The Three Car Crashes That Changed My Life

My alcoholic mother, pot-dealing father, and my own PTSD combined to send my life speeding dangerously downhill. It took an unexpected U-turn for me to finally see things clearly.

The Three Car Crashes That Changed My Life

When I think of the two months I spent in France in my late twenties, I think of Mom, crying and drunk in the back seat of a car.

Her husband had sneered at a comment I’d made, and I snapped back, sick of his British accent, his young age, and clear dislike of me. Mom bundled up in her silly hat, scarf, and jacket and sat in the dark backseat of their tiny car for thirty minutes before I went out to get her. I held her hand and listened from the driver’s seat while she cried. I don’t remember what she said. I couldn’t look at this alcoholic, obese woman, blubbering away like a left-out teenager at a party. She’d paid for my ticket overseas, excited for me to finally visit, though she didn’t know why I’d come. She thought I’d started to warm up to the idea of her living there, when really I needed to figure out why I’d started drinking wine in the morning in big mugs meant for coffee.

I’d never seen her cry. Not like this. For some reason, it felt good to watch. I knew she’d cried about my dad since the divorce. But to see it stirred a wanting satisfaction. I’d heard too many details about her four-year affair with a married man. I’d seen her drunk, kissing men my age, and passed out in diner booths a few times before she moved to Europe. It was good to see her in pain, too.

My future parents drove back from their first weekend trip together in early December of 1977. Dad had bought the 1972 orange Mercury Capri with a black stripe down the center a month earlier. It’d rained that night in the Olympic Mountains of Northwest Washington and his sports car came up fast on a slower-moving truck. Dad downshifted, then passed on the straightaway, going downhill, and hit a patch of black ice. The Capri disappeared over the embankment. Mom saved Dad as he started to fly out where the windshield had been, pulling him back. She ended up covered in bruises for the next couple of weeks and saw a chiropractor for a few years. Dad’s head, right shoulder, and some of his back held imbedded glass and gravel. The car, of course, was totaled. Since I arrived nine months later, I guess you can count this as my first car accident.

Mom said she didn’t know you could get pregnant your first time. She told me that she’d sat in her car outside an abortion clinic, but couldn’t go through with it. Like the last part was supposed to make me feel better. They got married three months later.

In a Costco parking lot on a Sunday afternoon when I was ten, I asked them both if they had been in love back then. Mom looked at Dad in the driver’s seat and said, “Well, we liked each other.” Dad sighed and said, “Of course we were in love, Steph.”

Dad sold pot to high school students when I was a baby. He was out of work, and stayed home with me. Mom had no idea how to keep a house. She worked at a restaurant.

When I was two, Dad found Jesus, a discovery that brought my parents back together after a six-month separation. I’m not sure why religion brought them back together, but I tried to ask him about it later, as an adult. It’d been several years since their divorce and he’d remarried. He shrugged the question off like there hadn’t been a reason other than it was expected of him to make it work. We stood on the front porch he’d built for his trailer a few minutes in silence.

“I was so miserable when I was with your Mom,” he said, maybe for the first time.

“But Dad, that was my life,” I said.

He took a long drag off of his cigarette and blew out the smoke and looked at me before he said, “It was my life, too, Steph.” He looked back out at the yard. “It was my life, too.”

My first memory begins and ends at three and a half. I sat in the dark, middle of a backseat, looking across a parking lot to the lit-up hospital entrance, wiggling from anticipation of going to McDonalds. Grandma, with her teased hair brushing the car’s roof, towered over Grandpa, his head barely visible over the headrest. They’d come to pick me up to take me out for dinner. I got a Happy Meal while my mother nearly died giving birth to my brother.

She hemorrhaged. The lining of her uterus tore away from its wall, causing her to almost bleed to death. She held my newborn brother for a few seconds before she passed out. Dad fainted from the sight of the blood that pooled on the floor.

I got a Cabbage Patch Kid for Christmas in 1983, the year people waited in lines to get them the minute the doors opened. The year department store managers, in desperation from the demands of crowds, held baseball bats over their heads to keep the mobs from rushing the counter. Mom told me when she took the package down from the shelf a woman tried to take my doll from her hands. I pictured her holding the big yellow-and-green box like a football, blocking crazed customers with her left hand while she made her way to the register at J.C. Penney. It’d be the only time I’d seen her as a hero.

That afternoon I held my new Cabbage Patch Kid in my left arm, balancing her on my small hip. She had short, looped, blond hair and green eyes. I raised my right hand and repeated, “After meeting this Cabbage Patch Kid, and learning of her needs, I want to make the major commitment of becoming a good parent to her.” The sunbeams lit up the dust floating through our kitchen, and shone on the burnt orange linoleum floor where my little brother sat with a long line of drool running from his lower lip to his bib. I made an oath to be a good parent to Angelica Marie and signed the adoption papers.

The summer before my senior year of high school, Dad bought me a 1987 Isuzu I-Mark on the condition I paid for the insurance, maintenance and gas. I’d barely made the mix tapes for the stock cassette deck before I wrecked it. I’d finished my shift at work a little late, and left close to midnight. About halfway home, I reached into the glove compartment to pull out a cigarette I’d stolen from one of Dad’s hidden packs in the garage. It dropped to the floor by the passenger seat. After fumbling around a bit, I pulled over on the side of the highway, retrieved it, and lit it with the red coil of the dash lighter. I was speeding along at about 55 or 60, singing and smoking, when I saw the headlights.

On the right side of the road were what looked like a pick-up truck’s lights with flashing amber ones above them. On the left side were four sets of small, lit-up rectangles, one stacked a car’s height above the other. I figured there was some sort of construction, or a stalled vehicle. I passed a white pick-up truck and this huge, loud thing with big tires. I looked in time to see another tire, taller than the top of my car, in front of me. I stomped on the brake.

Witnesses wrote in their reports that I got out of the totaled car and walked around, telling people I’d taken a different route home. “I was going to go down Bennett and under the bridge,” I said, pacing. Someone grabbed my work jacket from the backseat and convinced me to lie down on the pavement. My face had hit the steering wheel, creating a gash from the space between my eyebrows through my right eyelid, and broke my nose. The lower, inside of my lip tore open from my teeth nearly going through it. The seatbelt had cracked my sternum and bruised my hips, cutting into my flesh. Somehow, my knee had torn open under the dash, and another three-inch-wide puncture wound next to it was deep enough to go through one of my quadriceps. Part of my kneecap had chipped off.

I only remember lying on the pavement with four people hovering over me. They lifted me into the ambulance, and one of the EMTs recognized me from when we went to the same church together as kids. I heard someone talking to my parents, telling them their daughter had been in a serious car accident. Over the next decade or so, they’d receive similar calls two more times.

My eyes had almost swollen shut when I reached the emergency room. Nurses had to pull my hands away from my face, and I’d look up from the stretcher while being wheeled through doors, watching people run, and lights going by overhead. Pink curtains. Mom at my side through x-rays. Bright lights. Strangers discussing my knee. I cried to go home. When they brought me in for surgery, my tongue grazed the inside of my lip and I felt the flap of skin hanging. I decided not to tell them.

It took a day to fully wake up. I squinted at the sun shining through the windows. Mom sat in a chair, watching television, and came over to the bed when she noticed me looking around. She asked if I needed anything. I stared at my hands. They reminded me of when I’d played in the mud as a kid, pressing prints in the pliable dirt with my outstretched fingers, lining the sides with a film. But it was blood. Every nail, every crevice in my hand held dried blood. Mom said nothing, and handed me a little wet washcloth from the bathroom. It had turned a reddish brown by the time I gave it back.

A lot of people came to visit, but no one thought to take pictures. Because of my head injury and the court case, I had to see a psychologist for testing. He showed me images of inkblots and asked me to repeat lists. After a couple of hours, he diagnosed me with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and submitted his reports to my lawyer.

“You could use the head injury to your advantage,” my lawyer said. “I mean, we could really talk the mental damage up.” It’d been a couple of years since the accident by then. I had trouble driving at night, or when conditions were bad, because of what I’d later learn were panic attacks. He wanted more testing. He wanted to go to trial. He wanted to sue for hundreds of thousands. I refused. I didn’t want to relive that night. I didn’t want to see the woman who’d failed at her job of holding out a stop sign. I didn’t want to hear people fight to not pay for my lifelong injuries at eighteen. I didn’t want to have more tests and know more ways that I was fucked up in the head. My case settled out of court.

Mom blamed my years of battling depression and anxiety on the car accident. I figured they came from taking birth control pills, bad relationships, my parents’ divorce, or other cars I wrecked. No one mentioned PTSD again. But Mom, with her master’s degree in social work, still wanted the diagnosis, and the right prescription to go with it. In conversations with her I felt like a case study, or maybe even a client, but not her daughter. Not anymore.

It took almost twenty years to discover on my own that most of my depression was a result of my body not working right anymore. When my knee said, “I can’t,” I didn’t ask “Well how can you?” I looked down, and nodded in agreement or empathy. “I know,” I said. “I know.” I only helped it not hurt. I didn’t help it get better.

I bought a house with the settlement money. I bought a dishwasher. I bought a washer and dryer. I bought furniture from a store in the mall. I bought a lawn mower, a chain-link fence, and a puppy for the yard.

Living in a town where your family goes back for generations tends to pull you in, but not in a good way. It’s a sense of duty to stay. A need to attend all holidays with a salad or side dish or rolls. I managed a coffee shack. I worked full-time. I hired and trained employees. I hardly ever bounced checks.

“I’m so disappointed in you,” an old friend said over the phone one night.

“What do you mean?” I said. I listed off my grown-up credentials

“Stephanie,” he said. “You’re more than that. You need to go to school.”

I decided to move to Alaska. Within a month, I’d hired a realtor to manage renting my house. I’d sold all that furniture. I felt ready. I had three months left of being a teenager. I decided to be irresponsible for a while, and emptied out the meager college fund my parents had set up to purchase a used Jeep Cherokee. I drove for three days to Fairbanks, Alaska, and left Washington behind for almost ten years.

Sometimes I went to college. I lived with a boyfriend for a while. I smoked pot daily. The local bartenders knew if I was going through a Guinness or gin-and-tonic phase based on how often I came in, and at what time. My close friends called me first in the middle of the night when they needed someone to come get them, talk to, or go on a road trip with. I worked a few jobs and played in Hawaii and Mexico and the mountains. We threw parties at my boyfriend’s place, went through kegs of beer, and burned dozens of wood pallets. I sat in outdoor hot tubs with friends, watching the Northern Lights. I stopped shaving. I tried to convince my hair to dread. I chopped my own wood. I lived without running water.

But I missed the ocean, crocuses in February, and climbable trees. Movers packed my belongings into a shipping crate, and I bought a ferry ticket from Haines, seven hundred miles away in the southeast panhandle, to Bellingham.

The following winter, I left for two months to visit Mom and her husband. I returned home fifteen pounds heavier and unchanged otherwise. I still drank until I blacked out, and slept with whoever showed interest. When I discovered I was pregnant almost a year later, whether or not to go through with it wasn’t a question, but hospitals still loomed like torture chambers. I wanted to do this on my own, at my own pace. I decided to give birth at home. My baby was born in a tub of water only a foot from my bed. This little human that I held in my arms coughed, and started breathing on her own.

We had a rocky beginning. Motherhood was some sort of surrender to a stability I’d run from for a decade. But I found a primal strength and love that drove me — surviving, working, going to school full-time, and living in our own apartment.

Several months after moving in to our own apartment, I drove down a four-lane highway with Emilia strapped in her car seat behind me. She’d been sick with a sinus infection and pink eye for a few days, but had her window rolled down a bit. She wanted her doll’s hair — Ariel from “The Little Mermaid, whose tail changed from purple to blue in warm water — to blow in the wind.

Emilia started crying, and I looked in the rear-view mirror. “My Ariel,” she said. It had gone out the window. Exhausted, and wanting her crying to stop, I pulled into the left turning lane at the next stoplight, and did a U-Turn. Back where I figured the doll might lie, I parked on the left side of the divided highway’s shoulder and turned on the emergency flashers. A grassy valley separated the east and westbound traffic. I opened the door of our maroon 1987 Subaru. Emilia called the car “Ruby” in conversations, like a sister.

The wind from the cars speeding by at sixty miles per hour almost felt hot as I scoured the grass. I spotted numerous soda bottles full of piss, candy wrappers, and empty beer cans. Then, I saw the red hair. Ariel’s head. Shit, I thought. Ariel’s tail was a few feet away. I could see its flattened shape, fanned into two sections. I reached down to pick it up, and I heard it.

No screeches from stopped tires sliding across asphalt, but a sudden and immediate sound of metal crunching and glass exploding all at once. The driver of a Honda Civic hatchback drifted over, and hit the right corner of Ruby’s bumper, only two feet away from where Emilia sat, waiting for her mom to retrieve her toy.

I dropped Ariel’s head, screamed, and ran. I opened the left door across from Emilia. She was shrieking and reaching out for me. The floor underneath her had folded up to the same level as her feet.

The boy who hit us walked over. His nose bled, and he had a few gashes in his spikey, blonde hair. His car had spun to a stop a hundred feet away.

“Are you okay?” he said, then, “Holy shit, was she in the car?”

“Of course she was in the car!” I said. “How could you hit my fucking car?”

He backed away. The paramedics later loaded him into an ambulance on a stretcher. They checked Emilia and found nothing. Her only injury resulted from a piece of glass that fell from my work supplies, which I carried into our apartment later that evening.

Mom started calling then. She kept up with her calls for the next week, her international number coming up on the screen, but I didn’t answer. I wanted to ask her if she felt this way when I had my first car accident. If she couldn’t sleep next to my hospital bed because she couldn’t take her eyes off me. I needed to know why she never leaned in close when I woke up, giving me reassurance of her presence, reassurance that she loved me so, so much. I wanted to know, but not enough to ask. I knew she’d lie, tell me of course she did, my memory must be foggy. I do remember the nurses who’d enter the room I lived in for three days, reaching up to touch my forehead, asking me if I felt okay. Mom sat in her chair, legs and arms crossed, watching television. But she was there. Maybe that’s all she ever felt she needed to be.

“Ruby died because I lost Ariel out the window,” Emilia said from her bath one night. “She died, Mom.” The new Ariel I’d bought sank to the bottom of the tub, and rubbed against the porcelain. “Mom,” she said, “you cried so hard. You were scared. But I was okay. We’re okay.”

I poured water over the back of her head. The faucet dripped into her bubbles.

* * *

Stephanie Land’s work has been featured on Vox, DAME, Literary Mama, Manifest Station, through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and as a writing fellow with the Center for Community Change. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two young daughters and their shelter dog. Follow her @stepville or read more at

Minju Sun is a freelance illustrator based in New York. She recently graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a BFA in Illustration. She likes to draw and paint from her surroundings and also from imagination. Instagram: minjusun