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My crash course: Fragile emotions need healing too

conor nolan The Globe and Mail

People always say their car accident just happened so quickly. When I left work that January afternoon, the snow had flurried into a pretty aggressive blizzard. I did not mind the snow, haling from the north shore of Lake Superior and the proud owner of a brand spanking new Subaru. Suddenly and without warning, as I like to say in my legal pleadings, headlights were shining in my driver's side window and I knew it was bad. Little Suzie Subuaru was sent into a lutz across the highway and landed solidly in the ditch. Poof – it was over.

I was in shock. After scanning my body for broken bones, I saw that the glass had shattered out of both driver's side windows. They were now magically cloaked with this air-inflated sheath of life-saving white linen. Holy Cow, I thought, side-impact airbags. Until then, side-impact airbags were something I'd only seen in commercials. I marvelled how this technology had probably saved my life.

Then reality kicked in. As the blizzard raged, people madly knocked on my window to see if I was responsive. I needed to be rescued and my husband was not answering my phone calls. I was wearing high heels and strangers were urging me to leave the sanctity of my car and somehow traverse metre-high snowdrifts. I had a lap full of glass and my shin was aching and bleeding. What on earth had just happened?

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I was eventually guided to the sanctity of a huge truck and two kind men helped call the police and the tow-truck drivers. The other driver had lost control in the snowstorm.

My husband eventually arrived, frantic and upset. When my car was relieved from the ditch I saw the magnitude of the damage: She was totalled.

The next few days were a foggy blur. I insisted on watching crash tests on YouTube to determine the mechanism of my crash. I didn't feel any immediate pain so I waited the weekend to see my chiropractor. He told me I had the mildest case of whiplash. The Internet had told me I would have stiffness and soreness right away but I didn't. I desperately needed my husband but pushed him away when he tried to soothe me. I went back to my law office with a profound appreciation for my own injured clients. I was depressed.

After two pain-free weeks, I dismissed any notion that I was physically injured. Time to snap out of it, I thought, and I hopped on the treadmill. I had no clue then that my back and neck muscles were completely inflamed, and the light jogging was just enough to transform my whiplash into something really terrible. The next morning I awoke feeling like battery acid had been poured all over my shoulders and back, and a terrible knife was lodged into my left shoulder. I dreaded mornings. My neck snapped, crackled and popped when off the pillow and my stomach filled with nausea.

Over the next two months, I became grumpy, angry and obsessed with talking about my crash. PTSD hit me and I would sob uncontrollably at the slightest mishap. I saw a lady fall off an escalator and I screamed along with her. When I drove, I was convinced that all oncoming traffic was veering at me. I spent hours each night soaking in Epsom salt baths, trying to visualize a healthy body. On one hand I was relieved: what my clients experience is real. And on the other hand, I could not shake my nagging doubt: What if, like them, I don't recover?

You see, I am a car accident lawyer and I have observed that the insurance regime for motor vehicle victims can be nightmarish. If you have a minor injury – whiplash 1 or 2 – you have to recover within 12 weeks because that's all the treatment your insurer is legislated to pay for. You can only sue if your injuries are "permanent and serious." As my pain endured, I became terrified that I was a candidate for chronic pain, would become addicted to opiates and a defence lawyer would make me cry at my trial by accusing me of faking it. Tough women can become vulnerable after they've been injured. I've seen this happen.

I obsessively reviewed the literature on whiplash and compared my progress to what I read. After three months, I became frustrated with my body, mindful that my insurance coverage was up and my body was still totally out of whack. Would I ever fully heal?

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One sunny spring day I had an idea. I drove to the crash site, and walked the ditch where my car had landed. I picked through the grass and cradled the remnants of my car in my arms – a driver's side-door handle, a hubcap, and several pieces of black plastic fender. In the Ojibway culture, we make an offering before we pray, so I laid out a giant bag of tobacco beneath an oak tree. I laid my hands on the tree and asked that all the lessons I was supposed to take from my crash could be learned by me, without the pain as a reminder. I declared to the tree that I was young and strong, and I was ready to heal finally and forever.

After my crash, I had to recognize that it was my emotional health that was so much more fragile than my physical health. My body would not heal until I let go of the trauma. It has been six months now. My back and my neck are not perfect, but they are better. I refuse to let this scare me.

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