I was jerked awake by the swerving of the car as it raced towards the median. I remember the sound of hands, my aunt’s hands; she pounded the steering wheel trying to make it stop spinning, make the car stop moving. I screamed, we all screamed. I sucked my teeth, said this isn’t happening, can’t be happening. Silence right before impact, the screams of metal and voices vacuumed out of the car; so quiet only heartbeats remained.
The vehicle rolled approximately three times, the first roll was a barrel roll, driver’s side leading, after striking a fixed object.
I woke with the belief that my skin was made of ice, a chill, a chatter deep inside my bones. Grit in my mouth. I spit the grit, pieces of my teeth in my hand and I wanted to be on a warm beach holding a handful of sand.I woke with the belief that my skin was made of ice, a chill, a chatter deep inside my bones. Grit in my mouth. I spit the grit, pieces of my teeth in my hand and I wanted to be on a warm beach holding a handful of sand. I wanted to let the wind take the sand from my hand and be left with tiny white slivers of seashells. There was a lot of blood, my blood, and there was a woman’s voice. When I stared at the blood soaking the tissue or towel or blanket she told me to press the something to my face to stop the bleeding. I thought I was going to die a virgin. It was cold and dark though it was morning. Someone cocooned me in blankets. The only light I saw was when I looked up. My mother screamed. Helicopter blades sliced open the sky. The man in the helicopter had warm eyes and he was on the beach with me and we held flecks of shells in our hands. It was so easy to speak to him through my eyes, to be intimate with a stranger when I thought I might die. He tried to start an IV and the needle hurt. I was bleeding from my face, spitting out teeth, and my body was numb, yet the needle hurt.
11/29/97 treated for SHOCK/TRAUMA
This will sting a little, the doctor said. Needles into the gashes to numb. He pieced my face back together. A stitch, a stitch, another stitch. A radio was on in the background. My brain sometimes adds details to the story that weren’t there that day, like the song on the radio was Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” for Princess Diana. She died in a car crash on August 31, 1997. In this created memory I say to myself, at least I can be sewn back together.
This will sting a little.
There’s a part of the brain that controls fear called the amygdala. It is almond shaped. My amygdala has a super power. It transforms every car I ride in into a gray Mercury Sable GS with 82,876 miles on it. It sends me back to the New Jersey Turnpike on November 29, 1997. I get to be 19 again and again. My amygdala rewired my body; my right leg now directly connected to fear. Whenever I’m a passenger in a car my leg pounds the floor in search of a brake. Sometimes I have to hold my thigh to calm my leg. I don’t have the power to turn this off. The motion is like a breath, like a heartbeat. I don’t know how to make my stomach feel like it is not being jerked, like it is not heading towards a median, like it is not flipping over three times across the highway after striking a fixed object. I don’t know how to make my brain shut up.
When in cars I talk to my amygdala.
I hush it. (but the vehicle rolled three times)
I rock it. (but the first roll was a barrel roll)
I tell it (but it struck a fixed object)
to be okay.
(But I can’t forget)
The first time I saw my face in the mirror, I thought, “Frankenstein made a new monster.” A line of stitches, from the right side of my mouth and down across my neck. These new mouths sewn tightly shut but they mumbled so loud.
This will sting a little. Pink skin bubbled out of my scar like lava, forming a new tough skin. A pink protrusion. When the bubbling stopped, I looked in the mirror and saw someone that was not the real me, an evil twin. How would people know this wasn’t the real me?
On physical examination, there are two very distinct and two very minor scars of the right side of the face. The distinct areas are at the lower facial border at the angle of the mandible and on the left upper neck. The larger of the scars is 4.5 x 1 cm in size, this crosses the mandibular angle. The prominent scar of the left neck is 4 x 1.2 cm.
Prominent. A few synonyms: protruding or sticking out or
keloid. Defined as irregular or abnormal scar tissue. Also defined as when your body becomes wet pavement after the rain and a slimy and thick pink or brown earthworm crawls across your skin and settles in, this spot is comfortable. Or you are a tree and your body grows berries, skin fruit that hangs at the site of your ear piercing or your belly piercing or your acne scars. You, with your irregular and abnormal skin fruit for all to see, bulging.
This will sting a little. I covered my mirrors, borrowing something I learned from Jewish friends, sitting shiva for my former self. Here lies a pretty 19-year-old girl. Who will ever love her?
I got lost inside the sting; I couldn’t escape its grasp. I was too afraid to tell my friends and family how I was feeling. I let them see a stronger version of me, window dressing to hide the pain that ate me from the inside out.And the sting kept stinging. Not a little. It held venom that paralyzed me. It was hard to get out of bed. I managed to go through the motions for college classes but my average dropped because sometimes I felt like the cracks in my face had been super glued back together, another fall would destroy me. I raged. I wrote pages of stinging words: I’m a monster and no man will ever want me. I got lost inside the sting; I couldn’t escape its grasp. I was too afraid to tell my friends and family how I was feeling. I let them see a stronger version of me, window dressing to hide the pain that ate me from the inside out.
There, in the mirror, is a gray car that flipped three times. There, in the mirror is the bloody face and broken body and all the things I remember and all the things I don’t. There, are the things beyond my control. I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face and sometimes the accident is there. Good morning, car accident. How are you today?
How many people will be in car accidents today? I don’t know, but every time a person is killed in a car crash in the U.S. their body is marked on a list of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. In 2013, 32,719 people died in car accidents. That’s 89 people dead a day. They’re probably still counting the bodies from 2014.
Raise your hand if you’ve been in a car accident. Raise your hand if you were nervous or terrified about getting back into a car after that accident. Raise your hand if your heart beats fast just thinking about getting into a car. Raise your hand if you never drive. Raise your hand if you are a prisoner of that road or street or stretch of highway. Are they counting our hands? I wish I could see your hands. I wish I could calm your legs when you press those imaginary brakes. You are my people. Are you scared? Are you scarred? How do you cope? Is it meds? Is it meditation? Do people tell you that you should get over it already? Sing this song to the get over it people:
scar tissue that I wish you saw
sarcastic mister know-it-all…
with the bird I’ll share this lonely view.
42,013 died in car accidents in 1997. 115 people in the U.S. probably died on November 29, 1997. I was not one of them.
I was not one of them. Not anymore, not normal. I didn’t want the normals to look at me because they would see my scar, two very distinct and two very minor scars of the right side of the face. All the normal people who knew me, their eyes changed. I saw sorry, I’m so sorry in their eyes. I saw them remembering the old me. (This lonely view.) With them I tried to wear the I’m still the same person hat. I wore real hats. I wore my hair combed in my face. I wore a scarf to cover my neck and mouth when I went outside. Don’t look at me, my eyes pleaded, don’t look at the very distinct bull’s eye on my face.
I wasn’t prepared for how much words from strangers would sting.
You’re pretty, still, he said.
to practice stillness:
I held my breath
bent my body
in a whisper at the joints
folded in half, in fourths,
in eighths until
I could barely be seen,
She must’ve thought she was cute and some girl cut her face, the girl said.
My mother used to tell a story about how when I was a child, I stared at myself in the mirror, caressed my cheek, and said, pretty, pretty, pretty over and over again. Vanity was in my blood, had been building up energy beneath my skin, released by a quake. My fault, line.
Scarface, he said.
Scarface, another he said.
This will sting, another doctor told me a couple years later, it will hurt. She had a needle to my face. Steroid injections to force the pretty back into me. She kept stinging the needle into me for the pretty to penetrate fully. My scar was tough, it fought against disappearance. She gave me a gel to rub into it every day. She said it would begin to shrink. I imagined my scar as the Wicked Witch of the West crying out, I’m melting, I’m melting.
Pretty, still. Pretty is camouflage make-up. The woman with the small but expensive jar of thick brown paste taught me how to apply and blend, blend, blend. Pink shiny skin became brown.Pretty, still. Pretty is camouflage make-up. The woman with the small but expensive jar of thick brown paste taught me how to apply and blend, blend, blend. Pink shiny skin became brown. See how it makes the skin all the same color? I practiced blending in every morning even though the girl in the mirror still looked the same.
You’d be pretty if you got that fixed.
She said this to me. She, a customer at the Gap, where I worked as a seasonal employee during the holiday rush. She walked up to me while I folded sweaters. She wore her Sunday’s best skirt and stockings. She was probably someone’s grandmother. She pointed at the poster above my head. The poster with perfect models in perfect jeans. She said, You could be up there, you know? She smiled.
My carefully constructed world—
head cocked slightly
to the right, as if
in constant admiration
of an abstract painting
—collapsed like a stack of jeans. If you got that fixed.
Based upon a review of all available medical information submitted for review, we are unable to authorize your recent referral request for keloid scar surgery because the surgery is deemed cosmetic in nature.
Erica Kane was the Founder and CEO of Enchantment Cosmetics on All My Children, which used to be my favorite soap opera. One night Erica and David were driving back to Pine Valley from New York City. There was a blizzard, David lost control of the car and they got into an accident. Erica, a former model, was left with a horrible scar on her cheek. She had a breakdown and went crazy because her face and life were ruined. She felt like a monster; she wore a half mask on her face. She kept David locked in her basement because he caused the car accident but they fell in love and went to Brazil where an expert plastic surgeon restored her beauty.
You’ve given me back my life, Erica told the doctor. Flawless face and a guy who loved her.
I met a guy in a bar and he didn’t notice my scar until the third date. Or he acted like he didn’t notice until the third date. I was disappointed because it meant he wasn’t really looking at me.
I dated a guy who sat across the table and talked to my scar the entire evening. My eyes are up here, buddy.
I dated a guy who was much shorter than me or was this or that in some way wrong and struggled with myself: What right do you have being so picky? Why are you so shallow? You’re lucky to have a date.
I dated a guy dated a guy picked up a guy flirted with a guy chatted with a guy e-mailed a guy slept with a guy and a guy and a guy. I built a list of people who thought I was pretty. Not pretty if, pretty still.
I built a list of At Least I’m Nots.
At least I’m not dead.
At least I’m not burned over a large percentage of my body.
At least the skin on my face hasn’t melted.
At least I’m not paralyzed.
At least I didn’t lose an arm or a leg.
At least all of my organs work.
Every morning I ran through that list of at least I’m nots. Repeated it like a mantra.
At noon my At Least I’m Nots list became my I’m Such a Horrible Person list. This list must be yelled. HOW COULD YOU USE OTHER PEOPLE’S PAIN TO MAKE YOURSELF FEEL BETTER? YOU DON’T HAVE A RIGHT TO FEEL AS BAD AS YOU DO BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT PARALYZED OR MISSING LIMBS OR MISSING A FACE! YOU’RE FUCKING STILL ABLE TO WALK! YOUR LIFE ISN’T OVER.
Rollovers have the highest fatalities of any other type of car crash.
My car crash was a rollover.
My life wasn’t over.
Welcome to the Trauma Olympics. A constant competition inside my head. You haven’t even placed for a medal in this game, get over it.
There was no seismic shift, no magic pill or spell, no trip to Rio. There were years. Brutal years of mirror, mirror on the wall.
One night my friends and I watched the Disney movie Mulan. When Mulan sang
Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?
I cried. I hid the tears from my friends, embarrassed to identify with a cartoon character’s ballad. I was tired of fooling myself. I was tired of scrubbing the collars of my shirts to get camouflage make-up stains out. I was tired of combing my hair towards my face to cover part of my scar. I was tired of letting my reflection run/ruin my life.
I built a Get Better list:
I meditated. I went to a counselor. I watched Saturday Night Live. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. I forced myself into the mirror to learn all the ridges of my scars, to become that little girl in the mirror who would stare at herself and say, pretty, pretty, pretty. (please get better)
Dear Tina Fey,
There you were on the news. Okay, it was the Weekend Update fake news on Saturday Night Live, but you were on TV with your face, with your scar. With your scarred face on national television under bright lights. Unhidden, unquiet. Not still. I wanted to be your SS4L (scarred sister for life).
I got tattoos because I wanted to reclaim my body as my own, to mark my body as present. Fuck you, car accident. I can mark my body, too.I got tattoos because I wanted to reclaim my body as my own, to mark my body as present. Fuck you, car accident. I can mark my body, too. A phoenix rising from the ashes. A chrysanthemum for a long and healthy life. A symbol for controlling one’s destiny. This will sting a little. I didn’t mind the pain. The sting stung less each time. The loss of who I thought I would be, of what I thought I would look like became smaller, bearable. In those needles was taking back my body. No, look here.
My body is only made up of about two percent scarred skin.
My face is a mama’s face to my daughter. She holds my face and says Mommy, you’re pretty. My husband has only known me with this face. My co-workers have only known me with this face. I have many friends who know me only with this face. It is a good face. Next year will be half a life with this particular face. Half time: the before accident and after accident time periods of my life will be the same age, 19-years-old. Almost nineteen years and it’s no longer shocking to see my scar in pictures. Almost nineteen years and sometimes my brain plays tricks on me, I see my scar in photos of my face 30-odd years ago and that feels okay. This is my face.
This is my face, but how does one get over trauma that leaves a mark? I’ve had 18 years to get used to the reflection in the mirror, and even though most of my brain now sees beauty, my eyes will continue to send the image of my face to my amygdala, my amygdala sees a car accident.
There’s always my wound, this war:
Hush, fear. (but the vehicle rolled three times)
Let me hold you, fear. (but the first roll was a barrel roll)
Breathe, everything (but it struck a fixed object)
will be okay.
* * *
This piece originally appeared at The Manifest-Station in July 2015 and was named notable in The Best American Essays 2016.