For two days afterwards, I picked pieces of glass- not shards, since safety glass seems to shatter into confetti- out of my hair. My phone case was smudged with black that came up iron red when rubbed: blood. And I couldn’t remember anything.
Trauma – the universality of a horrible experience in which a person is no longer able to control what happens around them, resulting in gross bodily or mental harm. I lost two hours- a crash occurred around 5:30pm, and when I regained full consciousness a few hours later, I was lying on a gurney in a neck brace that cut into the back of my skull. I could strain to recall a few moments of consciousness in the ambulance, racked with fear as I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t remember how I got there, panicked, wondering if I had been drinking? Was that why I couldn’t remember what day or time it was, what had happened to me, why I was blinking at the bright light coming in through the window? And a few hours later, closing my eyes to block claustrophobia caused by the whirring CT scan machine that encased me in a tube, I could flash back to moments lying on the lightening hot asphalt of a northern California freeway in high summer, my forearms burning where the jacket that protected me from the pavement had slipped.
I’d never experienced it before: the trauma of hours erased, later tempered by a gnawing fear that I would remember, that I would relive the moment of impact and fire and being trapped in my vehicle. Moments earlier, slowing to a stop for traffic and peering ahead to see why it has slowed so dramatically. Then being smashed from the rear by a gas tanker trawler – this is what they tell me and the newspaper reported. And that is a constant fear- that seeing my car, a burned, gutted hulk of metal and glass- or hearing about the details, meeting the man who saved my life, all of these things might trigger me back to the experience. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking, I couldn’t think.
That is trauma. Trauma trumps all other moments of fear or paranoia that I’ve experienced. Trauma overtakes your identity- impacting both the way that others perceive you and your own sense of self. I was no longer the woman who had spent ten months in Africa, but now the crash survivor that everyone could view online, my car on the front page of my local paper, engulfed in a haze of orange flames. Conversations with acquaintances who hadn’t seen me in a year would veer in this direction: the drama of the event, and rarely move back toward the achievements of that past year that make me proud, passionate, self-assured. Trauma redefines.
I wasn’t travelling – I was at home in a geographic sense, but a foreign state of mind: out of control. Travelling both horrifies and appeals to me for its lack of control: being forced from one’s comfort zone to confront the new and challenging. Being in a new environment is an exercise in this freedom, perhaps especially challenging for we Americans who are so accustomed to controlling our environments. Spending a summer back in the US after ten months in the developing world, I expected that control- and the comfort I glean from it. Controlling our climate (indoors at least), our time, knowing how long something will take (microwaves and washing machines) – but to come home, and be cast into a position of zero control. Mechanisms that I thought I understood left me into a place I hadn’t known before, wondering if this was how immigrants felt all the time. Insurance. How to see a doctor. How to see a doctor if you don’t have insurance. Legal problems. Do I need a lawyer?
And on top of that, restarting life. Purchasing and setting up another laptop to replace the one melted into a puddle on the front seat (a CHP officer’s words, not my own). Sobbing when you realize you lost nearly all of the photos from the past year, ensconced in that puddle. Getting another copy of your drivers license. Getting around without a car in a car-addicted state. Being too rattled to drive, and strangely, even more rattled to be driven. Having no phone number. All of these things- have you ever been outside, out of control, even in your own system?
In Rwanda, I expect that I am an outsider with little control, and the victories- getting motorcycle insurance, visa paperwork, etc – feel like victories. But the sense of loss, of being lost, in my own country? The unexpected impact of trauma.
Virunga range, Northern Rwanda
Back in Rwanda for a few months now: something I imagined impossible six months ago. On my back pourch, drinking tea, lodged in a contemplative place that is months in the making, and listening to the same song on repeat for an hour: Foals’ “Mountain at My Gates.”
The past months back on the continent haven’t been easy – a different kind of hard from last year’s variety. I no longer teach intensive classes with 90+ students or struggle to function within the university bureaucracy. Power is more constant in Kigali, transportation provides more options, and a burrito is only a 15-minute moto away.
But it’s still been a few months of frustration: seeing projects I plan fall to the wayside, postponed or preempted by Embassy funding or local government intervention. Offering classes where no one shows up, sitting alone in a sterile classroom, wondering how to alter the situation. Listening to friends go through worse than my own lot from last year, wanting to help or encourage but not knowing what to say. It’s a struggle: to redefine myself as someone outside of these professional achievements, when professional achievements are hard to come by.
Rwanda too struggles to redefine itself, to not be viewed only through the lens of its trauma. It’s my inverse: because their trauma was 21 years ago, they can focus now on their progress. For me, it is an exercise to look back, before the trauma, to remember what I am capable of, and excuse myself when I cannot easily grasp what was once simple for me.
So this is the ultimate lesson of trauma for me, clambering over the mountain: I don’t have control, and there is peace in that understanding. Leaning into the freedom that comes when control is impossible, like flexing against the edge of my snowboard and leaning straight down the mountain on a run. The distractions – meeting new people, reading the same shark book a dozen times to my nephew, reminding myself that I am not this event and it does not define me. Nor am I the sum of my work, what I can produce, what I can manage or enact.
Ultimately, it’s an exercise in pressing myself toward the light, relieved for the newness of 2016 and the possibility it holds.
Love, peace, and everything else