The car flipped sideways three times across the highway, with me inside. I remember rolling my eyes when the world turned upside down. My first thought wasn’t about death. It was more along the lines of, “This is just great. Now I’m definitely going to be late.”
I was on my way to a conference. Traffic and bad weather had delayed me by two hours, and I was driving just slightly over the speed limit to make up for lost time. Making up for lost time — it’s one of those stupid things smart people always try to do.
When the car came to a stop, I used all my weight to push the warped door open and climbed out — dizzy and disoriented.
I tried to act like I was fine.
For the first time in my life, I was the object of rubbernecking. People ogled the wreckage to see if there was a dead girl in there somewhere. My forearm had a nice stream of blood going, and there was a gash below my knee. It didn’t hurt. My skin didn’t feel like my own.
The roof of my car looked like a tent.
A first responder examined me. “I’m okay,” I said.
“Nobody’s okay after something like that,” he told me. “You’re in shock.” He instructed me to sit down and wait for the highway patrol. I’ll never forget the way the trooper looked at the car, then me.
A simple hydroplane had hurled me within spitting distance of death. It’s a strange thing to get so close to your own mortality and walk away from it, with nothing more than a few cuts. For a few seconds, you feel invincible — even if you know better.
Emergencies make us crave control
It was hard watching the remains of my car dragged onto the back of a tow truck and declared totaled at the scene. Now I was in a strange town, hours away from home, and reliant on my credit card for everything. I was going to need a one-way car rental, always more expensive.
When I got home, a need to do things consumed me. I tried to clean my apartment and make appointments. I applied for car loans. I even tried to grade papers. Finally one of my friends called me.
She said my voice sounded like broken glass. Then she gave me some advice I’ll never forget.
“You just need to sit in the dark for a while. Don’t worry about your car. Don’t worry about your job. Don’t talk. Don’t think. Don’t do anything.”
So I did what she said, and it worked. I started to relax. But first I had to acknowledge how awful I felt.
We’re terrible at giving up control.
When something tragic happens, we’ll do anything to maintain the illusion that we have everything handled. The more we fight an impending sense of powerlessness, the more control we give up. Instead of conserving our strength, we waste it on errands. We end up in a frazzled state of manic panic, doing a hundred things all wrong.
We lie to ourselves about how calm we are
Nobody should drive the day after an accident like mine, but I told myself I didn’t have a choice. For days, I was scared to get into a car. I did anyway. My hands trembled when they touched a steering wheel, but I still turned the ignition. I told myself I was being silly.
If you’d asked me back then, I would’ve said the mature move was to get on with life as fast as possible.
Turns out, that attitude is lethally immature.
Every single one of us probably knows we shouldn’t make decisions when we’re worked up, angry, sad, or even drunk on euphoria. We shouldn’t try to speed ahead like nothing’s wrong. And yet, we still do it— all the time. We play hide and seek with our emotions.
The bigger the crisis, the more we pretend. We tell ourselves we’re calm when we’re not. Imagine if we stopped doing that.
We might actually be able to relax.
We make terrible choices when we convince ourselves we’re being completely rational. That’s when we say or do the kinds of things we can’t take back, the ones we regret immediately.
We respond to stress and grief in different ways
It’s worth paying attention to what you do when you’re overwhelmed. One of my aunts tends to go out shopping and buy all kinds of stuff she doesn’t need. She mails scores of gifts that nobody wants.
It’s called retail therapy.
My trigger is something else completely. My go-to move during a crisis, personal or otherwise, is to comfort myself with work. I’ve learned to spot the narrative in my head, that point where I start telling myself maybe I could do even more than I originally set out to. Maybe I could make it to that conference after all…
I’ve caught myself in this exact sentence: “If I go ahead and do that tonight, it’ll make tomorrow easier.”
That’s when I know I’m stressed, and I need to make myself do nothing. I’ve seen myself go down this road, where I keep doing that one more thing, until it’s almost 2 am and I’m spent… but don’t know it yet.
It’s okay to turn off your day and unplug it
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Keep calm and carry on.” It sounds great, just like most of the bad advice out there. Trying to carry on doesn’t work if you’re a mess. And nobody ever keeps calm all the time.
Losing your shit is natural.
The trick is to do it on the sly, in a controlled space. You just power down for 15 minutes, or 30 — or however long you need.
Do what my friend said. Don’t try to do anything. Don’t think. Don’t look at your phone. Don’t try to come up with a plan. Let your mind pass over and through your thoughts. Feel things. It’s not about staying calm. It’s about quietly freaking out, then getting calm.
Doing nothing isn’t easy
Idleness goes against everything we believe these days. We’re worried that if we sit still and do nothing, we’ll drown in our own self-talk. We’re so scared of inaction that we’ve given it a fancy name — meditation.
We like meditating when everything’s okay. It’s hard to justify when something blows up our lives.
Staring off into space feels like the last thing we should do on those days, but it’s probably the most important. Doing nothing for an hour can make the worst day of your life halfway okay. As a bonus, you’ll think clearly enough to avoid making it worse.