible; to allow ourselves to feel sad and angry and resentful; and, yes, to feel like a victim.
Because we are all victims of pain, but our pain doesn’t have to make us victims.
It just makes us real. It gives us depth and courage and resilience. It allows us to gain perspective, evolve, practice empathy, and help others do the same.
I think about that man on the plane, his wife and son. And I think about those boys, their families…what they all wouldn’t give to have the opportunity to feel all of this, to live all of this…even this.
But they are gone.
I have no idea why I’m still here, why I survived and they didn’t. But I did. The very least I can do for them is to feel all of this, fully, and live all of this, wholeheartedly…even this.
I owe them that. At the very least, I owe them that.