WORDS BY: NICK MCNAMARA
PHOTOS BY: WILLIAM ODIS MARTIN
We sat together in the brisk winter wind outside her parents’ Santa Clarita home as I struggled to ask a question to which I already knew the answer – “Am I different?” My girlfriend of seven years, Lauren, paused a few moments as my question floated in the air. She hadn’t seen me since the summer, when my concussion symptoms and trauma were at their worst. Still, despite the time that had passed, my experiences had left an indelible mark. She told me what I knew, that I was not the man I was on April 3, 2016.
Now, a few months later, I’m marking the one-year anniversary of my motorcycle collision, and the whole event still feels surreal, like something I dreamed rather than experienced. I managed to escape with no major injuries to my body. But I suffered a concussion and struggled with anxiety and PTSD for months.
Looking back, I realize that I never understood just how debilitating brain injuries and mental illness could be from the outside. How could I? You never really know the extent of the power your emotions have over you until you can’t control them any longer. And my lack of control, my reaction to my trauma, was what began breaking me down.
That winter night, though, Lauren said something that had not crossed my mind and made me look at things in a new light – different doesn’t always mean worse. Even though I had changed, she told me she still saw me beneath all the anxiety. The changes in my personality happened so suddenly that I began to feel like I was losing myself, but with this conversation, I realized that if I didn’t stop fighting these feelings, I wouldn’t be able to move forward.
There is no more sickening feeling in life than seeing your immediate fate and knowing there is nothing you can do to stop it. It sticks with you. It changes you deep down inside like no other experience can.
I had ridden motorcycles as my primary mode of transportation for more than a year at this point. I took a training course sponsored by the California Highway Patrol to prepare myself for the perils of riding back before I even sat on my Honda Shadow Sabre. I had seen my fair share of danger in my 13,000 miles of saddle time since January 2015. Cars had merged into my lane on the 101 Freeway, an SUV bumped into me while I was driving down Seventh Street in Long Beach, and a tractor made a sudden turn in front of me on Mulholland Highway. I managed to avoid it all.
I knew the machine’s tendencies and limitations like the back of my hand, but I never let myself get too comfortable, remembering the mantra that every older biker seems to know about all riders having a “cager” out there with their number. Still, I felt that I could use my experience and training to get myself out of any predicament. I was wrong.
Death came to me in the form of a white work van and forced me to look it in the eye on the morning of April 4, 2016. The previous week was spring break for Long Beach State students, one that I spent visiting Lauren in Massachusetts. It seemed like a typical Monday morning. I woke up a bit late, probably out of a subconscious reluctance to return to class.
Even so, I wasn’t in a rush. I decided to skip my usual leather riding gloves since it seemed like such a nice day. I set out from my place in downtown and made my way onto Seventh Street, the same route I’d taken to campus every day for eight months. Traffic was fairly typical for 9 a.m., until I reached Ximeno Avenue, where it came to a standstill. Eventually, I saw the reason – a car had flipped on its roof just before Park Avenue. The foreshadowing has not been lost on me.
I was already 10 minutes late to class by the time I decided to turn back and find another route. I made a quick U-turn out of traffic and began heading back the way I came. I had to avoid two cars making the same maneuver, and when I finally came to a stop at the Ximeno intersection, my nerves were jangled. Little did I know this would be the last willing stop I’d ever make on my Honda.
When the light turned green, I accelerated off the line and climbed the hill toward Termino Avenue. Termino, meaning conclusion in Spanish, was also the conclusion of my path that day and where I met my fate.
I was traveling roughly 40 to 45 miles per hour and was just about to enter the intersection when a full-size, windowless white work van began to make a left turn just past the intersection. He had turned over the double yellow line instead of waiting to turn at the light as the law states. I don’t know whether the van’s driver saw me and thought he’d make it. I just knew I had a little more than 100 feet to come to a full stop. My training and experience took over, and I instantly began downshifting and braking as hard as was safe.
Everything began to slow down as my adrenaline kicked in. I was decelerating at a high pace, which I noticed as I kept glancing down to see my odometer. Forty miles per hour. I was sure I could stop. Thirty miles per hour. There’s no way I could be in a wreck. Twenty miles per hour. I’m going to get out of this.
Then in the brief moments I had left, time stretched and slowed down in my mind. I can remember the emotions like yesterday. Reality kicked in: I was not going to stop, and there was nothing I could do about it. In that moment, I was sure I would die.
That dread was the last feeling I remember before I collided with the side of the van. It sticks with me to this day. I couldn’t tell you for sure what happened to my body, though based on my injuries, I’ve pieced together a theory. As my bike slammed into the middle of his passenger side, I must have flown from my saddle head first into the van. My handlebars acted as a less-than-adequate seatbelt, restraining me by the biceps and keeping me from snapping my neck on impact. I must have looked like Wile E. Coyote.
The next thing I remember was the blue lights washing over my vision. I felt myself land on the ground, falling flat on the right side of my hip. I must have been unconscious for a moment, but I was awake again relatively quickly, adrenaline and rage replacing my pain. I began to scream at the driver, though I couldn’t tell you what I said to him anymore. I remember feeling bad about this afterward and even apologizing to him.
Before long bystanders came to my side to calm me down, asking if I was all right; that was when the pain set in. My head hurt from the blunt trauma; my neck and shoulders ached due to the way I launched at the van; my arms had a shooting pain running down them starting where they met my torso. My biceps were cut up, as well; my hands had been cut, victims of my decision to go gloveless; my lip had been sliced open by the plastic of my helmet. I felt as though I had been choked out because my helmet strap had throttled me as it jerked around in the collision.
I was terrified I had a brain bleed or had punctured some vital organ and was dying. Someone asked me if I wanted an ambulance to come, and all I could say was “I don’t know.” The bystanders sat me down and called the paramedics. The manager of the Sherwin Williams paint store adjacent to the scene of the accident brought me a plastic cup of water as I waited for the ambulance.
Somehow, nothing was broken. The van’s driver was ticketed pretty much immediately for crossing the double yellow, and I was evaluated by paramedics. They assured me I was not dying – probably due to my frantic questions on the subject – and asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. They told me it was up to me. I feared the high costs of their services and declined, deciding I’d find a way to a doctor myself.
Afraid, away from family and in a daze, I was unsure how to proceed. I had never been in a situation like this. Later, I received a $250 bill from the City of Long Beach regardless of my decision to forgo an ambulance ride. I asked the LBPD officers who arrived on scene for a ride home, but they told me my house was out of their jurisdiction. I was on my own.
The first week post-accident wasn’t so bad. The doctors at the Student Health Center were pretty quick to diagnose me with a concussion after hearing my story, running me through a few tests and noticing my lack of coordination. Though typically associated with athletes, traffic collisions are the leading cause of concussion-related hospitalization among people aged 15 to 44 and death among people aged 5 to 24, according to the Center for Disease Control. And yeah, I hurt, but I can deal with physical pain. It was a reminder of how much worse things could have been.
But that first weekend, which I spent alone, I started to notice that I felt indescribably different. That Friday I began to feel anxious all the time. The type of anxiety that turns your stomach to a knot of steel cable that no amount of breathing or distraction can lessen. By Sunday, my anxiety was joined by a crushing depression. I didn’t leave my bed most of that day. I had no desire to do anything besides lie there by myself. I cried regularly.
I’ve always been shy, but this was all new. I found fear in approaching tasks I used to jump at. Things I used to enjoy no longer had the same luster. I became less and less certain of my future and sometimes I would find it hard to recognize myself in old photographs. Many of these feelings persist to this day.
Mostly out of fear for my grades, I attempted to return to class that Monday. I had to take the bus, the first time I had taken public transit in Long Beach. Learning the routes was difficult for me as my memory was spotty at best due to the concussion. I regularly took the wrong bus and got stranded in odd parts of town, forced to spend my limited funds on Uber or Lyft to get home.
On top of my difficulty with figuring out how to get where I wanted to go, I continued to struggle with anxiety. Being around people was absolutely terrifying. I was paranoid and distrustful of others, and I didn’t know why. When I got to campus that Monday, the crowds and stress sent me into a panic attack. Again, I cried. I was a wreck and couldn’t handle being back on campus. I had to call my girlfriend to calm myself, but I wasn’t truly calm until I made it back home. I didn’t return to class that week.
I felt like I was stuck in motorcycle mode, a state of hyper-awareness of my surroundings. I was walking defensively everywhere I went. Small tasks became hugely stressful and seemed insurmountable. People walking past me put me on edge, people passing me on the right sent chills down my spine, and people walking too closely behind me made me want to yell at them to get away. I was afraid of my emotions and shocked by my reactions to small annoyances.
I faced misunderstanding on many fronts regarding my injuries. Some told me I need to will myself out of my anxiety, that it was all in my head. My mood swings were perceived as intentional by some, which they took personally and responded to with scorn. Comments I couldn’t even remember making were held over my head. I was even threatened walking down the sidewalk near the Veterans Affairs Hospital for some perceived slight I unintentionally made to a stranger.
What affected me worst of all was absence. My girlfriend was on the other side of the country. My family did not come down to see me, and I felt too conflicted to ask as they were preparing to move. People made plans with me to visit, call or video chat with me and didn’t follow through. All of it hurt me in ways I couldn’t or wouldn’t express out of my fear of over-reacting. As much as I was hurting, physically or emotionally, I didn’t want to make my loved ones upset. I felt it would be easier to suffer through it alone than put hardship on them. I was hurting already. What would a little more hurt do, right?
Eventually, I was referred to Counseling and Psychiatric Services on campus. Different doctors told me different things. One doctor said she was concerned that I might have post-traumatic stress disorder, and another mentioned something called acute anxiety disorder. I knew anxiety disorders and PTSD could be the result of a multitude of causes, but my mind still linked the idea to military combat. It wasn’t until I was thrust into the experience myself that I began to learn that it isn’t as out of the ordinary as I first thought.
Anyhow, it’s all sort of spotty now, and it made no difference to me at the time. The specific name of my affliction was not important; what I wanted more than anything was to make it all stop.
My initial experience at CAPS was helpful. But I was still stuck in the mindset that I had to fight to reclaim who I used to be instead of coming to terms with who I am. My mind regularly went to dark places in those early weeks that I kept to myself. I didn’t want to worry anyone over something they couldn’t change.
The concussion symptoms decreased and the bouts of intense emotional distress became less frequent as time went on, but they never fully went away. The stress and anxiety always persisted under the surface, along with the physical pain, and it was all I thought about.
Even as I started to improve, it was easier to simply hide from everyone and everything, to hold onto a time before my life was turned on its head. I wanted to be myself again, not what I thought my illness was turning me into. I wanted my confidence back, I wanted my memory back, I wanted to feel “normal” again. But fighting, running and hiding from the reality of the trauma I’d been through kept me from understanding that we are the product of ALL of our experiences. And there is no going back.
That winter conversation with Lauren gave me a clarity into my own mind that months of self-reflection could not give me. It was only then that I knew I had to navigate through my feelings and could no longer avoid them, as hard as it was.
We can’t run from change, sudden or gradual. It is the only constant in life, and the only way to cope with it is to push through and move forward. Living with a mental illness can make dealing with change even more daunting.
I won’t pretend I’m fully healthy – I still have plenty of bad days and bad habits. There is no universal method to getting over trauma or coping with mental illness, but I’m trying not to hide from the change any longer. It wasn't until I accepted the reality of it that I found the path that led me over the hump. Sometimes the road may get too bright, but in the meantime, I'll be facing the sun on the new horizons of my life.