The Account

by Marty Kleva, BS, MA

It is dusk as I cruise home in my ‘91 Honda, headed south on St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe.  The windows are open and the breeze is easy on my face as I review events of the drumming group I was with tonight, now, an hour after the solar eclipse. 

The late July evening sky is a brilliant explosion of salmon and pink.  Touches of lavender and turquoise, brushed here and there, create nebulous pools of swirling colors.  I have been in Santa Fe now for two months, and as I return home tonight, my thoughts are on moving to a new rental tomorrow.  My plans are to stay here, establish a foundation to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and open a small therapy practice.

The oncoming cars across the median are headed north and move as one cohesive unit in a blaze of passing lights before my eyes. As I head to the outskirts of town and approach the intersection of San Mateo, the light is green and the coast is clear.

Now entering that intersection, my headlights shine on the side of another car, a dark, lightless vehicle, that furtively darts in front of me from the opposite left turn lane, directly across my bow.  I step on the brakes.  Turn my head to see if I can go right or left to avoid hitting it.  There are cars on both sides of me just a length behind.  I push harder on the brakes, if that is possible.  They are already down as far as I can get them.  It appears as if the inevitable is going to happen.  I am boxed in and too close to avoid a collision. It is one daunting thought.

Desperation sets in, and a second later, I am there.  Almost as if the other car is not moving at all but just sitting there taunting me, waiting for me like a faithless thief in the night.  A dual sense of time occurs.  The other car seems to stand still, while mine seems to speed up.  How can that be?  I want the other to speed up, and mine to slow down, so I can avoid the impact. 

It feels as if something else is at work here.  Pulling all the levers.  Pushing all the buttons.  Certainly not me.  I am still going too fast to escape impact. Death fleetingly appears in my mind.  How can I stay and witness my own demise?

Where to go?  What to do when all options continue to close down, but to exit as gracefully as possible?  As I hang on to the wheel with my hands, I feel myself departing.  My spirit leaves my body.  My consciousness moves out of my physical body and does not return until many seconds later.  What seems like forever.

During the period of expanded time before the impact, frantic thoughts flash across the ticker tape of my mind.  Thoughts that say, “This is going to be violent.”  “I don’t want to hurt anyone.” And, the ultimate thought that I can hardly consider, “I might die here.”   Fear, intense fear, instantly arises from the depths of my body.

The next thing I remember is that I feel myself being slammed back down into the driver’s seat as if dropped from a twenty-foot height.  It was painful.  I put the pain aside.  Then I reluctantly open my eyes, and see a stark emptiness in front of me.  An eerie feeling pervades the air.

Where am I?  Am I alive?  Or am I dead and viewing this from afar?  The cars in the northbound lane are still moving as they were before.  My car is running, yet it now barely crawls forward across the remainder of the intersection.  I am amazed that my car appears to be in one piece.  I am still here, and seemingly, at quick glance, all together.  Sensations of pressing my back and thighs against the seat come into my awareness, as if I am just waking up. No blood.  I can see the road ahead of me as it flaunts its emptiness—no vehicles going south on Saint Francis—a steady stream of lights going north on the other side of the median.  I must be alive.

I realize that the sky has deepened to a dark purple dusk splayed across the western horizon with a vivid iridescent sheen, like that which glows on the skin of an unwashed plum.  Time has moved on of its own accord, while I was caught inside the context of a different event.  The sky is still the sky.  

It seems that I am not dead.  A strange and mysterious uneasiness moves over me.  It is palpable, like a moving body of energy I can feel, that makes my skin clammy. The impulse to wipe away something invisible that covers me like a damp sheen, is visceral.   I look back and forth to three lanes of empty road ahead of me, and then, down to my body.  I see the shoes on my feet, and my hands gripping the steering wheel.  My car rolls straightforward down the road; strangely adrift, similar to the detached air of the crisp cool desert night.  Deceptively, it is also a silent shadow that drifts across the western landscape, like a coyote coming to steal away my wry sense of humor.

I am jerked to full consciousness by the sound of my own voice from somewhere inside my head demanding, “Marty!  Get this car under control!”  My hands go to the gearshift; it still works, the engine is still running, foot on the clutch, all automatic actions.  I turn my head to the right and see the other car whipping around as if on a dime.  Now, its rear is facing where the front was, and it comes to a stop.   Checking the traffic in my mirrors, I pull over to the right; up over the curb just past the intersection, and come to a stop.  I sit here dazed.  A person comes over to ask if I am okay.  I am not sure.  Likely what I say is that “I’m fine”.

What I don’t say is,  “No! I’m not okay!  I just plowed into the side of another car that ran a red light in front of me!  What the hell did they do that for?  Couldn’t they see all of us coming down the road?  Why did they dart across the road like that?  And by the way, it is dusk, and why the hell don’t they have their lights on?”  But I didn’t say any of that.  Instead, I sat there silent and dazed, desperately wanting to go home to someone who would hold me close.

This will become the single event in my life that carves out my future, the status of my health, life, financial situation and professional potential.  It will also subtly insinuate itself into the fabric of my already tenuous spiritual life.   But on this night, it is too soon for me to know all this.  The full catastrophe is still to be lived.

This is the story of how the effects of an automobile accident, and its subsequent physical, psychic, and emotional trauma were violently inserted into my life.  It stole away pieces of who I am without prior warning, much like a lightning bolt shearing through the trunk of a fully-grown cottonwood tree, and stripping its green leaves to be strewn up into the air before they finally settle upon the ground in haphazard array.   Where once I was the professional therapist working with clients to help heal their trauma events, I now find myself sitting in their place.  It has been an entirely rude and humbling experience.

I used to do my best to live by the maxim that I did not know what the next moment would produce, and therefore I ought to live spontaneously.  Now, I am forced to live that reality in fact.  In the time since the accident, there have been many occasions when my well-laid plans for any particular day never transpire.  All my impressively professional comments about the relationship of the mind with the body are like limp and meaningless pieces of scrap paper heading their way to the roaring flames of the fire in the kiva.  I am continually forced back to the drawing board to create some peace within the chaos of this existence.  Forced to create a map for myself in no-man’s land. 

That evening, I drove my wounded car home thinking that I had entirely escaped injury myself, except for a possible whiplash and soreness in my chest.  All involved in the accident, including the other driver, a teenage girl and her two younger nephews, also seemed to have escaped serious injury.  The next day, a friend recommended a chiropractor and I made the first appointment I could get for a visit several days later.  I was sure that a few sessions would be all that I needed.  I could never figure why I was not more seriously injured.  I had whiplash, a huge bruise across my right breast, right knee hit the dashboard, and pelvic pain where the seat belt kept me back against the seat.  I did feel something vague that I couldn’t name and remember remarking to the chiropractor and friends that, “I feel like I’ve been filleted.”  At the time, I did not know how prophetic those words would be.

Somewhere into the second week after the accident, I began lifting my hand to scratch an itch across my left forehead, though I could not seem to get to the place that itched.  It was as if there were something on the inside that needed touching, like a bruise, but inside my head.  Since I did not remember hitting my head, and I had no external bruise, my intuition led me to conclude that it must have happened as I lost consciousness just before the impact.  In the injury classified as whiplash, there is a condition called shearing, where the upper brain moves forward and consequently backward in recoil across the mid-brain. This produces varying degrees of internal injury to the brain both at the mid-brain and at the places inside where the brain violently contacts the hard bone of the cranium.

In any traumatic event, lost time is a medical criteria used to diagnose a concussion, although, not all who receive a concussion lose consciousness.  Concussions are the most common type of brain injury, and though they are considered to be the mildest form of traumatic brain injury, nevertheless they can have very serious effects.  My concussion was confirmed by my chiropractor, and later by my neurologist.  This type of brain bruising can also result in what is now referred to medically as a “closed head injury” or a “traumatic brain injury” (TBI). 

What is interesting to me, is that at the time of the accident, I did not have much time to deal with the possibility of impending death and the surrounding fear.  I was not conscious to the actual physical experience of having my body slammed violently forward and then immediately jerked back like a cracked whip in the opposite direction, what is called whiplash.  It was this action that created the bruise in my forebrain.  The fear would resurface months later and become a major factor to deal with in the form of a figure that haunted my days and nights.

In that forever period, when I left my body, I experienced a great change.  When I returned to myself, and my out-of-control automobile, I was different.  I did not know it at the time.  Physically, I looked very much the same.  It took me several months to realize that something deep within me had changed.  I would never be the same as before the accident. 

I did not accept this easily and lived in denial for months.  I have always been strong, and I believed that I would get better quickly.  After all, I was an expert on the after-effects of trauma.  I told Dr. B., my chiropractor, that it would likely take me only a few weeks to move through the effects of the accident, and that the physical soreness and stiffness I was having would dissipate quickly.  At this writing, six years have passed, and I am still recovering.  The greatest challenge remains to be the invisible wound.  Even though the damage to my brain is considered mild, it has turned my world upside down and inside out.  I have only a glimpse of how difficult such a recovery might be for those who have a more severe injury.

By the end of October I surrendered to the possibility that this recovery might take longer than I originally thought.  I was still skeptical when Dr. B. told me that sometimes a head injury could take three to five years to resolve itself, reminding me of the brain’s regenerative ability.

I have gone through many phases of healing.  Some of them felt as if I were going backward instead of forward.  There were days when I had no clue whose face it was looking back at me in the mirror.  The combination of aging, circles under my eyes that looked like they were painted there, and wrinkles that would come and go almost overnight, depended on how much stress I was experiencing, and what tension my body was holding onto.  There were other days and even weeks when I felt and looked like a million bucks and very sure of myself.  I even felt strong enough to teach several classes at the community college and to begin giving community talks on stress reduction.
The downward slide began sometime after January the following year.  All sorts of symptoms appeared that I did not handle well.  I reacted in ways that I did not recognize as me.  I became short-tempered and sometimes found myself speaking too quickly and blurting out with angered words.  I called it being combative.   I was hypersensitive to certain kinds of noises and could not stay in movie houses, restaurants, or public places where there were too many people, or where the noise was too disturbing.  My once ordinary life-style, now overwhelmed me. 

I shopped late at night when there was little chance of meeting someone I knew.  Just being confronted with the possibility of holding a conversation on the spur of the moment in the grocery aisle, could evoke a panic attack.  My physical balance was unstable and I was hesitant to walk when it was dark, even in well-lit parking areas.  Lights, noises and people were over-stimulating for me and I began increasingly to avoid them.  Some of the things I am saying, even now, seem to be contradictory.  That is exactly what I lived with.  I had to learn that one day, I might be okay with noise but not light; tomorrow it could be the reversal.

This is also when I began to experience what I call tsunami waves of raw, unadulterated emotions sweeping through my brain. They began at the base of my skull and spread upward and outward as they moved over the top of my head to my forehead.  It was so overwhelming that I felt as if I had been physically thrown to my knees, as if something had come from behind and struck me down.  I never saw it coming.  I was left in uncontrolled confusion.  Sobs incoherently struck out from my mouth.  I felt as if I were being thrashed about, tumbled beneath a powerful wave.  Scraped along the bottom of the ocean floor before coming to a screeching and painful halt just below the surf line.  This is the eruption of a panic-anxiety attack.  Some call my tsunami experience a “flooding” of the brain.  I was in the throes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I have practiced Vipassana meditation for years.  My daily practices along with my life experience have helped me through the panic and other traumatic reactions. These practices and experiences have been especially helpful to reassure me that I was not going mad.  They reminded me to recognize that my brain was injured and it needed time and my own compassion to allow it to heal.  This did not come easily to me.  The challenge to trust my body, and my emotional processes was constantly present.

My healing became both universal and multidimensional, and increasingly appeared to be in conflict with the typical flat-line design of conventional recovery systems where there are a predetermined number of therapy appointments each week.  I was aware of what my body required and recognized the need to have some say about my treatment.  I refused to take on things I did not feel were appropriate for me.  The fact that my doctors listened to me and heard me beyond some of my words, was a blessing bestowed on me.  That fact alone had much to do with reestablishing my self-esteem.

What has sustained me during this time is my unswerving faith in the body’s ability to heal.  There have been other times in the past when I was near death and I have always recovered.  I also have come through some major life changes that felt like I was dying.  Ten years ago, during the termination of my long-term marriage, I went through six months of agonizing loss, doubting that I would survive.  Six months of agony, despair, and fear of dying.  I thought I would not, in fact could not get through the torture of the loss.  Then, one morning, I awoke to the clear knowledge that I was alive.  I was still alive after dying through six months of hell.  It was then that the understanding became knowledge; that I could choose to live life from a different point of view.  The fact of having lived through such experiences in the past has helped support me through all the ups and downs in the aftermath of this brain injury.

My Vipassana practice of mindfulness meditation, helped me to view my entire self, fragmented though it may have appeared to be, as my whole self.  All my fears, shattered hopes and dreams, are nevertheless valid pieces of my entire picture, my self, my precious jewels.  Those broken pieces needed no conversion to right versus wrong.  They became the parts to work with.  They became my teachers.  My practice engendered and supported freedom from the bonds of judgment and the need to be other than what I am right now, including the pieces that were shattered and broken.  My life became a constant exploration in what it means to be present. 

Today, almost six years since the accident, my life is far simpler than I ever dreamed I could have it.  Except for my car and personal effects, I own nothing else.  A year after the accident, I felt I was dying and needed to get away from the city.  I lived for a nine-month period of time deep into the northern New Mexico ponderosa forest in a cabin without running water.  There, I recaptured my life essence and recovered enough to be able to live in a small rural town in southern Colorado for a year.  I am successfully back into Santa Fe for over two years now, and have found a small haven where it is quiet, the rent reasonable, and my spontaneous eruptions of laughter a delightful surprise to me.

I no longer use credit cards and write few checks, feeling much more secure using cash to pay for everything possible.  Privacy has become integral to my health.  It is too much to handle having junk mail delivered to my door, so I rent a private mailbox and continually take myself off of mailing and solicitation lists.  The television is used for videos only and radio for music therapy.  I keep in touch with a few people who have supported me throughout this ordeal, and presently I seek out few others.  It is less stressful that way, even though a former inner voice might say, “I should have more friends.”  Too much of anything overextends me into exhaustion.  I pay for it by not being able to get out of bed for a day.  It used to be that I was immobilized for days.

There have been so many times in my life that I have projected plans of where I’ll be and what I will have accomplished out into the future.  Sometimes those plans have actually come to fruition.  In the wake of this accident, however, all those plans can look like a whirlwind of multi-colored confetti paper fluttering away in the breeze.  It would be a mistake to try to catch them, even one of them.  I did not understand this at the time, and I tried desperately to pluck those former dreams off the wind.  Doing that hindered my healing process. 

Yet, how can I say it was a mistake when I was being taught something else so valuable?  For in this moment I can say that it is far easier for me to find peace and contentment in my life than it ever was before.  The wonder of it is that I am learning a new way to accept — not to fail — and to surrender, rather than give up.



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