WARNING: Some of the content below is very graphic…and it’s sad. It just is.
Pain: 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 others sad. And I didn’t want anyone else to be sad, so I just didn’t talk about it.
This was the impetus for what became 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 was. Maybe I could even help them feel less of it. Maybe I would feel better.
Sometimes I did. And sometimes it all just made me feel worse.
But the truth is, I didn’t believe pain was relative. I tried to empathize with my friend’s broken heart or fight with her boyfriend. I mean, I tried. But I couldn’t shut off the voice inside. Really, you think that’s pain? I could tell you what real pain is. But it will most likely 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 as not to 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 they 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, try and empathize. I just listened to yours, because it couldn’t possibly be as bad.
As bad. This is what gives pain its power- we compare our with someone else’s, whether to minimize it or justify it. We all know we’re going through different versions of the same thing, that we’re all feeling the same pain, just 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, and found ways to trivialize it.
But this time I can’t; it’s too big. There’s no hiding it. This time, I 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 even meet me. We could spend Christmas together, and this all wouldn’t feel like such a nightmare.
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, who were now dead.
But I wasn’t. I was the one who lived, who 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. 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 three 22-year old boys swerved into my 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, but it was jammed shut. I finally forced my way out and stood, paralyzed, staring at the car in front of me…staring at their car in front of me.
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, and burnt rubber.
I remember how quiet it was. I could hear the slight buzz of traffic in the distance and the sound of fluids spewing out of our cars. The crunch of shattered glass under my feet sounded offensive as I made my way to the side of the road.
I tried to take it all in, not even seeing the crowd of people gathering around me. My hands were shaking to the extent that I could barely dial the number of 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 shaking violently- either from shock or the relentless chill infiltrating the scene in front of me- mutilated cars, all empty, save one.
The driver’s head was distorted in a way that reminded me of Dalí, tilted back as if it was melting down his back- blood pouring 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 then cut them out of the car. I watched two men put the boys on stretchers, and situate them inside the ambulance. I watched everyone drive away.
I found out later there was a third boy in the car. They didn’t even bother pulling him out.
I watched and waited, compulsively checking my phone. He never called back.
Someone finally realized I was the one driving the other car. Two hours later, answering question after question- still shivering, still staring at the car- I was asked the final one.
“Do you have anyone to take you home?”
“Can we give you a ride?”
“No. I’m okay, thanks. I’ll 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’ll try to call someone. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I mean, I’m still alive, right?”
I have this bizarre thing I do on planes. Sometimes I 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 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- one more story about some kid experiencing disappointment, injustice, and heartbreak. Oh, and his girlfriend died. That was legitimately sad. But it happens. Death happens. He might as well learn to deal with it while he’s young.
It finally ended, and the man watching the movie took off his headphones. I looked at him and made some asinine comment about how trivial it all was.
He paused, then responded, “Well, that’s how life goes. Bad things happen. We just have to deal with them the best we can and try to move on.”
I turned to face him.
Right…move on, just like that. Well, that kid doesn’t have to move on from shit, because it’s a fucking movie. But let me ask you a question. What if someone has to watch three boys die- three boys she hit. What then? She’s just supposed to “deal with it and move on?” Of course she should, because there are other people going through much worse, right?
But tell me, what could be worse than sitting on the side of the road, watching 3 boys die when it was her hit that killed them.
I mean, I hit them, but it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t see them coming. I would have swerved. But maybe I wasn’t paying attention. What if I wasn’t and I could’ve had time to slam on my brakes and swerve into the other lane…
He closed his laptop and turned to face me, his pain palpable.
“My god. I’m so sorry you went through that.” He looked back down, and repeated, almost in a whisper, “I understand how much pain you’re in. My wife and son were in a car accident too. My wife and son, they died in a car accident.”
There were so many things I wanted to say to him. But all I could do was lay my head on his shoulder and cry.
It wasn’t about his pain vs. mine; at that moment, his pain was mine, and mine was his.
I keep hearing stories like this. About pain- all of us wondering what the fuck we’re supposed to do with it.
It seems to always be here, somewhere on the spectrum of residual and debilitating. 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, know 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, and 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 all had to die. But I did survive, so I have to live, wholeheartedly, and feel all of this, fully, even this. I owe them that.
At the very least, I owe them that.