What It's Like to Almost Die in a Car Crash

"I used to imagine how I'd win street fights in my head, or how I'd never get hurt from drunkenly climbing that scaffolding, but the crash changed all that."

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Aug 25 2016, 11:00am

Illustration by Sophie Castle

When you look back on memories, recent or distant, the most vivid ones are usually the bad stuff that happens to you. I suspect that humans are hardwired to remember the negative memories, perhaps through some basic evolutionary trait that focuses our brains on constant improvement, or at the very least avoiding painful things to survive. I bet you can name every single time you've had your heart broken. And I bet you can remember every time you were bullied at school, too, the nonsensical names you were called, the warm shame you felt. So it should be no surprise that the strongest memory I have, the one that comes back to me again and again, is of the time I nearly died in a car crash. Though they have faded and blurred with age, I still carry the physical and psychological scars around with me today.

Like most things that happen in your teens, it started with me being stoned in the passenger's side seat of a hatchback. My friend Tom was driving around 70mph as we bobbled down a muddy countryside road on our way back to school. We were late for class, so maybe that's why we were going so fast. Or maybe we were just 18 years old and thought driving fast was cool. I don't know. As we hurtled along, a duck flew into the windscreen. I remember very clearly seeing a green and grey smudge outline race across my vision. Tom must have seen it too, because he freaked the fuck out, jerked the wheel, locked the back tyres, and sent us swerving towards a tree.

I don't remember screaming, but apparently I was, because I was on the phone to my girlfriend at the time and she said she heard a lot of screaming. We hit the tree, with the passenger side taking the full force of it, breaking the door off its hinges. Another thing that I thought was cool when I was 18 was not wearing a seatbelt. I was catapulted out of the windscreen and went bouncing down the road like a skimmed stone.

You might imagine that everything went into slow-motion at this point, that I saw each bit of twinkling glass hovering next to my body as I rotated through the air like a roasting pig. But no. The next thing I knew, I was underneath the car. I'd somehow landed in front of its wheels as it continued to move, and my arms were being crushed.

It put me into a pretty bad way, physically. I had gravel embedded in all parts of my body. My left hand was ripped apart and, in shock, I tried to chew off bits of loose skin around the gash. My face and left arm had been torn open. The worst feeling came from half of my back being burnt to the third degree from road rash. I had been going so fast when I hit the road that the impact had literally burned all the skin off. (So next time you see Daniel Craig jump out of a speeding car onto concrete in a James Bond film and get up no bother, just know that it's fucking bullshit.) It was the first time I had cried from pure physical pain since I was 11.

Psychologically, the effects have been long-lasting. The car had been completely caved in on my side, beyond where the seat was, so if I had been wearing a seatbelt I would've either had no legs or I would have been straight dead. As a young man coming down from the hormonal high of my teens, I had been walking around with a shield of imperviousness, just like most young men do. I used to imagine how I'd win street fights in my head, or how I'd never get hurt from drunkenly climbing that scaffolding, but this crash changed all that. My invincibility had been shattered.

To this day, I don't feel entirely safe in a car, especially at any speed over 'your nan on the way to the Post Office'. I used to love bombing down roads with my friends, blaring horrible dubstep at full blast on the stereo. I didn't feel as if I was ever in danger, because high speeds and rubbish dance fads were normalised, regular. But the crash made every journey unpredictable to me.

I used to imagine how I'd win street fights in my head, or how I'd never get hurt from drunkenly climbing that scaffolding, but the crash changed all that

I didn't have any therapy after the accident. Maybe it was a male pride thing. I assumed that therapy wouldn't solve any of the problems I had. I was caught up in the physical healing process and I was lucky enough not to get significant flashbacks or nightmares, but what I can't shake, to this day, is a feeling of dread about what would have happened to my family had I been killed or paralysed. But apparently that's normal, and might never go away.

There is a passage in Dostoevsky's The Idiot in which the protagonist describes someone who has had a stay of execution at the last moment from a firing squad. It's drawn from Dostoevsky's own experience, after he was pardoned from execution by Tsar Nicholas I, at the last moment. The man facing the firing squad is able to recall to the last detail everything he saw in those five minutes waiting for death, in vivid and luminous colour and sharpness. But although he had escaped death, he ultimately went on to waste his life.

I remember the crash as if it happened half an hour ago, even though my memory is now so bad I can't even remember what beer I was drinking last Friday. Although I had been so close to death, I haven't been able to force myself to live every day as if it's my last, to not take life for granted. The intensity of the pain has dulled to a small dot in a horizon behind me, the scars have blurred, the manic routine of life has done the rest. I almost died, and that still pops up at me in different ways to this day. But ultimately, the saddest thing is that it hasn't made me a more grateful, #blessed person.

Although with the injury claims money, I went to Thailand for two weeks and got a terrible tattoo. But that's another story for another day.

@williamwasteman

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