Friday, January 20, 2012

That Accident Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago this month I was in a car accident that should have killed me. I don't want to get all Nietzsche about it, but the experience and its repercussions have shaped me in a way that nothing else has, and made me stronger. On that January morning, my parents got the call from the hospital that must have really sucked. They packed, made arrangements for my other siblings, and drove without knowing much about my condition, six hours to the hospital. I was still in surgery when they arrived. Seven broken bones, two bone grafts, a couple years of physical therapy, a couple hardware removal surgeries, the diagnosis of epilepsy, twenty or so seizures, some in the middle of streets and at bus stops, and here I am. Still alive. Still grateful.

I was weaseling around in my old cards and photos the other day, looking for pictures the boys could cut up for a craft we were doing, when I found the stash of cards I kept from ten years ago. I decided as I was reading through them that I need to write something about all those nice people who were so wonderful during that time in my life. I know I ended up throwing some of the stuff out-- certainly the majority of the large stuffed animals had to eventually find new loving homes, and the cards from eighty-something students I had just finished student teaching, while sweet, I found no reason to keep. Space is all-important here in our cozy little hive. But most of the notes I kept-- I'm a sucker for the written word, after all. I found myself tearing up as I read through them, standing there in my slippers, holding the notes with my dry-from-too-much-washing mom-hands, stupid Jimmy Buffet singing in the background as the boys played their guitars with that cringe-y, out of tune twang. I tried not to let the boys see that I was crying, which wasn’t hard because they quickly switched from a cheeseburger paradise to fighting over drumsticks and space shuttles, as I allowed myself to remember that time.

While I make no claims whatsoever to having It All figured out in life, I think it will be good for me to write a reflection on what I’ve learned from my accident and my ten years of unusual challenges due to having epilepsy. Hopefully it will serve as some semblance of a tribute to so many of you who were selflessly thoughtful and endlessly kind to me specifically during that rough first year of recovery. I know my inner teacher is showing with this, but here are the main things I’ve learned:

Control: I don’t have it and that’s okay. I never thought I was a control-y person before, but my accident and subsequent surgeries and seizures took away much of the control I had over my life, and it has not been easy to part with. When all is said and done, what I have control over is simply my attitude when dealing with my lack of control. I spent months not even being able to shower or get dressed by myself and I couldn’t stand on two feet and walk for six months after my accident. I watched as what should have been the last semester of my college experience passed without me. I watched a replacement roommate take over my bed in the house I lived in with my best friends. I watched those friends graduate. I watched the club softball team I’d helped start go on to play their first season of NCAA Division 2 softball without me. All this happened while I lay on my hospital bed at my parents’ house a couple hundred miles away, the muscles in my legs atrophying away. All I could do about it was get angry, which I definitely did from time to time, or do my best to let it go. It was a struggle then, and it still can be now. I have to rely on everyone around me because driving with my epilepsy doesn’t work. Two times since being diagnosed I’ve gotten my driver’s license back because my doctor and I have thought we’d figured out the formula for my seizures—how much medicine I need, why I have them, how to feel them coming on, but both times we’ve been wrong and the car keys have been taken from me after a year and a half one time, and after just a few months the next time. I have to depend on the buses coming somewhere near on-time and hope that people won’t get sick of me asking them for rides. I used to prize my independence so much that losing control of much of it has taken me ten years to do, and I still struggle with it.

Perspective: A lot of crap doesn’t matter. This goes hand-in-hand with the control thing. So much isn’t worth getting worked up over, all things considered. After I started walking again, everything else seemed insignificant. The car broke down? I failed a quiz? I spilled ketchup on my white shirt? I locked myself out? So what? I can walk. I can move around and do things by myself. It sounds cheesy, but I thought that way a lot the first few months after I started walking again. I swore to myself I would always remember how lucky I am to simply be walking. This ten year crashaversary is a good reminder.

Humor: It makes the world a better place. I like to think I knew this before my accident, but my experience reinforced the fact. Learning to see the funny in situations also helps with the perspective of it all. How else am I supposed to deal with being carried down the aisle in a two giant casts as a bridesmaid and a month later crutching down the aisle as yet another bridesmaid? And depending on my roommates to walk to the back of the grocery store to buy my milk and laundry soap for me because my weak legs couldn’t handle so much walking? The accident and my epilepsy journey have refined my stellar, completely awesome sense of humor that you wish you had.

People: Nice people make life richer. I have been blessed with so many amazing people in my life that it’s almost ridiculous, many of whom shined that first year following the accident. First and foremost were my parents and my little brother and sister, who were still at home. My sister and mom did most of the difficult work—showering me and dressing me, rubbing my feet to cheer me up, holding me when I cried in pain after the surgeries and therapy and general frustration, feeding me, entertaining me, taking me to physical therapy three days a week. And other people came out of the woodwork to help me. People I had fallen out of touch with for years sent cards and people I wasn’t sure even knew I existed came to visit me in the hospital. They prayed for me. The English department, my fellow English Ed majors, and my friends helped me deal with being out of school and rejoiced in my small steps of recovery, usually through email. One professor aided in getting me to meet and talk to the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, about whom I was doing my senior project. What did we talk about? Mostly the fact that I had two casts on my legs and was pushing a walker at age 21, because he was in a similar situation after being hit by a car years before. Friends took me bowling in my wheelchair. Friends of my parents brought me a little television for my room and drove me places. My accident helped heal one friendship in my past that I am so thankful to have back.

As I look back over all the cards people sent and remember the nice things people did for me, I am astounded and I aspire to be someone as nice as those family and friends who did and still do so much for me. After I was diagnosed with a seizure disorder I narrowed down my search for jobs to places with good public transportation and that is how I ended up in the DC area. Here I met and married Brian, who drives me everywhere and does all our shopping, as well as provides love, care, and support for our growing family. I have twin boys, a condo in a perfect place for walking, and more amazing friends. I honestly don’t know what more I could ask for, except maybe a smidge more space. I even got those Russian nesting doll plates from World Market that I was drooling over because another amazing friend read my blog entry about shopping!

And that is my ten years ago story and reflection on all it has meant to me—on how it has shaped my character and my life. I hope most people who touched my life in those first months have a chance to read this and know that I have not forgotten their kindness.  

The day after the accident...for some reason I can't rotate this.

Visiting part of my softball team

Watching my best friends graduate

Being carried down the aisle as a bridesmaid


  1. You know what's crazy? I buy and write cards ALL the time. I am really quite awful about mailing them though. I was cleaning out our immense stack of papers a couple of weeks ago and found the card I had written you during your accident. I just tossed it too (I mean, it was 10 years later so I don't think "better late than never" applied here).

    I loved this post, Dawn. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. The picture of you being carried as a bridesmaid is still one of my favorites of the wedding party, from our wedding. I can't believe it has been ten years.

    Becca and I were so worried about you.

    We love you Dawn,

    Ryan Notbohm

  3. Dawnee P

    10 years! Wow we are old! : )
    it seems like just the other day, i got the phone call. I still have to praise the Lord that He keep my dear friend alive. Your blog sure brought back alot of memories from that time. And I have to say that I was blessed to have you as a roomate and still as a friend. love you much

    You and Josh made such a cute couple, : )

    Becca Notbohm

  4. I love you Dawn..... 'specially now that it's the weekend* =) It is an amazing thing to look back and see all the things we have endured, and yet at the same time see God's undeniable work of grace in our lives in an even bigger way......

    much love and memories,
    ~ shawna ~

  5. Aww, Jessie. You should have kept is as a crashaversary card! Ryan, Becca, and Shawna thank you. I love you too and I could not have asked for better friends to get me through those rough days.

  6. I know a little bit about how important is is to be surrounded by awesome friends. We couldn't have gotten through Seth's illness, almost 6 years ago now, without the help of family friends and community. I still get teary whenever I think about it, and how I, too, had to temporarily give up control of my household, my schedule, my plans, in order to deal with the crisis. But we survived, and we're better in many ways, as a result of the experience. And I sense that you are, too.

  7. Yes, Meg, I know you know much of what I felt. It is interesting how we get stronger in and after challenges. How is Seth now? I remember he was making progress when Brian stopped playing hockey and we stopped seeing you.


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