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Lithium How a pandemic helped me heal from my PTSD

Nov. 26, 2020
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Here in Maryland, I regularly witness the sudden, sharp change of seasons. The earlier months of autumn offer a round, softer type of cold, but winter falls over my town like paralysis. Last December, however, the air was alive with something like hope: I was working toward my driver’s license.

But on one drizzly Monday on our way to school, I was involved in a car accident with two of my friends. The moments immediately following the crash are most clear in my memory: looking at the windshield and thinking that the raindrops were shattered glass, my jaw locked, bracing for pain. One friend started crying and the other tried to calm her down, but I was in complete shock—I hadn’t been involved in a crash like that before. After talking to the police, we made it to school only for my friends and I to burrow away in the library. I remember calling my parents and bursting into tears; it had all happened so fast. 

From then on, I was in a haze. I began opting to take the schoolbus, and every once in a while I would peek my head out the front window to confirm we were safe, still following the predicted path. My eyes would trace each road mark: yellow line after yellow line after yellow line. 

That Friday, I boarded the bus feeling unusually alert for seven in the morning. I had plans that night with friends, my reward after an especially awful week. But as the bus pulled into its final stop before school, I heard a thump. Confused, I swiveled my head until my eye caught something in the middle of the street. A boy was lying in the middle of the road, unmoving. The kids at the bus stop were distraught—screaming, crying. We stayed there for over an hour, watching with nervous eyes as paramedics wheeled him off into an ambulance. I watched his mother hear the news and crumple into herself with grief.

What was left of 2019 was difficult. I couldn’t stomach any time spent on the road. My hands would shake uncontrollably; my legs would bounce with anxiety. If the distance between my car and another became too close, my feet would press into the felt carpet of the floor as if I had access to an imaginary brake. The urge to mutter “stop” or “slow down” felt unbeatable. Without warning, my eyes would swell with tears. Among the development of these new tics, I wasn’t getting sleep. It keeps replaying and replaying in my head, I wrote in my journal following the second incident. Falling asleep feels like dying. 

When the new year arrived, I hadn’t gotten behind the wheel in weeks. I made excuses and pleaded with my parents to let me stay home. I became sheltered and detached, falling into a pattern of lying my way out of get-togethers just so I didn’t have to think about the commute there. Even worse, I grew into the habit of shutting my eyes while on the road, and usually confronted fear by stuffing my face into my sleeve or my hand. The winter was brutal and the urge to stay inside became more compelling. “It’s mild PTSD,” my therapist told me. “These things take time.”

Nonetheless, March arrived with the snap and ferocity of something venomous. I lost someone close to me and kept the same three Bob Dylan songs on repeat until I felt physically sick. I attended socially-distant bonfires and picnics. I set up a tent in my backyard, sitting on my lawn until the stars turned green and my throat felt like it had cracked open. I threw up for the first time in eleven years on my bedroom wall. I bought books just to let them collect dust on my closet shelves.

But it wasn’t until recently that I was able to reflect on the beginning of this year and realize just how necessary the arrival of the pandemic was for me. The chaos granted me the time I desperately needed to piece myself back together. Before quarantine, I had never needed to relearn anything that once came naturally to me. It wasn’t long before I recognized that the process would consist of baby steps, like any true rookie knows. 

Yes, the world felt like it was on fire—and to some degree, it very much still does. However, in those early months, life outside somehow morphed into the perfect climate for recovery. Though people were afraid of the unknown, I suddenly gained a new, strange freedom: I could take time for myself. I’d spent months caught in an exhausting cycle of school and all that it entailed. But before me laid an opportunity to unravel the threads of my trauma that had been tied in a tight knot for months—and so I took it. 

Reassessing how to sit in a car was strange and robotic, but I put all the faith I could muster into the process of healing. I began with neighborhood streets and slowly graduated to main roads. I tried parkways, which morphed into turnpikes. The world was amiss, yes, but I managed to scrape up the parts of me which had splintered and began to heal.  

I can’t say that I’ve fully recovered from my trauma. Every once in a while when I’m driving, an old tic slips from my mouth before I can stop myself and I find myself apologizing, often flushing with shame. I haven’t driven independently on the exit to the highway since last December because it’s the same one that my friend’s car merged off of before we collided with another vehicle. But when I feel myself reverting back to past patterns, I remind myself of how I once genuinely thought I would never be able to sit in a car again. It’s the strangest type of gratification—to think you will never change and then to look back and realize that you did

I got my driver’s license seven months after those accidents on a hot, drowsy day in late July. I was sunburnt, freckled beyond repair, and my mask was looped tightly around my ears. When I think back to that moment, I realize how much we didn’t know of what was to come next. It took life literally coming to a screeching halt for me to grow back into myself, and that’s okay.

Illustration by Monika Aichele for The New York Times