Jamie's Blog

Ruby developer. CTO. Swimmer. Always trying to write more

Reflections on the Accident

My previous post about the car accident was a fairly concise explanation of the car accident but I also wanted to reflect on it from the luxury of years later. There’s very little to comment on physically: my injuries all healed up eventually and I rarely think about them. Occasionally the knee gets sore, my hip joint aches, I play with the glass still embed in my wrist, I bang the metal plates in my arm, or my daughter asks where the scars come from. But mostly I’m not aware of the injuries, and neither is any one else — and long may that last.

Aside from the physical effects, I also wanted to talk about the mental effects of accident (and, yes, I did see a psychologist) and how those changes have affected my life in the past few years.

It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most influential event in my life. When my wife and parents aren’t listening, I even refer to it as the best time of my life.

In the Shadows

Don’t get me wrong, it had some very bleak moments. From the hospital bed at CUH I watched husbands carefully shepherd their in-labor wives into the maternity hospital, and then nervously pickup their newborn babies a few days later. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to do that for my wife and ‘Beanie’ was one of the most emotionally torturous experiences I’ve ever been through. I lay in that bed for 10 days and 10 very sleepless nights torturing myself. As it happened, Norah was another little emergency and I didn’t make it to the birth.

When Norah cried, I had to sit helplessly on the couch unable to comfort her or even help my wife. I couldn’t change nappies, prepare bottles, fetch clothes, do the shopping… or anything useful. I couldn’t even put together the baby furniture. And a colicy baby doesn’t want to be held by someone sitting still in bed. No, they need to be rocked, and bounced, and walked around the room to soothe them. And I couldn’t do that. I felt pretty useless at those times.

There were times throughout the recovery that I thought I’d never walk again, or that my arm would never be strong enough to hold my child, or my knee wouldn’t heal so I could walk pain-free or that I’d never kick a ball around with my kids. Thankfully, none of those things came to pass.

So, yeah, it’s wasn’t all that much fun.

In the Light

So, how do I have any good memories from this time? It’s all about opportunity.

For a start, I had 6mths off work and only returned full-time 3mths later. That sort of time with your newborn daughter is a gift under any circumstances. I didn’t realise until we had our second child how valuable those months with my daughter were (compared to the 3 weeks holidays I managed to wrangle for the second). I’m particularly fond of the mornings when my wife would have a shower or go back to bed and she’d leave Norah with me. As every parent knows, there’s nothing better than having a happy, contented baby fall asleep on you (the broken rib and sternum be damned). Happy memories :) I was even able learn a new programming language & framework (Ruby on Rails) from the confines of a bed with only one working arm (I’m now a freelance developer working with Rails).

Another opportunity that’s rarely presented to people, is a chance to overcome huge obstacles. I don’t play sports, I’m not a competitive person, and I had a boring cubicle-confined job. It is rare that we get an opportunity to prove ourselves. A chance to show to others and, most importantly, to discover for ourselves exactly what we’re made of. Every day brought new challenges for me to overcome: sitting up, lifting a glass, transferring from the bed to wheelchair, sliding off the couch and wiggling across to get the remote control (and get back to the couch before anyone noticed!), walking down the corridor on crutches, and without crutches, carrying my daughter upstairs, walking to the shop to get myself an ice cream (best motivator ever!), walking the beach or climbing the Skellig Michael. Lots and lots of daily challenges, and I was beating them. Every. Single. Day. There is nothing better than that for a sense of achievement.

I’m not a masochist. I don’t seek out pain. I don’t enjoy it. And yet here I was, intentionally pushing myself into the pain. It turns out that my natural reaction to pain is to giggle. Odd, I know. My wife would always know if my knee or foot was causing me pain because I’d start randomly giggling in the shopping centre (it still happens that she know when something hurts long before I’ll admit it or necessarily realise it). The pain was almost like a physical object which I could push against. I could get mad at it. I could be angry with it. I could just switch off the part of my brain which starts blaring on and on and on about the pain. I could just acknowledge, turn it off, ignore it, tell it to go away — at least for a time. It was great.

But surviving death was by far the most important opportunity I had. That is pretty rare and special. A Toyota Landcruiser hit my little Renault Clio head on and went straight over the top, forcing the dashboard back into my legs and crushing the roof down over my head. That I suffered no head, neck, spinal or serious internal injuries is still bewildering to many. Some have told me God was with me that day. Bollocks. No deity intervened on my behalf that day. It was luck and physics. Some bad luck and some good luck, but mostly just a whole shitload of Newtonian physics. The resulting dimensions left just enough room for the essential bits of me. The smashed bones caused some bleeding but none of the fragments severed an artery. The difference between life and death was inches here and millimetres there. I guess I’ve thought a lot about that.

Memento Mori *

Surviving death radically changes how you look at life. You see, you can read all the self-help books and listen to motivational speeches but none of it really sinks in. You might nod your head sagely, you might think “oh, yes! That’s so right”, or you might even pass on the advice to other people. Carpe Diem! Seize the day! Live today like to might die tomorrow! Do what you love! Be happy! But none of that really makes any difference. Words won’t change how you view your time on this planet. Your only time, ever, anywhere. The gift you can’t give anyone, but the only one which will really make them appreciate life, is the gift of surviving death. Whether it’s beating cancer, surviving a plane crash, fighting your way out of a hostile warzone, cutting your arm free after a rock climbing accident or just making it through a car accident, it’s that near-death experience which makes the rest of your life shine. It makes you really understand the meaning and urgency behind those motivational poems (seriously, go watch it, even if its effect on you will probably be limited).

My attitude towards life radically changed after the accident but even that effect started to wain after a few years. I was back in the same job, and the same routine. I became extremely depressed about my job and, in hindsight, I stayed there at least 2years longer than I should have. I stayed out of fear. All the same fears that keep anyone else from doing what they know they should do: money, irrational fears, peer pressure, etc. It turns out that dealing with physical pain is 100x easier than dealing with the mental pain of being depressed. Luckily, I did finally figure out what I wanted to be doing and I seized the opportunity when it presented itself.

I still have the “seize the day” moments every… um… day, which often has us driving around the country at short notice. I think I drive my wife a little nuts with all the going but she mostly plays along with it (last week I drove 3.5hrs to show the kids the whale beached in Baltimore). But it plays out in smaller ways too: If I see a beautiful sunset, I take a photo; If I see a field of perfectly ripe barley, I go back to make some photos because it’ll be gone in a few days and the will be opportunity lost. Possibly, forever.

* Memento Mori: “Remember that you’ll die”. It’s not suggesting when that might happen (unlike the more flippant phrase “you could be dead tomorrow!), just that each day you should bear in mind your own mortality. And I’d extend that further: remember that others will die too. Not if, when. Make the most of it.