The Car Accident That Saved My Life - Katarina Behrmann
It’s hard to describe myself ten years ago. But I know I was sad, deeply sad, and hiding from a lot of things. I could write about how my family was shit, or how I didn’t feel normal, or how I was harmful to myself, and it would all be true. Rereading my old journals does nothing but confirm - I was depressed (a diagnosis I now wear with not pride per se but understanding). Anyone who knew me or was unfortunate enough to see me at a low can testify to that. I didn’t know how to love myself, because I didn’t know myself and what little I did, I was indifferent to. On the rare occasion, I’d let myself be alone, my mind was full of self-deprecating thoughts. Unable to embrace my own energy led me to constantly find chaos to engulf in until inevitably I’d forget how empty and alone I felt.
It was fall and I had turned twenty-one that April prior. I was in a long-distance relationship, with a guy a few years older than me, we’d been dating for nearly six months. It was one of the longest relationships I’d ever been in. He was cool, dangerous, troubled, distant, and all my friends hated him (what a dreamboat, am I right?) pushing me even further into the relationship because I felt as if no one else understood. He was the first person I told - I love you. Ironically, we were riding in a car when I said it. Most of our relationship was sandwiched between long car rides and arguing on the phone. My mind would constantly go from, I can’t have this person in my life anymore to I can’t live without them. Our summer was filled with long weekends starting with romance and ending in sorrow. Some highlights would include him throwing my phone out the car window, or my keys over a house to keep me from leaving. Some lowlights would include him pushing me back down onto the bed over and over and over again while I tried to leave the room when we were arguing, condemning me from hanging out with any of my friends unless I was with him, and taking a knife to his chest while we were in the shower together with threats to kill himself. We were toxic to one another, yet somehow being with someone as sad as I was, was better than being alone. Equally unstable.
The beginning of the end started with a visit like the others, I picked him up and brought him back up to my hometown. My friends tried once again to accept this unhealthy train wreck of a relationship. It was Mardi Gras in the downtown area of our homely little college town, and we were going bar hopping. We drank until the bars closed and stumbled into a cab to drop us off back at my apartment. Then the fighting began. Big surprise I can’t remember what our fight was about. To be honest I don’t think it matters. Possibly another stemming from jealousy and his mistrust of me, one of our usual arguing points. That night we fought until we broke up. Maybe in an alternate universe, we passed out and talked about it the next day, like the many times before. But this time one of us or both of us decided he needed to leave that night.
We take off down the road yelling at each other. I tell him I don’t love him anymore and he tells me he’s been cheating on me ever since we started dating. He tries to scare me. Bully me. We both say things just to hurt each. (*every time I write this story I try and leave this part out because it’s the piece that won’t stop haunting me. He tells me ‘he has AIDS and now after all the times, he’s fucked me - no one will ever want me again.’ Still to this day, it doesn’t matter how many times I get tested and hear/see the negative results and know that this just simply isn’t true, that these were words used to hurt and manipulate me…I still can’t let that moment go.)
Suddenly, he pushes my head into the window. I was shocked. I remember looking at him in confusion, not even anger, I was genuinely shocked that he pushed my head like that. That’s when he reached towards the wheel and in one small but very intentional motion grabbed and jerked the steering wheel violently to the left. Not towards him, away from him…towards me. Like it was an extension of my body that he wanted to hit against the window too. So quickly and slowly I realize what was happening. We are in the air. Weightless. That feeling when you drop and your belly tickles like on a rollercoaster, but a wrong nauseating version. I remember almost everything about that moment. Which is strange considering the circumstances. The smells of burnt rubber and gasoline, the feeling of my hands as they gripped the wheel even after I had no control of the car, the terrible sound of wheels screeching - then leaving the pavement. One thing I don’t remember is seeing the world spinning as we flipped off the road into the trees aside. I must have been squeezing my tear-filled eyes shut, which was lucky because when I opened them, we were suspended upside down with glass shattered around us and smoke filling the car. As my panicking hands tried to figure out my seat beat and where the door handle was - everything seemed impossible. He was crying too. Asking me if I’m okay and saying he was sorry. Me too. I don’t know how much time passed with us upside down fumbling to make sense of our situation. Until I heard a knock on what was left of my shattered…no more like squished or crumbled driver-side window. A middle-aged woman in a leather vest, she looks like a biker, says she's going to get us out. She was able to prop the door open enough to help me release from the seatbelt then she pulled me from the car and told me to get away from it.
I ran away from the car until I collapsed in the grass. She followed and held me in her arms telling me how lucky I am. I kept sobbing, “It was him! It was all him! He jerked the wheel, he flipped the car, he tried to kill us!” Whoever else was riding with her, helps him out of the car, and in minutes that felt like seconds, an EMS vehicle was there. They tried to look me over to make sure I was okay, but I don’t let them as I’m in delirium over him grabbing the wheel. I cry and scream as people separate us. I don’t know what happened in the short time from when the EMS arrived to when the cops showed up, but something changed inside me. I suddenly stopped saying that it was all his fault and begin to admit to being the one behind the wheel and that I had been drinking. I guess I didn’t want him to go to jail too or to accuse him of something so serious, to the police. Full honesty – I’m scared of cops. So whatever courage I had to condemn him minutes before was depleted at the sight of their flashing lights. They give me a breathalyzer and put me into the back of the police vehicle. The younger-looking policeman got in the car, pulled away, and took me to the station. I remember looking out of the rearview window at him, the person I had chosen to be my first love, as cops and EMS surround him, he looked at me too. Our eyes met - both supremely sad. That was the last time I ever saw him in real life.
I wish I could say that the violent purge of this person from my life was all I needed to get better, but it wasn’t. The night didn’t even end there as far as traumatizing memories. Spending a night in jail was humiliating enough without adding the fact that I was on my period and bled through the pants they gave me to wear because the dress I was wearing when I was picked up was considered a hazard. Anyone who’s spent a night in the drunk tank also knows you are basically in a glass cage for everyone to see you. Even while using the toilet. So, there was no hiding or helping the mess between my legs. Also, after an hour or so of being in there the adrenaline from the accident started to subside, and I began to feel a lot of pain. My body was scratched and cut from all the glass, bruising and aching from the crash, and my head was pounding from the impact and most likely the booze.
The night that felt like forever finally came to an end. My mother and stepdad so understandingly came to retrieve me from jail. They didn’t grill me or scold me about what happened. Just listened. And took me to the hospital to be checked, like I should have done the night before. But we had to make one stop before, the junkyard to claim the car. We pulled up and I could see it from the road. A mangled 1999 red two-door Chevrolet Cavalier, my first and only car up until that point. I am soup on the ground. Unable to talk or walk, I just kneel on the rumble of the junkyard ground as my eyes drink in the sight of something so familiar to me, now unrecognizable. My Mom gathered my belongings from the car and talked to the man who retrieved the car. He said it had appeared to flip several times and stopped when it hit some trees and landed upside down. Completely totaled.
Weeks to follow were tough. I felt isolated, once again like no one could understand what I was going through except the one person I couldn't talk to. I went to court. They dropped the DUI to an OWI and gave me 6 months probation and 40 hours of community service. From what I had heard the EMS and the witness at the scene gave statements that there were domestic implications. I’m not sure if that helped drop the severity of my case or if I was merely being granted young white girl privilege.
I chose to complete my service hours at the soup kitchen. I no longer had a car. So, I rode my bike to school, work, and the soup kitchen every day. I began to see a counselor as well. Slowly my life started falling back into place. Something had changed. Something changed in me. I was hurt and sad and scared but at the very least…I wanted to be there. I wanted to be at school, I wanted to be doing community service, or hell even court. Before the accident, I’m not sure if I wanted to be anywhere, and after everything seemed so real. It was this new intense want to be everywhere because I was so close to not being able to be anywhere. People say it all the time, but its true life is fragile. Just as it is fragile, we are resilient.
I still think about that night. Sometimes it keeps me awake. I know I was lucky. We were lucky. What if we wouldn't have put on our seat belts after getting back in the car? Or if that woman hadn’t been there to help us get out of the car? What if there was someone else on the road? What if…he hadn’t cranked the wheel? I can drive myself crazy with these questions, but it doesn’t change the fact that what happened, happened. As for him, I don’t know. We never really talked after. I sometimes wonder how he remembers that night. Maybe it changed him too. This story is hard for me for several reasons, but one of the big reasons I hate to tell it is because of the way it paints me. I think it makes me look like a victim. When truthfully, I’m equally as guilty. I got behind the wheel, that was my terrible choice. I can’t blame him for that, because if I do then I’m also giving him credit for saving me.
I like myself now and I’m not sure if I would without the accident that woke me from my depressed slumber. That memory still haunts me and also grounds me. If you refuse to look back and acknowledge your past, you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Today I am older and wiser I’d like to think. And life is very real. The threat of losing something makes it all the dearer to you. Every breath that fills my lungs reminds me that for some reason I’m still here…and it’s exactly where I want to be.
Katarina Behrmann a self-identified life-long storyteller resides in Los Angeles with her cat, named Chicken. Some past accomplishments include having a stage play produced off-Broadway which an excerpt is published with Progenitor Art and Literary Journal and most recently a published poem for Windless Dreamer Publisher. Head in clouds and heart on sleeve, Katarina continues to create.