This essay was originally published by The Bold Italic.
I stood there on the Napa River Bridge, gripping the railing for what seemed like the longest time, trying to figure out what had just happened, as a fireball engulfed the wreckage of crunched metal to my right.
Thirty minutes earlier I had been sitting in my friend’s living room, basking in the homey smell of corn dogs cooking in the oven. Now I was standing by a human body trapped in an open-air fire, billowing smoke into the sky. My mind was in disarray as I looked out from the arched causeway leading to the vast marshland on the horizon. I couldn’t appreciate the captivating view. Staring at it was like trying to listen to my favorite song with a screaming child in the foreground. That’s the thing about trauma—there’s no distraction or comfort to be found.
I had just driven 60 mph head-on into a stopped car. I was not only walking and talking, but had no visible wounds or injuries from the collision. The other driver had most likely died upon impact before his body perished in the fire. His car was sitting in the middle of the highway—without its break lights or hazard lights on. Before stopping, the driver had showed no signs of trying to pull over to the shoulder or get out of the car.
I looked to my right. The fireball was getting closer to me, billowing up and out of the burning wreckage it encapsulated. To my left, gasoline was flowing from my car’s punctured fuel line, flowing narrowly past the fire. I imagined it could ignite the entire bridge and everyone on it, including me.
I snapped out of my morbid fantasy when the highway patrolman in charge of the accident scene confronted me.
“Excuse me, did you see what happened here?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Well, we’re trying to locate the other driver’s body . . . ”
“The other driver’s body?” I asked, for the first time noticing people peering over the bridge’s railing, presumably looking for my body in the water below.
“Yes. It’s not in the car,” he said nodding toward my car, the driver’s door swung wide open.
“Oh, well, I . . . I am the other driver.”
The patrolman was stunned I was alive. Though I had emerged unhurt, he told me that this stretch of Highway 37, the road that crosses the Napa River Bridge and leads westbound to Sonoma Raceway, was notorious for fatal collisions. Before a median was built in 1995, it was nicknamed “Blood Alley.”
As the patrolman filled out his report, he told me that, based on my tire tracks on the road, I probably only had my foot on the brake pedal for a second or two, reinforcing my belief that I couldn’t see where the other car was stopped due to the slope of the bridge. He then administered a standard field sobriety test, which I passed despite being in shock.
Then I sat, perched atop a gurney, in the back of an ambulance as it drove me to the hospital. Despite my grief, I couldn’t help but feel out of place—being transported uninjured in a vehicle made for injured people. After I was discharged from the hospital, my friends drove me back to their house. Being in a moving car so soon after the accident was beyond unnerving—I kept having horrible flashbacks, hallucinating crashing into the cars driving in front of us.
At my friends’ house, I sprawled out on the floor in front of their television, staring at the ceiling, where more fatal car crashes played out on the blank canvas. Periodically my friends would laugh at something on TV, and I’d snap out of it. How could they be laughing after such a horrible day? I thought. How could they enjoy anything?
Then I remembered—I killed someone. They had not. I had been the one to feel the explosion upon impact. They had not. I had felt the shock waves reverberating throughout my body as I struggled to get out of my car. I had witnessed the horror of a human body on fire. They had not. My friends knew death existed, but I had seen it up close. My friends were sure that they would be alive tomorrow, and the next day, and even months and years in the future. I was not.
For the first time in my life, I felt immune to caring about trivial things. From then on, I no longer cared about who gave me a dirty look at the gym, or who forgot my birthday. I was dissociated from reality—part of grieving. Yet the weeks and months following the accident were filled with bureaucratic and logistical nightmares: How would I get to school without a car? How would I get anywhere without a car? And the scariest question hanging over me was whether I was a criminal.
I lived in constant fear. My friends and family, too, warned me there could be criminal charges looming. One day, the assistant to the DA called me from the Solano County District Attorney’s office. I asked her if I would be facing criminal charges, and to my surprise and relief, she said, “No, we don’t call those people.” Instead, she was calling to tell me that I was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing.
This relief was immediately superseded by the fear that a civil case could be brought against me at any time. The Department of Motor Vehicles was also threatening to rescind my driving privileges.
Just as the potential criminal charges never materialized, my license was never taken away, and the family of the man I killed never brought a civil suit against me. Most problems related to the car accident were eventually resolved, but some remain unsettled. Why didn’t the other driver leave his vehicle? And why, on that day—June 13th, 2009, was his car stopped in the middle of the bridge? I may never get an answer to these questions, just as I may never piece together the broken parts of myself. But as unfortunate as that is, coping with my traumatic past is something I can live with because the alternative—not living at all—would be much worse.
BEFORE YOU GO . . .
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33 thoughts on “The Day I Killed Someone ”
Well-written, but what a terrible experience. Do you ever wonder if the shock of this had anything to do with your current health issues?
Hi Jean. Several people have made the suggestion and I have pondered it myself, but I didn’t get sick until two years after the crash. Although I did hit my head pretty hard on the steering wheel and never had it checked out so there could have been some undiagnosed head trauma and of course emotional trauma.
I have a feeling it may have played a much larger role than you previously thought.
Here’s my hypothesis: The accident happened, and as you said, you killed someone. Now whether it was soley your fault, not your fault, or partly your fault…I’m not sure if that makes any difference. I’ll try to explain that later on.
What happened next? You describe ‘horrible flashbacks’, constant fear on many fronts, even after being cleared of any wrongdoing, and nagging questions about the nature of the accident itself.
This may sound patronizing and simplistic, but that’s prolonged, high-level PTSD-type stress. Even “regular” stress can take a huge toll on the gut, causing immune dysregulation, intestinal permeability (which can lead to autoimmune conditions), etc..
And what happened next? You went on an exercise/fitness binge. I don’t have your other articles in front of me, but I recall that you became obsessed with fitness, doing thousands of situps, or maybe it was more like 400 situps a day.
No doubt you’ve read of other athletes who develop ME/CFS? Well, there are studies that link intense exercise with increased intestinal permeability and autoimmune problems, and it’s my humble opinion that that may explain why some people, who seem to be in ‘peak’ condition, come down with ME/CFS. Here’s a link to just one study:
“Athletes exposed to high-intensity exercise show an increased occurrence of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like cramps, diarrhea, bloating, nausea, and bleeding. These problems have been associated with alterations in intestinal permeability and decreased gut barrier function. The increased GI permeability, a so-called ‘leaky gut’, also leads to endotoxemia, and results in increased susceptibility to infectious and autoimmune diseases, due to absorption of pathogens/toxins into tissue and the bloodstream.”
You got sick with mono, but IMO, it may — may — have been a weakened gut barrier, and as a result, a weakened, or dysfunctional immune system — that caused you to develop ME/CFS.
If you can work on the gut, even if you’re getting IVs now, that could help. There are other things that can help too, but I won’t offer suggestions unless you ask. I’ve been sick for years now too — went into remission a couple of times — but when you run out of money, you know how it is — the stress goes sky high, which isn’t good for any condition.
Edit: I just saw your newer post about being diagnosed w/Lyme. My only caution there is that sometimes there are false positives. Also regarding the toxic mold one commented on in her case, she said she had to get rid of everything and start over. You DON’T have to do that.
Take care Jamison. I know it may feel hopeless, but I’m confident you can recover. Maybe not when you want to, and maybe not to 100%, but you can.
You didn’t kill the other driver: his actions did. You could have died, too – and your family could have sued him for stopping in the middle of the road with no hazard lights.
It is possible he was already dead, sitting in his car, which he managed to bring to a stop in the middle of the road when he had chest pains. Or an aneurysm rupturing. Or anything.
You will never know – do NOT immediately assume the worst, unless that is the ONLY possibility. There lies PTSD.
If this still bothers you (person who wrote this), see a therapist and deal with it. Or learn CBT and deal with it yourself, if you can. Your logic is flawed: as soon as you saw someone’s car stopped where there should not be a stopped car, you braked as much as you could. Your actions were the correct ones. His were not.
Talk back to negative beliefs when they are flawed.
Hi Alicia. Some people have suggested he was already dead, but the official cause of death was a broken neck from the impact. Although I imagine he could have died from something else first. I don’t think a toxicology report was done because the body was damaged in the fire. So it very well could have been something else first. But if so you would think pulling over to the shoulder would have happened first.
I’m just pointing out that in the absence of absolute knowledge of what happened right before, you have choices to make about what you will believe.
Cognitive behavior therapy and similar point out that you don’t have to choose the worst possible outcome to make your decisions, and always going for the negative is a trait that needs to have some sense talked into it.
I bring myself back to functionality often by talking back to fears and problems, and it is often that I can’t know – and have no evidence the worst case is the right one.
If you know for SURE, that’s different. And much rarer. Official cause of death is hard to determine under some circumstances; sometimes the coroner will choose a ’cause’ which causes the fewest problems for the family, for example. People think forensic science is perfect. It is not. And is often based on incomplete information – because that’s all that is available.
Just trying to poke a few holes to let the light and the air in.
I’m a realist, and an optimist by choice. That’s why I’m having such a hard time myself post-stents, because I’m arguing against a medical establishment which is very positive in its pronouncements, and then I read the papers published, and they are NOT saying the same things.
Medicine is hugely fuzzy. And very complex.
He might have pulled over – he might not have. It isn’t a conclusive piece of evidence. Construct yourself a couple of scenarios where he couldn’t or didn’t, and you’ll see the CBT in action. You have to talk back to the thoughts – they FEEL so right, and yet don’t hold up to scrutiny in so many cases.
What a horrific ordeal! I’m so sorry this happened to you! Try not to be too hard on yourself as it sounds like it could’ve happened to anyone but I’m sure it’s easier said than done. Did your ME start shortly after this?
Thanks, Stephanie! I got sick with mono about two years after the accident and haven’t recovered yet.
I was thinking the same thing.
I’m so sorry you had to endure something so tragic. There was a time that I thought a 2 year old drown in my pool. For the few minutes until my sister-in-law gave CPR and he was revived I knew the feeling you felt. It was beyond describing how I felt just those few minutes while I thought he had died. God bless you!
Oh wow, that would have been horrifying. I’m so glad the child survived. CPR is such a vital thing and you never know when you’ll need it.
Sometimes things happen that shatter the illusion of the safety of our everyday lives, the contrast between these events and the continuing normality around always cuts deep, replaying in our troubled minds, storing somehow in our bodies….Every time we get broken all the fragments that were us get put back together differently, some grow, some diminish and fade, others shine…we are all just a work in progress in some ways the sum of our scars. You write very eloquently about your experiences in away I don’t think I ever could.
Thanks Chrissie! Writing is my therapy, so thanks for participating in that with me!
That’s ok, I use writing as therapy too, but I lean mostly towards fiction.😃
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That was an incredibly traumatic experience and from my own experince of ME/CFS I really do believe that emotional trauma combined with infection combined with factors such as over excercising for you, overdoing looking after people for me, is what brings it on. For a car to be stopped in the road with no hazard lights and the driver is still in the car I think something had already gone wrong before you came along. An accident that was completely beyond your control. Forgiving yourself is so very important.
Thanks Lisa! It was an awful experience but I think it has made me a better person. And it’s obviously part of me.
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Wow. Just wow. I would imagine the PTSD from this is very great. Sending you good thoughts, from one PTSD sufferer to another.
Thanks Randi! I appreciate your words.
You tell the external story of the accident in a way that vividly describes the scene. You tell the inner-landscape story, of your shock, dread, feeling out of place in the ambulance, with equally vivid imagery. I’ve driven that road many times and could imagine arcing up the bridge to the top before just starting to descend, only to be met with an immobile blockade that explodes upon impact. Shock definitely jolts into my imagination of what that would feel like. i wish you strength and grace as you walk the path of mental and physical recovery. Your writing is an excellent avenue for expression; you’re good at it.
Hi Cindy! Thanks! It’s such a sketchy road isn’t it? The surroundings are gorgeous but the road itself is so dangerous. Thanks for reading and for your kind words!
I’ve read some of your other posts and appreciate the “voices” in your head telling all sorts of stories about what happened. I call my voices “characters” and am getting better at recognizing and accepting that they’re all part of my personal story. They hear their cue and show up. They’re there because, at some point in my life, they served an important purpose; protection, likely. Lots of times they still do, but just as often their response to a situation is counterproductive.
When I can “catch” that they’re there, in the wings, ready to jump on stage, and stop them, I stand a chance of taking the “drama”–the story in my head–in a different direction. I can question whether “their” view of the situation is the only view, or the right one. I’ve been paying attention to that in my life lately and writing about it in my blog. I’ve been surprised how quickly I can pivot in my interpretation (and belief that “my interpretation” is actually accurate and correct) of a situation when one additional bit of information is introduced.
A friend saw a skinhead in a yoga class; the guy was pale, had racist tattoos and no tone. My friend quickly formed an opinion. Minutes later, he overhead someone asking the guy about his chemo. One word. And the judgment characters scrambled.
Wow. That’s intense. Yoga will def bring many kinds of people together. Thanks for sharing that.
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I’m curious if you think any physical neck trauma that might have happened to you here set you up for your CFS condition? I’ve been sick for 2.5 years now and had some neck trauma from an accident in the past and then got sick the day after a chiropractic neck adjustment. I’ve recently read a lot of CFS and neck problem connections. There’s a lot of sense to it. Did this accident happen right before you got sick?
I got into a similar car accident this year. The guy in front of me was tailgating the car in front of him, and the car in front suddenly slammed on his brakes in the accelerator lane of the highway. The guy who slammed on his brakes then sped off. I was so pissed he stopped for no reason, and my dash cam clearly showed the highway was clear for all of us to merge, so I didn’t anticipate the need to stop. ICBC sent me a letter saying I was 100% at fault because I should have kept a safer distance (true, true…). In contrast to your feeling of guilt, the incident infuriated me and to this day I find myself yelling out “WHY DID YOU STOP?!?!” Your story did make me wonder how would I feel today if someone had actually died… I’ve always had a phobia of driving as it is, and I’ve been relieved this whole time that my first car accident had the best case scenario (nobody was hurt). Honestly, we do our best, but unless you were intoxicated or just a shitty driver (which you were not), it’s just the reality of flying these monster machines down roads. Statistically something will cross our paths and we just need to be prepared as best as we can, and we were unlucky to be the ones who crossed those paths (if not you, somebody else). It doesn’t matter if you are the strongest, healthiest, smartest person in the world, we all run into monsters we can’t win against.
I also got mono a few of months later. It felt like I was swallowing razor blades, I got thrush from antibiotics (misdiagnosed as strep), I was exhausted, could barely eat or drink, lost my voice, peed brown etc. I googled “how long does mono last” and of course read about cases of chronic epstein-barr virus infection, there’s no cure and it’s inevitably fatal… I was paranoid but I’m doing fine now, but it makes me wonder if that’s what happened to you. I’m trying to ease myself back into regular exercise, so I’m not too burned out right away. I think of a personal trainer I had a few years ago that use to brag about how he tortured newbies with their first workouts to give them a wake up call. He thought it was funny but I said that was bad karma, and he needs to be more empathetic to those with less fortunate bodies. You can’t just torture someone into peak health and physical fitness. Personal trainers barking at someone to “keep going, you can do it” really pisses me off, so I workout at home now and go at my own pace.
Afflicted was misleading, but reminded me of my own healing crisis a few years ago when I was trying to lose weight and get “healthier.” I went crazy from certain “conditions” and it made me sicker and then crazier and so on. The harder I tried and the more money I spent, I feel like I amplified every pain, ailment and blemish, new problems showed up every step and got way worse. I tried some wacky things and spent money on stupid treatments (I was pitched a $1000 facial, omg, I doubt that would help my skin condition). Things turned around for me when I accepted I might just be this way for the rest of my life, and if I had to choose how I felt tomorrow morning between the same or worse, I’d settle for the same. I wanted to go back to square one at least, so I threw out all my supplements, expensive lotions and makeup, cancelled expensive specialist appointments and aimed for a minimalist lifestyle. I was surprised by how many problems were caused by me. Ah it’s funny how at 30 years old people see me and praise “you’re young, you’re beautiful, you’re healthy” etc but 10 years ago I was lectured how awful I looked (and smelled lol). They don’t see how much I had to climb to get better, and I hide the left over health issues.
I saw your story on Afflicted, and I googled you to see if you were better yet. Really hoped this whole thing for you just led to a big medical discovery and helps a lot of people, but it’s frustrating to hear you’ve barely had relief. The worst case scenario just sounds too unfair, but maybe I’ve seen too many Hollywood movies with happy endings and I’ve been brainwashed to expect a miracle. Avril Lavigne wrote the song “Head Above Water” about her battle with Lyme Disease, and she is doing so much better, so why not you?
And yet my mom told me about her father and grandmother in Eastern Europe; they suffered from very slowly progressing and painful paralyzation and died in their beds… no one had an idea what they had, it was just described that way. You can imagine what a communist medical system looked like after world war II, like fuck… I just hope it’s not genetic.
Sorry, accidentally deleted the line that explained the accelerator lane was on a downward slope, I had soft brakes, shitty tires, I slammed on the brakes, slid and rear-ended the suv in front of me.