I still remember the day like it was yesterday. I had missed the bus and was running late for school, so my mom decided to drive me there. As we drove down the road that December morning, our car slid on ice. We ended up crashing into a tree, and the next thing I remember is waking up in the back of an ambulance.
The accident was six years ago, when I was 15. I’m 21 now, and that day still haunts me every moment of my life.
The impact of the crash ended up turning the car on its side and left our car totaled. The crash left me with two broken wrists and injuries to my back and neck, and my mom was lucky enough to only sprain an ankle. However, the physical pain I had in no way compares to the emotional pain the accident has left me with.
After a month of recovery at home, I returned to school. That day, I experienced my first panic attack. I was walking down the hallway at school, and all of a sudden my heart started racing. I instantly fell to the ground in fear. It felt like electricity was running through my body, and I was gasping for air. I yelled for help, and a group of people started to surround me. I honestly thought I was going to die.
I was a sophomore in high school when all of this happened. Before then, I never even knew what a panic attack was. But after that day, I started having panic attacks almost every day. I didn’t know exactly what was going on with me until my school nurse recommended I see a psychologist.
The psychologist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Initially, I was shocked—I thought only soldiers were diagnosed with PTSD, but it can actually affect anyone who has suffered a traumatic experience. I continued to see a psychologist for a while, but I never really got any better. I’ve had a history of mental illness (for more than three years, I struggled with an eating disorder, but was thankfully able to recover from it after seeking treatment when I was 14), yet this felt unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
Before the crash, I was an outspoken and outgoing person. Afterwards, I became quiet and reserved. I was dealing with a lot emotionally and I didn’t know how to express myself or whom I could turn to. Most of my friends from before the crash didn’t understand why I was suddenly acting so differently. Students at school started to bully me because of my dramatic change. Most people didn’t know what was going on with me and thought I was weird. Almost all of the people who I was friends with prior to the accident stopped talking to me. I felt alone when I was in need of a friend the most. Ever since then, I’ve been scared to open up to people. I was lucky enough to have a few true friends who were there for me when I needed them. From them I learned the real meaning of friendship.
After I graduated from high school, I enrolled at my dream college, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, to study fashion design. I thought this was going to be the fresh start that I needed, but my PTSD got even worse when I got to college. My anxiety and depression started to overpower me more than before. For the first time ever, I was alone in a completely different state hours away from my native Maryland. My anxiety was so high that doing everyday things became impossible. I couldn’t even do homework, and I barely got any sleep. My anxiety had me constantly on edge. I rarely ate and ended up losing a lot of weight. I had to drop two classes, and I started to go home every single weekend because I felt so alone at college. I would cry every night because I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it to the end of the semester.
At the end of the semester, I realized I couldn’t go on like this. I ended up dropping out of my dream college after just one semester. I went back home, having no idea what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I was at my lowest point, and my anxiety was at its highest. I stopped taking care of myself. I rarely showered or even brushed my hair or teeth. All I would do is cry in bed all day.
I realized that I had to get help. I started seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist. I begin to go to therapy once a week and take three different types of medications to help with my anxiety and depression. With the psychiatrist and psychologist’s help, I started to feel better. I ended up enrolling at American University in Washington, D.C., the following semester. During the time that my PTSD was at its worst, I turned to writing and journaling to help express myself. This led me to pursue a major in journalism. Writing became therapeutic for me.
Things have started to get better, but some days are tougher then others. Balancing classes, an internship and work is hard to do with my anxiety. I rarely speak up in class because I’m too afraid. Doing homework and studying is difficult because I have trouble concentrating and sitting still. My PTSD has me constantly paranoid and scared that something bad is going to happen to me. There are some days that I’m too afraid to even walk across campus because I fear that everyone can see right through me. When I’m feeling anxious, my mind races. My body may feel exhausted, but on the inside I’m constantly on edge.
Driving or riding in a car is still extremely difficult for me because I’m always afraid that I’m going to get into another car accident. I have flashbacks even now to that day. After the accident, I couldn’t even ride in a car without crying. My friends would want to hang out, but I’d make excuses, too embarrassed to tell my friends that the real reason I wouldn’t go out was because I was afraid to drive. Slowly, I have forced myself to start driving again. Before, I couldn’t even drive down the street, and now I have started to push myself to drive more frequently.
Everyone who knows me thinks that I’m just extremely shy. People who don’t know me think I’m conceited because I rarely talk. I wish I had the courage to speak up and tell people, “I’m not shy, and I’m definitely not conceited!” It’s hard to explain to people why I am the way I am because I’m afraid that most people won’t understand, and because of this I usually feel alone.
One time I was talking to a friend about my struggle with my anxiety and depression, and he told me, “You know, you can control that.” I chose not to respond to him, but his comment still upset me. I have tried everything to help with my anxiety and depression: yoga, volunteering and even joining different clubs at school. For me, healing has not been an overnight process; it’s a daily struggle. Most of my friends who know about my PTSD are understanding of my illness. I have other friends who I’ve known for years whom I’ve still not been able to be open to. I’m afraid to open up to them because of my fear of rejection and because I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.
A mental illness isn’t something that you can just fix with a Band-Aid. Just because you can’t see a mental illness doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and doesn’t hurt. The best way to explain having a mental illness is that it’s like having something weighing you down, and as much as you try, you can’t shake it off.
As much I try to forget that day, I can’t. I have scars on my arms from several surgeries that remind me of that December day. Every year on the anniversary of my accident, I thank God that I’m alive. Although I have struggled to heal after my accident, I remain thankful that I was given a second chance at life. I recently started volunteering with the National Eating Disorders Association to raise awareness for the cause and to help plan a walk in my area to raise donations. I realized that I was given a second chance at life so I can help others who are going through similar experiences like me.
I’m 21, and I’m tired of feeling like I’m missing out on life. PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with me, but about what happened to me. I’m tired of letting one moment control my entire life. I am more than just a mental illness. My mental illness is a part of my life, but it does not define me. I have dreams and goals, and I can’t let one moment keep weighing me down. If I keep living in fear and holding on to what hurts, I’m actually not living at all. I’m trying every day to appreciate my second chance, and I’m working on living life to the fullest.
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