Yesterday, l almost hit another car in what would have been a head-on collision while coming down the hill from Half Moon Bay. The other guy had lost control on a curve and was fishtailing back and forth between my lane and his. We were both going about 65 miles per hour. As he swung into my lane, I could tell that his oscillation would quickly reverse itself and that he would swing back in the other direction. In that split second, I had to determine whether to steer right or left. I decided to turn right. We passed each other with barely eight feet between us, which at that speed was very close. In the rearview mirror, I could see him slowly recover and gradually make it back into his own lane.
Then, all of a sudden, I was driving into a wall of dust. Apparently, the other driver had veered into the gravel median as he came around the turn and had lost control. He must have gone through the dirt sideways, because there was quite a cloud kicked up. Then I saw a minivan parked in the median just passed the dust cloud. I pulled up behind him to find out if it had been hit. As I walked up to it, I could see that the driver’s door was open, and a guy was sitting there hyperventilating with his hand to his chest. I asked him if he was alright. He told me that the other car had missed him by only a foot. Then he told me that his little girl was in the back seat. I looked, and there she was perched in her carseat, face ashen, her eyes staring at me in shock. I said, “Hi, sweetie, are you okay? That was pretty scary, huh? But, you’re okay, right? Nothing happened, did it.”
I turned my attention back to the driver and again tried to assess his condition. He was definitely out of breath, but he wasn’t having a heart attack. I told him that he should get out of the median and pull off the road onto the shoulder, so he could catch his breath and settle down. But, he said, “No, I’m okay—I’m okay now.” He thanked me and shut his door, making it clear that he was leaving. I said, “Take it easy,” and I walked back to my car. I checked over my shoulder for any traffic coming up behind me and pulled back onto the road and headed for home. His words kept repeating in my head: “My little girl’s in the back seat.”
As I thought about what had just happened, I could see that his distress was not caused by almost being in a head-on collision. It was the thought that his little girl could have been killed. His shock, the hyperventilation, his shaking hands were not because of what had just happened, but because of what might have happened. His mind was raging with visions of tragic outcomes—his and her likely death, his wife’s devastation at hearing the news, the lost future for him and his family. All of these ideas were sweeping over him as though they were realities and not simply what-ifs, and they were drowning him.
The near-miss hadn’t affected me at all, neither during nor after. Growing up, I raced sports cars and was in several crashes and numerous close calls. I more or less knew what to do when I saw the other car coming right at me. But, I also knew what to expect from my own mind, how it would try to pull me into the same dark hole of what might have happened, just as the young dad’s mind was doing to him. Over the years, I have trained myself to keep that from happening. I immediately began to go over the scenario step by step, recounting not what might have happened, but what actually did happen. I visualized the path the other car had taken as the driver struggled to regain control, how it had come across the median and veered into my lane. I could see the back end of his vehicle swing around, leaving skid marks on the pavement and throwing his car in the other direction, and how I could tell that very quickly he would be coming right at me again. I recalled my own trajectory as I adjusted my speed and my angle to compensate for his, and making the decision to go right and not left. I could see him fly past me, missing me by just a few feet. All of these details replayed in my mind. And, as they did, they cut a deep groove in my consciousness that said I was okay and not dead or injured.
I am blessed with a vivid imagination—I can see, hear, feel, and taste just about anything I care to dream up. But, it can also be a curse, if I let it run wild with awful things that might have happened. Whenever I see it start to go down that path, I engage the good ‘ole frontal cortex and force myself to analyze what actually took place. I think about how it happened and the reasons behind why it happened. In this way, I have managed to avoid a great deal of post-traumatic stress in my life. Because, as it turns out, the subconscious mind cannot distinguish between real events and imaginary ones. It sees them both the same. All that Young Dad could see was the tragedy that might have been, which when added to the adrenaline rush he experienced will likely make him a mental wreck for the next couple of weeks. His mind will be stuck in an alternate universe that does not exist, until (perhaps) the demands of daily life wrestle his awareness back to the present moment.
Sometimes I wonder how much we live our lives in the what-ifs, and if we are all, as a result of doing that, in varying degrees of PTSD. After all, from the time we are born, life is a series of near-misses, occasionally punctuated by minor and major collisions. Our minds seem to be hardwired to mess us up in the process, wildly fishtailing from one imaginary extreme to another, never simply focused on what’s actually going on. Instead of raising a glass to having made it through yet another day, we huddle under the storm clouds of our worries, our dashed hopes and shattered dreams, and our fictitious fates. I say screw all that. It’s just so wonderful to be ALIVE, to be alright right now. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, that’s what.