Molly Cameron contemplates what her body remembers from a traumatic accident.
I’m walking to my therapy appointment when it happens, winding my way through the West Village in unexpected heavy summer rain, my legs getting soaked despite my umbrella. As I get towards the tricky triangle intersection of 8th St and Sixth Avenue, I see the traffic is backed up from at least two directions. I see a stopped car and a fire truck. The fire truck is from Squad 18, which is housed just a few streets away. A few people stand around the scene, soaking and steaming in the hot rain. I know I shouldn’t look closer but I can’t stop myself from taking a few steps nearer and tilting up my umbrella. A firefighter hovering over something in the street. A someone. It’s a person’s legs, the rest of their body hidden by other people. They’ve been hit by a car. I didn’t see it happen but instinctually I know, I absolutely know that’s what happened. I know because that had once been me.
When it happened to me, over a decade earlier, it wasn’t raining. It was a beautiful October day, nearly sunset. I’d been living in New York City for about six weeks and was on my way back to my reception job at a theater school in Chelsea. The general manager had sent me on an errand and I was thrilled to do it. I wanted any excuse to be outside, marching proudly down the sidewalks, exploring every inch of the city that I could soon call my own. And then, as I walked up 8th St toward Fifth Avenue a fire truck—one from the very same Squad 18—hit a Chevy Suburban, which then hit me. I don’t remember flying into the air, or hitting the wall of the building next to me, or landing on the concrete just outside the entrance to a flower shop. I only remember being lifted into an ambulance, confused and buzzing with adrenaline. I would eventually learn about my eight broken bones, the chemical burn on my left leg, and the months of recovery ahead of me.
During those months, my older sister sometimes fretted about how I was getting so much physical therapy, but never emotional therapy. I had lived through something traumatic; didn’t I want to talk to someone about the experience? I would tell her there wasn’t anything to talk about because I didn’t remember anything. One moment I was walking down the sidewalk, then I saw a giant vehicle flying through the air, and then I was in an ambulance. The EMTs later told me that I was fully conscious when they reached me on the sidewalk, and that I spoke to them, but I never remembered even that. I was always grateful my brain erased that part. I didn’t need to know.
But maybe the memory wasn’t fully erased. Maybe it was simply filed away until it could be useful again.
I feel it in my body, a total sense of deja vu. These are two different puzzles, but this moment I’m witnessing is a piece that perfectly fits the gaping hole in mine.
Seeing this person in the road getting soaked with rain, even just their legs, is seeing me. The similarities are uncanny: it’s the same exact fire department and the same street, only a block away from my own collision. I didn’t see the actual crash here, but I know it must have happened. I feel it in my body, a total sense of deja vu. These are two different puzzles, but this moment I’m witnessing is a piece that perfectly fits the gaping hole in mine. I feel the helplessness and confusion of that person on the ground. I feel the missing shoes and broken bones and split lip.
My body reacts before my brain has even processed all of this. I’m fully breaking down. I’m sobbing under my umbrella and I’m grateful that it’s raining so can I have this big yellow shield to hide my meltdown from strangers on the street. But of course, if it hadn’t been raining, this whole thing might not be happening. I race down East 9th St to the old building where my therapist waits on the eighth floor. I try to suck all the emotion back into my body and hold myself together as I wait for the ancient elevator. How uncanny that I found a therapist who practices just a block away from where such a terrible thing happened. And how perfect that I’m on my way to her now, right after this real life reenactment of terror.
In the tiny hallway of a waiting room, I stare at the floor to hide my puffy eyes. I feel like a water balloon barely holding all the feelings in.
As soon as I get into my therapist’s cool, comforting room and sit on the couch, I say, “Something terrible just happened,” and the balloon bursts. I get out a tiny bit more, wavering on every word: “Someone was. Hit. By a car.”
She lets me sit for a while and just sob. I clutch a tissue to my face, both ashamed to be so immediately dramatic, but also relieved to be in a safe space.
After a minute or two, she gently asks, “How do you feel right now? I mean physically. What are you feeling in your body?”
I look up, taken slightly aback. I start to feel offended, thinking she’s not going to help me with my feelings, but then think about what she asked. These are my feelings. These are feelings that have been in me for years and they’re finally coursing through every part of me. I am reliving the worst thing that I’ve ever experienced.
“I feel shaky,” I say. “My hands are shaking and my heart is pounding and I can’t stop crying.”
“OK,” she says. “Let’s take some deep breaths.”
She guides me through a few. In. Hold. Out. In. Hold. Out. The shakes fizzle out. I feel myself coming back down to earth, fully back in the room.
As we breathe together, I wonder, Is this PTSD? I always associate post-traumatic stress disorder with war veterans or victims of mass shootings—people who were conscious of what was happening around them and maybe even did something courageous. Is it possible that I, an average citizen, could also experience it? I wasn’t aware of what was happening, and I didn’t do anything courageous. Except, perhaps, stay alive.
I’ve felt smaller versions of this bodily reaction before. Sometimes, while watching an action movie, a car will fly through the air in the midst of a chase scene or explosion. I will flinch, remembering the airborne Chevy Suburban. Sometimes an ambulance or fire truck siren wails too loudly and too closely, and my hands fly up to cover my ears, or I’ll try to maintain an outward appearance of calm while digging my nails into my palms. My body will fully tense up, aware of how quickly that speeding vehicle could smash into another vehicle. Once, I teared up at the sight of someone being lifted into an ambulance. I felt like I was outside of myself and watching my own bad dream.
What other memories are hiding in me and what might awaken them? I don’t want to remember the moment of impact, or smashing against the wall, or falling to the ground. I don’t even want to fill in the gaps of my hospital memories, the first few days when I was under a fog of morphine and pain and sleepless nights. But someday, will they suddenly snap into my body without warning?
My therapist doesn’t mention PTSD, and I don’t know if she ever will or if she needs to. Today, the time in the comforting little room is about coming to terms with the surprise of it all. My body has always known the truth of that time on the sidewalk without my conscious mind knowing it. Years and years ago, as I lay there outside the flower shop, not knowing, someone stood over me and knew everything. Someone stared from afar at my legs splayed out on the concrete.
The scariest part of this day is not the actual car crash in the rain or the possibly injured pedestrian. The scariest part is my body’s intense reaction. I’m not afraid of cars or sidewalks or intersections, despite all of those things being a part of my memory from that horrible day, but now I’m afraid of my own buried memories. What other memories are hiding in me and what might awaken them? I don’t want to remember the moment of impact, or smashing against the wall, or falling to the ground. I don’t even want to fill in the gaps of my hospital memories, the first few days when I was under a fog of morphine and pain and sleepless nights. But someday, will they suddenly snap into my body without warning? Will I someday find myself staring at the entrance of a flower shop, shaking with sobs? And what if there are memories buried inside me that aren’t even related to this accident? Are there other traumas that my body has filed away for me to revisit later?
Every day I’m testing fate. I made the choice to move back to the city that threw an SUV at me as soon as I was well enough to, barely six months after the collision. Although I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d end up working in an office so close to where the accident occurred, and then, out of convenience, finding a therapist and a doctor’s office and all sorts of other regular places to go in the same neighborhood. I never expected to spend so much time in this part of town that so fully disrupted my life. I never guessed how often I would find myself walking past the red garage doors of Squad 18 and wondering, Do they remember?
When I leave therapy and walk back outside, the rain has stopped, and the fire truck and police cars and person on the ground are all gone. It’s a beautiful summer day again. It’s like the car crash at the intersection never happened. Traffic flows normally and the sun shines and I take another deep breath. I put in my headphones and play some music and try to forget. I know that my body won’t.
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