[Trigger Warning: I’ll be discussing a physical injury, recovery, and panic attacks in detail. The first three pictures linked are gory. Again, they are linked, not directly shown]
One year ago today, I was in an accident with an industrial drone. It was spinning too fast while arming (like how helicopters spin up before they took off), but nothing we tried would fix it. Eventually, I changed the PWM value back to the default value, and it spun up even faster. Fast enough to take off right into me.
It tore up my arm. It tore up my face. After screaming, it didn’t hurt that bad, so I thought I overreacted. I told everyone “I think I’m okay”. They didn’t believe me, and I was rushed to the hospital. The pain was horrible, but the nausea was worse. I had made everyone apple pie that day, but I didn’t get to keep my piece.
The doctor thought I needed facial reconstruction surgery, so they put me in an ambulance and shipped me to another hospital. They stitched me up, said no facial surgery was needed, but that my lens and iris were destroyed in my left eye. A couple days later, my eyeball bruised. A week of checkups and eye drops 4 times a day, they then put me under for surgery.
I woke up in so much pain, so confused. They told me to keep my head down. I asked Why am I in so much pain? repeatedly. They put me in a wheelchair to take me outside, and told me to keep my head down. But all I could do was feel terrified because I was in pain and no one was doing anything about it. I’m told to keep my head down as they put me in my dad’s car, so I kept my head down and hurt.
For a week, I had to keep my head down. When I ate, my head was down. When I talked to someone, my head was down. When I slept, my head was down1. I couldn’t play piano like I used to because of my arm. I couldn’t read like I used to because of my eye. I couldn’t even think like I used to because my working memory was shot. I felt so powerless and isolated.
How am I supposed to program or learn new things when I could barely keep 3 things on my mind, when I could barely read off a screen for 2 minutes before having to take a break? How am I supposed to connect with someone when I could barely look them in the eye, when I couldn’t even give them my full attention?
On top of that, I was on eye drops to sooth my eye from all the other eye drops I was taking. I was on laxatives to relieve constipation from all the pain medicine I was taking. Even though I was on a tablet and two drops for eye pressure, I still got glaucoma headaches. So another surgery, and more checkups. And of course, there were the panic attacks.
Any unexpected loud noise would fill me with distress, it felt like I was being attacked, like it was happening again. A couple of months later, I was playing piano more like I was used to. A picture frame on top of the piano fell, freaked me out, and I cried because I thought I was over this. It was frustrating how scared I was, how easily I could feel overwhelmed.
I’ve never been angrier in my life.
As a kid, I used to think “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, that if I went through horrible events, I would come out cooler, more mature. That I would be like Sasuke from Naruto whose whole family died, but he came out so cool, and edgy, and he got the girl! But really, horrible events mess you up, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. There’s not a guarantee that things will be better, not even that things will be as good as they were before.
But... things did get better.
I read Hazard’s post and took up meditating with the mind illuminated. I took Elo up on talking about meditating, told him about my panic attacks, and we fixed them! By “fixed” I mean they still happened, but drastically affected me less and less. And then they started happening less and less. Now, I really don’t mind them more than an itch.
I was told:
For me, I could see “jerking back, elevated heart rate, cortisol/adrenaline feeling, teary eyed because of how I reacted, eyes focus, shoulder tension, toes clenching”, but later, in the moment of actually having a panic attack, it was [noise]->[involuntary yelp]->[chest tightness with stress]->[eyes widen]->[thinking that I’m fine].
I would like to clarify that “chest tightness with stress” is a mental object in word form, but I felt it as a physical sensation like a bad warmth spreading through my body starting from my chest. But even that description fails to convey the reality of the sensation! What’s important is that I described it to myself in hard-to-convey physical sensations. The same is true for the other links in the chain.
Doing this, I realized “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” with the next few panic attacks. They happened. They sucked...but then they were over. Through meditating I was building this skill even more, this skill of non-reacting, of accepting the reality of sensations exactly as they were, of not fighting it, of not getting trapped in a series of thoughts, of not holding on to impulses. I used to think “Man, I’m so hungry”. Now it’s, “Oh the sensation of hunger is there. Oh, now it’s gone. What time is it? 11:00? I’ll work another hour and then eat”. All that miserable anger that would keep me up at nights, I've now let it all go.
I wish I would’ve had a consistent meditation practice before the accident. I predict that I would’ve suffered much less. If you are going through a difficult life trauma now, I highly recommend getting professional help, and you’re welcome to PM me about it as well.
I can read and think like I used to (which were two of the most debilitating effects). My left eye rarely hurts anymore, though I still can’t see out of it2. I’m not nauseous nor do I have glaucoma headaches, though I am still on one eye drop indefinitely. I have most of the strength and flexibility back in my left arm, though it will act up if I hit it just right. I am technically bi-chromatic now because my iris was destroyed! Though, that also means my left eye is a giant pupil, and I need shades to go outside when it’s sunny.
Just like in Valentine’s Grieving Well, I was able to see what was important in my life. I quit my job and started leveraging academia this Spring, I found a girl who kisses my scars, and I’ve grown a lot closer to my family3.
Although I’m not as edgy as Sasuke (probably for the best) the scar does make me a little bit cooler, and, well, I did get the girl.
1. I had an air bubble in my eye and had to keep my head down so that the bubble would do something to my retina (keep pressure to it?). Pro tip: put pillows between the bed and your chest when you sleep so you don't suffocate.
2. I can see a little actually. White is perfect vision, black is blind.
Do you notice the blind spot (black circle) in my right eye (on the left)? Notice how that's most of my left eye?
3. My brother and I have such a good relationship that he made me this:
which is ripped from webcomicname
*Special thanks to Elo for reviewing the draft of this post
Looking back, this all seems mostly correct, but missing a couple, assumed steps.
I've talked to one person since about their mild anxiety talking to certain types of people; I found two additional steps that helped them.
These steps are assumed in this post because, in my case, it's obvious I'm overreacting (there's no drone) and I understand PTSD is common and treatable. Step 2 is very much Kaj Sotala's internal family system's post while this post is mainly about accessing lower-level sensory information about the trauma-reaction.
Thanks for writing this up and I also wanted to say I just really like the phrase 'kissing scars.'
Your brother's comic hit a sweet spot of tragically hilarious that had be laughing for a while :)
Yay healing! And yes, your scare does look cool.
I had a severe back injury far from home in 2011, the circumstances surrounding which have been detailed elsewhere. Irritatingly, my glasses were lost and I spent a week at a hospital in Germany unable to see anything clearly and bedridden.
I also had a sensitivity to loud noises, and thought about the event a lot. With nothing better to do, and being forewarned that post-traumatic stress was a severe problem, I got control of the situation by deliberately reliving the event over and over again until the adrenaline stopped.
I still do it, sometimes; if I hit a pothole and that surprises me, or if I find myself otherwise unaccountably stressed and unfocused, I go back and smooth it out again.
Empathy is right.
I read your post before my accident (and again just now), and it's interesting how much better I understand the trauma.
There's the stereotypical "You don't understand true pain", but I've swung in the opposite direction. Whether it's a story as severe as yours, a splinter, or social discomfort, I feel it and I'm so sorry. Suffering is suffering and it all sucks.
How you dealt with it was interesting. I hated every time my mind would think about the accident because it was scary and I could have died if I reacted differently, but you also could have died, but you purposely relived it. If I could go back, I would try intentionally reliving it on my own terms.
I have found that it does a really good job of separating the feelings then from the feelings now, because I can just keep verifying to myself that I'm actually fine, and so is everyone else.
How do you feel about the surprise of the event? I feel like the dominant feature in my recovery is the preparation I had beforehand: I knew when I joined this was a thing that happens, it being the most publicized part of the war; there are a hundred thousand people it has happened to before me who described it; we have general emergency medical training and maximum-intensity safety gear; we have hours of specific training for how to respond to it; I personally had the habit of visualizing it when I sat down in the truck; I knew that day we were going to drive until it happened to someone. I was about as prepared as humanly possible, and getting blown up still sucked. Yet I never had to deal with feeling like I couldn't believe it even happened.
That's interesting. I was definitely very surprised, no expectation that something like this could happen. Though, when I went into shock, I said "good thing I have another good eye" on the way to the hospital, so I was never in denial of how bad the damage was.
I was not prepared for the panic attacks, nor did I even think of a plan of action to work through them until a couple months afterwards (as mentioned in the post), which was Elo's idea. It wasn't obvious to me that I would have panic attacks or that there was a way to get past them sooner.
You said you knew it might happen, but had you heard about the "reliving the trauma" method from others? Was that something you just figured out at the hospital in Germany?
I said "good thing I have another good eye" on the way to the hospital
HA! After I crawled away from the truck, I was laying between the engine block and the cab, and my gunner was kneeling a little ways away pulling security. After a little time I said to him, "After due and careful consideration, I have decided explosions are even more exciting from the inside."
He was unamused. Too bad - not a lot of opportunities to deliver that joke.
The two things I knew beforehand were that episodes of spontaneously reliving the event are the classic example of consequences I did not want, and that there is a technique called exposure therapy, which usually entails deliberately exposing yourself to some trigger until you normalize to it again. Doing it on purpose was like exposing myself to no trigger, I figure. I'm confident this isn't how it actually works, but I kind of felt like every one I went through deliberately was one less I would have to go through while driving in the car or something.
He was unamused.
Ah man, sorry your joke bombed.
If I someone else I know gets in an accident too, I'll tell them they might experience panic attacks and how to work through them safely. That might be the most helpful thing.
Ah man, sorry your joke bombed.
On the basis of this line alone, I regret nothing!
Thank you for sharing such a personal story. I’m happy you had help along the way and that you chose to accept it and become better, rather than angry and resentful.
Thank you for the post. I was involved in a major accident a couple years ago and have a very visible scar on y body that reminds me of the terrible day however i learned to grow with it and accept that i can turn a negative into a positive by talking to girls about it to try to help my game with them or letting my friends cal me a freak etc . :)
Hahaha, I don't know how many people have mentioned the "Girls will think it's cool" idea.
Also, I'm sure you've dealt with meeting someone new and knowing that they've noticed your scar and want to ask about it. Definitely a conversation starter, and it's been great to try off different ways of telling the story.
While the plural of anecdote is just anecdotes, I do think the section on meditation, in the context of the broader post, was actually pretty useful to me. I don't really know where a post like this is supposed to fit into the broader review, but it does seem pretty good to me to be included.
I really like this post, and the concrete story of elriggs dealing with his problem with meditation. Simple but key, and well-written.
Thank you for sharing. It is great to hear you have come though the dark and back into the sun (even if with one shaded eye -- pirate patches are a cool accessory for cools scares right?)
Great seeing the two smiling faces with that cool scare too!
For me it is very hard to share that type of personal trauma but you give others some courage to open up as well. Thanks again.
Thanks! Actually, I did dress as a pirate last Halloween, though I put the patch on my good eye because I'm hilarious.