My VW GTI Crash Rattled My Mental Health More Than Expected
Mental health after a crash is just as important as the physical.
It was the most sickening thing I’d ever experienced. Fully aware of what was happening, I remember how I dived for my brake pedal, felt the feedback of the anti-lock brakes, and processed the Hyundai Veloster that was now quickly filling my windshield. I crashed my GTI. I have become that guy who rear-ended someone. Worse yet, I was at the end of an extremely shitty train with someone making a sudden U-turn at the front and a panic brake in the middle. I was the caboose and I was mostly along for the ride.
I remember the desperation in my voice, the slowness of the action. This crash was the first time I ever felt the time dilation of my mind, like I was drunk on adrenaline. I remember myself saying “no” a few times before impact, an anguished request for respite from what was about to happen. Suddenly, I was in a crash, rear-ending the panic stopped Hyundai in front of me.
Then my ears rang. My left forearm stung. I smelled the chemical stench of the airbag igniter. The view through my windshield was suddenly all-hood, bent up by the car I’d just collided with. My first conscious reaction was to yell “fuck” a few times as I realized that what happened was indeed real and that I had not slipped back into sleep in my bed 30 miles away. I had to get out and check that everyone was OK.
It couldn’t be real, but it was. My left arm was bizarrely cut and quickly swelling. I realized that my watch caught on the steering wheel when my hand slipped at the moment of impact. The other fellow, in the Veloster, seemed to be in better shape than me. We were lucky enough to experience this unfortunate occurrence in front of a fire station, so we were treated quickly and cleared the road without much drama. I was only glad that I didn’t cause serious harm to another person.
Though I did do a lot of harm to my car. A month later, I realized that my mind was suffering too.
I didn’t go to the hospital directly after my crash; I decided to monitor myself over the next day. I’m not fond of hospitals and with the pandemic, I didn’t want to take a risk. Physically, the adrenaline drained from me in peace, revealing no aches or pains beyond my obviously scraped forearm. My head did not actually get anywhere near the airbag and the impact itself was relatively moderate so I didn’t worry much at the scene. Even a month later I’ve had no strange reactions.
But in that same month, I noticed that I’d become more skittish and paranoid. I’d been reacting to things on the road that I would normally maneuver around calmly and I’m more scared of other drivers than ever. Not only that, I’d been feeling myself react the same way at home and just walking around. I got startled wrenching as something benignly creaked or groaned. I even started feeling somewhat anxious and observed late at night repairing my E46 ZHP. My mind was translating random human-shaped piles of objects as actual people sometimes and it scared the shit out of me. It’s a bizarre effect and it’s gotten to the point where I have to pause what I’m doing and tell myself to get my head on straight and stop looking over my shoulder. “It was just a crash.”, I lied to myself.
It doesn’t help when I go to my backyard and see the wrecked mess of Six Iron, my beloved and crashed 2010 Volkswagen GTI. It honestly brings me to tears if I look at it long enough. This machine has brought me so much joy, so much knowledge, and to so many places and this is how I repay it?
I grapple with the crash because I feel that it wasn’t just operator error — I feel like I did everything that I could in the moment. I saw it happen, reacted, and just ran out of space. I still curse the person who decided to make an egregiously dangerous U-turn in front of the Veloster, which caused the guy in the Veloster to panic brake so suddenly. It has shown me that no matter how hard I focus, train, or otherwise practice alert and defensive driving, that I can still get stuck in a shitty accident that left me feeling the way I do now.
Even as I write now, this has been somewhat excruciating to recollect. I was driving down the canyon that same morning, marveling at how much I enjoyed driving that car. Now, I feel more lonely and depressed than I have in a long time. It’s been more days blasting Mac DeMarco than Tyler, The Creator, more days frustrated by how disappointing my ZHP is in the canyons, more days I fucking knock myself down for ruining a car that let me run free, and more money I’m spending on my second car that was never meant to be my everyday driver, money that I feel like I could have been saving if I hadn’t crashed.
I’ve been starting to think about getting professional help for what I’ve been feeling, and that is OK. I wonder how many more folks feel like this after a crash who don’t ever get the help they need. I certainly didn’t think that I would feel this way, nor would I have recognized it if some kind friends told me to look out for something like this. It isn’t constant and I can still function all of the time, it’s just small dips I feel every so often and days where I need to climb over it a little bit.
We all fuck up. It’s up to us to do the hard work of rebounding from those mistakes and do better. I certainly have adjusted my driving habits to avoid a situation like that whenever I can. Now, it’s time for me to focus on my mind and do some work to get out of this slump. If anyone else is struggling with this sort of thing, don’t hesitate to reach out. Most importantly, give yourself the room to breathe and take stock of yourself. I had to look around and realize how suffocated I felt by being forced to exchange the familiarity of my GTI for the unknown BMW and forced to reckon with my ego, mortality, and self-confidence.
Writing this piece has given me some relief. I’ve noticed that the worst of what I felt has left my day-to-day life. I still often have flashbacks to the moment of impact. Especially the feeling and realization that the mighty Stoptech brakes I installed on my car were not going to save me this time.
As for Six Iron — it will come back. A good inspection has shown me that the damage is superficial and it avoided bending any of the hard points of the front structure. I should be set after a couple of thousand dollars and some bolt-on genuine parts from Volkswagen. I’m hoping that repaying the debt to my treasured GTI will help ease my mind. I’m almost sure that once we’re driving in the Angeles Forest again, my worries will abate.
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