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The New Normal: Helping Accident Survivors Move Forward

The meaning of auto accidents

This is the first blog in a series on issues related to auto accident recovery. The pandemic of auto accidents has been acknowledged as a major public health issue by the United Nations with an estimated 50 million people injured worldwide each year.

For the past 25 years, I have specialized in psychological trauma and, for the past 15 years, specifically in auto accident trauma cases. In this blog, I will attempt to address many of the issues auto accident patients confront on their road to recovery. Topics that will be discussed include living with chronic pain, coping with post-traumatic stress, dealing with traumatic brain injuries, impact on family and social relationships, and coming to terms with compromised functioning and disabilities.

Professionals, injured people, and their loved ones will gain new insights and understanding regarding post-accident stressors, symptoms, conditions and treatment issues. Many professionals have little to no understanding of the kinds of mental health challenges auto accidents present. This can be observed in many hospital emergencies departments that frequently fail to discover injuries upon initial presentation and quickly discharge patients after doing a few imaging studies and conducting cursory examinations. Due to the physical mechanics of car accidents and the g forces that are brought to bear on the human body, many injuries do not surface until days, weeks or months after the accident.

In this blog, I will include tips and recommendations that may prove helpful, however, this information is not meant as a substitute for seeking competent professional care by physicians and other health care professionals. As an accident survivor you may find that you have to go through the frustrating experience of trying many health care professionals until you discover the team that is right for you. It is vital to find informed professionals who can provide competent, caring service and who can guide you through the many complex challenges involved in auto accident recovery. Here you will find empowerment to take charge of your own recovery and to form healthy, collaborative relationships with members of your professional team. It is after all your body and mind that we are talking about, so in last word you are the boss, and you are the coach. No one knows you better than you know yourself. At the same time, you may discover pockets of your own denial, and need to respect the input you receive from knowledgeable others.

It is important to keep in mind that the recovery process can take much longer than one would hope, and not to lose hope. Patience is your best friend, and self-compassion your guide. We can think of the recovery process in broad terms as having a beginning, middle and end phase. In the beginning phase you are still in a state of shock and confusion, not knowing the extent of your injuries or what to do about them. In the middle phase you learn what your health challenges are and collect the needed professional team to facilitate your recovery progress. In the final phase the road to recovery is often very long but by staying positive and being proactive, it will lead to new places and opportunities. In the final phase you can sit back and appreciate all of the hard work you and your team have done and can measure your progress with a feeling of some satisfaction, gratitude and relief. It is important along the way that you do not give in to people who do not understand what you are going through and not take to heart their ignorance and turn against yourself. Such people many include some professionals, family members and friends. Not everyone has the capacity to give you the support and assistance you need, and the sooner you recognize this and can move on the better. The final phase of your recovery will involve embracing your new normal and seeing yourself as not only a survivor but as a thriver who has successfully grieved the loss of their pre-injury self.

An auto accident often starts a domino effect that can lead to a progressive cascade of distressing events that results in a downward life trajectory. With the right information, support and assistance this does not need to happen.

Because accidents happen to people and because people are complex beings, this blog will address the complexity of being human. From years of clinical work, I realize that Victor Frankl was indeed correct that the human search for meaning is at the core of mental illness and mental health. Just as Frankl discovered this truth in the despair of Nazi German death camps, many auto accident survivors find this truth in their long roads to recovery and having to find new meaning in their lives in light of the loss of their pre-injury self. Many survivors come to feel that the accident was actually a blessing in disguise because it took them on a new path in life they otherwise would not have experienced. This often involves a deeper appreciation for the complexity of relationships and the vital need for human connectedness and love. If it were not for a terrible car crash in 1936 that severely injured Jacques Cousteau he would most likely have become a naval pilot but instead his rehabilitation involved swimming in the sea to which he fell in love and led to him becoming the famed marine explorer.

Psychotherapy is all about the business of finding meaning. In therapy we work to make psychological meaning of events, feelings, thoughts and dreams. The making of meaning of traumatic events is particularly the focus of therapy. Often people are plagued by ‘what if’ thinking following an accident. “If I hadn’t forgotten my coffee and hadn’t gone back in the house to get it I wouldn’t have been at the intersection when I was hit.”

From years of working with others to make sense out of what happened to them, I have come to appreciate the importance of acknowledging the idea of fate. Even more than fate, is the belief that things happen according to a larger plan. Great minds such as Carl Jung, Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli addressed the idea of meaningful coincidences in the course of one’s life. Jung coined the term synchronicity to capture the idea of seemingly acausal connections that are meaningful. Wikipedia states, “Jung was transfixed by the idea that life was not a series of random events but rather an expression of a deeper order, which he and Pauli referred to as unus mundus.” Synchronicities points us to the awareness of an underlying, ordered fabric of existence; an ordering that is beyond our current understanding. Jung believed synchronicity serves to lead us to greater wholeness and in this way is akin to dreams.

I too have been transfixed by synchronicities. One of the most striking occurrences happened to me last weekend on a trip to an amusement park with my family. I was standing in line waiting to get on a thrill ride when I heard the two gentlemen standing next to me discussing the value of coins. One man said he had a 1962 Canadian nickel and asked the other what he thought it was worth. I uncharacteristically blurted out “four cents” and both men laughed, then it was time to proceed onto the thrill ride. About two hours later I purchased some water and received change. Something told me to examine the coinage and when I turned over the Jefferson nickel, stamped on the back were the words FOUR CENTS.

This sent chills up my back, as it was the most impactful example and evidence of some underlying force operating in the universe; perhaps God smiling at me. Later on the beach there was a man with a metal detector hunting for buried treasure. When I spoke to him he commented, “You would not believe all the Canadian coins I find on this beach.” Another wink from God perhaps. Carl Jung would have been impressed.

So what does this have to do with auto accident recovery, or for that matter recovery from any traumatic event? I believe an essential element to maintaining mental health is the component of faith. Faith is believing in something that cannot be seen. A patient recovering from a severe dog bite gave me a framed quote from Hebrews 11:1 “Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” It hangs on my office wall. For me synchronous events powerfully charge my faith that there is a higher intelligence and design to my life, providing a proof of the Unus mundus, a unified one world. We all have these ‘showings’ as we might call them that strike us as alarming paranormal experiences. It feels as though they point the way or confirm that we are on the right path. This is part of our existential nature and can help to remind us in moments of despair that there is something operating greater than our own will. These events can help carry us onward, by making us curious about how it will all turn out. Accident survivors often feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel, so developing a spiritual perspective of some kind can be a huge resource.

The Canadian five or four cent episode also reminds me of the importance of humor in recovery. As I had put down the value of the Canadian nickel to the two strangers, I was given a U.S. nickel that had the word four cents stamped on the back as if to say it is no more valuable than the Canadian money. The ability to laugh at ourselves cannot be over estimated in maintaining our at times precarious sanity.

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