Story of Growth - Breanna

OTHERS(S)

It is hard to believe that it is almost ten years since it happened, especially since the memories are so vivid in my mind today. What started out as a typical 17 year old summer day filled with shopping at the mall with my friend Gina turned into something that changed my life forever.

Gina picked me up from my house and asked which way we should go to the mall since there were two ways that were similar in time and miles. I picked the mountain road; a long, curvy, but relaxing and beautiful drive over a mountain that lasted for about 8 miles. So, we started out on the road and were only about one mile from my house when we I looked up to see a vehicle flipping head-on towards us. Gina slammed on the breaks and stopped the car at about the same time the vehicle stopped flipping a few yards ahead of us. Gina yelled to get out and go help and that she would go call for an ambulance at my house. I complied in a way that seemed to include no thought, logic, or panic; just an automatic zombie-like response. It wasn’t until I got out of the car and my friend quickly drove away that I realized that someone had been in a terrible car accident and I was alone on this desolate mountain road and needed to figure out what to do.

So, I ran up to the car and found a classmate of mine, Brian, screaming, “Where is Steve?” I was confused because I thought he was talking about my neighbor, who was my classmate as well, however that Steve drove a truck and this vehicle was so smashed that I was sure it was a car. But, I quickly learned that it definitely was the Steve who, although we weren’t close as teenagers, had shared my bus stop and played with me in the snow as a kid. And, it was his truck that I saw everyday, it was just so badly damaged that it resembled a car.

Brian and I ran up the mountain road looking down the bank into the woods for any sign of Steve. Brian told me that he was driving behind Steve and saw him fly through the windshield when the truck first hit the guardrail, so he could be quite far from where the vehicle actually stopped. We ran up a little further and I saw him and froze. He had been stopped by a tree and was lying up against it – not moving. Brian started down the bank and at that time, I heard someone else moaning in pain, so I ran back down towards the noise. Steve’s girlfriend had been in the truck as well and was lying in the road behind the truck. She was in shock, losing a lot of blood and wasn’t aware of what had happened. I tried to calm her and keep her still while Brian started CPR on Steve.

At that time, more people arrived at the accident, but still no ambulance. When the ambulance finally did arrive, I was appalled at how slow the paramedics moved to help Steve. I remember thinking, did they not understand that he was young and had his whole life ahead of him? As they went over the bank, I remember looking down at the horrific scene and thinking that it would be ok. I thought that nobody dies that young; that the paramedics would take care of him and I would see him in the hospital, and he would return to school for our senior year. I was very wrong. The paramedics stopped working and I watched Steve’s body disappear under a white sheet. My body went numb and the rest is more of a blur. I remember seeing Steve’s English composition book (a class that we shared) ripped open on the road along with McDonald’s french fries, and his favorite CDs. I remember the police asking the same questions over and over again. And most of all, I remember the look on the face of Steve’s dad when he arrived at the accident and learned that his son died in a terrible car accident less than a mile from home. It was a look that equaled the epitome of true heartache and sadness; a look that I have seen many more times after that day in my mind and will never be forgotten.

Although I wanted to try to just put that day out of my mind and pretend it was just a bad nightmare, the days that followed reaffirmed the reality. I attended the viewing with my guidance counselors and my two friends, Gina and Brian. I walked in and saw that the casket was opened. I was surprised given that Steve’s face had been so badly damaged. As I approached the casket, I heard myself scream. Steve’s face was not right and his skin was not at all the color that any skin should be; it was a last minute decision to keep the casket opened. As I walked away, the guidance counselors suggested that we talk to Steve’s parents for a minute. The counselors explained to his parents that we were the first to the accident and we tried to help him. Steve’s mom responded by saying that all Steve ever wanted was to fit in and be liked and that all of us kids made that very hard for him. Then she turned to me and said that it was sad that Steve had a crush on me and I never gave him the time of day. I didn’t understand at the time how she could have said that to me. Her words sparked uncontrollable crying as I ran from the funeral home. I contemplated those words of hers over and over in my mind, especially in the following days and weeks. Sure, Steve and I had grown completely apart as teenagers. We were different people with different friends and interests, but that is what happens throughout life. We just weren’t friends but that doesn’t mean I ever picked on him and I certainly never even knew that he had a crush on me. At the time, I felt as though she wanted someone to blame and to feel the pain she felt, and I was the person standing directly in front of her; but even this rationalization didn’t make the guilt, pain, and sadness that overcame me lessen.

When the funeral ended, I forced myself to think that I was going to be able to put this all behind me and move on with my life. Senior year was approaching and college wasn’t too far behind. This was supposed to be one of the best years of my life, but somehow I just couldn’t shake what had happened that summer. I would lie in bed at night and think about it and finally fall to sleep only to revisit it in my nightmares. I avoided driving as much as possible because I was convinced that every car looked as though it was too close; that it could hit me head-on with just a little movement. When I did drive and would pass the place where the accident took place (which was necessary every time I drove to town), I would refuse to look in my rearview mirror because I was sure I would see Steve standing there in the road, staring angrily at me because I didn’t save him. I became afraid of the dark and silence at 17 yrs old because that is when the thoughts of guilt, sadness, anger, and hopelessness would attack me the most. I began to get dizzy or even pass out at the sight of blood or someone showing physical pain, which never happened before the accident, and meant that my consideration of going to medical school was now completely out of the question. And a couple of months afterwards, when I was feeling a little bit back to myself, a group of French students and their teacher from my neighboring town, died in a plane crash. Back into a funeral home I found myself, and mixed with the pain from this recent tragedy, all I could see was Steve and hear was his mother’s words as I attended yet another funeral of a teenager.

One of the worst parts of all of this is that I dealt with it all myself because nobody really knew what was taking place in my mind. I was very close with my family, my boyfriend, and some friends, but I worked hard to cover it all up because I thought that it was wrong for me to feel that way and that people wouldn’t understand what I was going through, especially since I didn’t understand it myself. Unfortunately it did seem to people as though I was often tired or in a bad mood because the memories and feelings would take over me and I couldn’t push them away enough to be back to my normal self. I am sure I wasn’t a pleasure to be around in those days. It just seemed as though everyone else was moving on, so why couldn’t I? I always thought, “What is wrong with me that I can’t get over this?”

Quite some time has passed since those days, and although it hasn’t been the smoothest journey, it has been one of much growth, especially in terms of understanding my emotions and feeling and those of others. What I have gained the most from this experience is the ability to have unwavering empathy for others and see the world through their perspective.

After my experience, I would often look at people who appeared upset or angry and wonder what was going on in their lives since I learned from myself that so much can be happening introspectively without anyone knowing. I became very aware of people’s body language and expression of their feelings and emotions, even to the slightest degree. I gained an automatic sensitivity to people who, to some came off as mean or bad people, because I considered what their journey could have been in their life for them to act that way. This quality has also affected how I interact with others in a great way. I feel as though this perspective taking and empathy is one of the most important qualities of any relationship because it allows me to understand how someone feels and thinks even if I don’t feel the same about the topic. It also allows me to connect with all sorts of people because I have such an appreciation for people’s different life experiences that have molded them into the person they are today.

This focus on understanding others seemed to come fairly easy, however what wasn’t so natural was having this awareness of my own emotions and feelings, particularly since my emotions felt highly uncontrollable for quite some time following the accident. At first, my awareness of my own emotions and feelings came after I was feeling them. A few days after a fight with a friend I would think of how I was too dramatic in the fight and that the fight probably only occurred because I wasn’t aware of the feelings that had been building up over time to cause the big blow. I would also just try to put my feelings aside, thinking that I could get by with just ignoring them or dealing with them later, which never worked since what was bothering me would just come back in my dreams or result in a larger problem down the road. With time and effort, I became much better at understanding my emotions and feelings in the moment and dealing with them then. Although I thought I was quite aware of others before, this new self-awareness increased the quality of my relationships, which was such an important piece to the puzzle that I had failed to recognize earlier.

These skills and qualities are central to my personal and professional life today. While I can probably cite more instances of this at this point in my life than you have time to read, I would like to share how this growth has connected me with, and is very important in, my passion of working with children with autism and their families. Writing this story has helped me realize that part of why I am so intrigued by these children is because I am fascinated by how they think and feel and what their perspective is on the world. Figuring this out is very difficult, especially since some of these children do not speak much, however this has also taught me that you don’t need words to connect with someone. One of my first clients with autism was a very cute and bright little 3-yr old. One very difficult morning filled with tantrums and biting, I got down on the floor and just observed him playing. He came over to me and looked into my eyes, smiled, and held the eye contact for quite some time. It was his own little way of connecting and telling me that he trusts me. It said so much without a single word.

Managing my emotions and feelings in the moment is also key in this work because it can be highly frustrating when a child is tantruming for 30 minutes and you need to ignore the behavior in order to not reinforce it or when a child is biting or pinching you and it is very painful. At these times, I always stop and think what they must be going through inside. It allows me to never be angry with them and to be the calmest person in the room and think clearly in the midst of havoc.

My relationships with the parents with whom I work is another area where perspective taking and empathy make a meaningful difference. These parents generally have their lives turned upside down when their child is diagnosed with autism. I am sure that I will never fully understand what they are experiencing but my constant willingness to try helps to nurture my relationship with them and, therefore, allows me to make a more significant impact on the family as a whole.

Well, I have taken you through my journey from trauma to growth. Looking back, I wouldn’t ask for my life to have been any different. While my quest has been very challenging and painful at times, I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I chosen the way to the mall that avoided the mountain road that summer day. It has taken me many years to have this perspective on things, and it is still an ongoing challenge with every loss I experience. However, realizing and focusing on my growth always comforts me and allows me to see that I have come so far and plan to continue to grow myself and to Hold the Door for Others to do the same.