In all my decades of driving, I've never had anything but a minor fender bender just minutes from my house--until last weekend when I apparently skidded off rainy I75 near Flint, Michigan, onto a grassy median and blacked out.
At least that's what I think happened. All I can remember was that one minute I was driving along and the rain had just started up and it was foggy. Then I woke up in the wide grassy median, confused. The side air bags were deployed, and I couldn't figure out at first where I was. I eventually looked in the rear view mirror to see if I was hurt, but all I noticed was a faint flush on my forehead.
When I figured out where I was, I called home. But before I could finish telling my spouse I'd had some kind of accident, I saw a policeman approaching and I got out of the car. He asked if I was okay, and I said "Sure." I told him that I'd just been speaking at the Rochester Writers Conference (which already seemed an event in another universe) and I had no idea what happened.
"Are you hurt?"
"I feel fine. But I really don't know what happened. This is a total first for me." I was amazed at how calm and reasonable I sounded. I wasn't having an out-of-body experience, but the whole situation felt utterly unreal.
That's when I realized there were two police cars on the median behind me. I assumed some passing driver must have called in the accident, but I had no idea how long I'd been off the road or blacked out. The other officer took my driver's license and registration to do a check, and when the check was over they both remarked how bizarre it was that the side air bags had deployed but not the front ones. They cut them away so that I could drive home. One of the policemen gave me his card with the number of the police report which would say the cause of the accident was road conditions.
I drove home slowly in a state of frozen unreality. There's no other way to put it. Had this really happened, happened to me? Happened right after I'd given a talk that dozens of people told me was inspiring?
Dealing with insurance and getting a rental car, I didn't feel anything physical for over 48 hours until suddenly I started having what a nurse friend later told me was "post-concussive syndrome": headaches, mental fogginess, slurred speech, anxiety, and extreme irritability. My family doctor sent me to the ER and when I mentioned a blackout, that apparently raised suspicions of a stroke or possible minor heart, but none of the tests revealed anything wrong with me.
Those words, of course, seem ironic, because there's plenty wrong with me right now. I'm terrified by the idea of driving on the highway again. At unexpected moments, when I close my eyes, I feel a sense of vertigo, as if I'm rushing down a hill or over the edge of a cliff. Falling asleep is almost impossible at night because I've been having nightmares.
I'm actually afraid of my own bed, as if it's somehow become associated with the accident. Last night I slept on the couch, which seemed a neutral zone. Luckily I'm dealing with this trauma in therapy, and seeing my family doctor tomorrow to discuss how to treat the anxiety, which has stolen my peace of mind.
The anxiety hasn't stopped me from fulfilling my duties this past week as a guest professor at Michigan State University, or appearing at a bookstore in Ann Arbor with the author/reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan where we talked about our new books. But even though my spouse drove me down there, and even though I took some Valium, the highway ride was something I wish I could have avoided. And that's the irony of it all. The event was a success and my teaching is going well. Outwardly, life is normal. Inside, however, I feel lost at sea with another storm about to strike at any moment.
Lev Raphael's 25th book is the novel of suspense Assault With a Deadly Lie.