That day, I was responsible for a fatal car accident.
The memories are hazy. They live in me like a movie montage: I’m looking over my shoulder as Julie, half standing, was looking for her seatbelt. I’m turning my head forward again and seeing the car, swerving to the right. BLANK. I’m sitting in the grass next to Kristin, who was crying “Julie, Julie, Julie.” BLANK. I’m being loaded into the ambulance on a gurney and being asked if I had been drinking, answering truthfully: “no.” BLANK. I’m being wheeled through the hospital. BLANK. Family and friends are visiting me during my multi-day, hospital stay.
Kristin walked away from the crash unscathed. Julie, on the other hand, had not found the seatbelt. She flew forward and split her forehead on the bar over the windshield.
I took the life of a Septuagenarian, and seriously injured their partner, who died within the year. Dr. Edmond and Genevieve Cooper. While there were no permanent injuries, I had risked my own life and that of two of my friends in the process.
You can imagine the grief, guilt and shame I’ve carried.
In writing this, I notice how rarely I have talked about the pain I was in. Talk about the pain I caused, but not the pain I experienced. I had a severe concussion and remembered little at the time. I still have to check which one died that day, and which died later, and how much later. That was always part of the shame I’ve felt around it. I suppose the seventeen year old boy found it to be a whole lot more comfortable to leave it that way.
While lying in the hospital, confused and disoriented, what I’ve often considered an angel came and visited me in my hospital room. She was the daughter of the couple I hit. She said they were old and something was going to happen to them sooner or later. She said I was young and had my whole life ahead of me, and I shouldn’t let it destroy me.
Let me tell you, I’ve pulled that card every time anyone brought it up. I certainly cried some about it, but I basically did my best to dust myself off, and carry on with my life. I had been forgiven, right? Right????
My entire relationship to the world changed that day. I was no longer the cocky University of Michigan bound, clean cut captain of my high school swim and water polo teams. No, I was the monster who killed someone by driving like an idiot. Oh, where’s that card? Yes, I am forgiven, dust off, move on.
Things changed. people related to me differently. In college, my best friend from high school told someone we were both becoming friends with that I had “killed someone and didn’t even care”. That hurt. how could he perceive it like this? Couldn’t he feel the shame and guilt I was living with? What did he know anyways? I thought I had been forgiven. Now I had to prove to the world that I care. I had to carry the mask of shame so nobody could ever accuse me of that again.
As the years passed, when the mostly avoided conversation came up, it became more and more mechanical. I became very skilled at acknowledging, and changing the subject, while doing everything I could to be good in the world. I knew I had done bad, and had to make it up to the world somehow. I wanted to be the mensch (yiddish for good boy) I used to be.
In 2007, 19 years post accident, I had been doing production for a workshop called Arete, which I’ve lovingly dubbed emote-o-rooter. a place to get your emotional plumbing unclogged. There was someone there whose story I hadn’t heard. All I know is that In between sessions, I saw this person sitting alone, and sobbing incredibly hard. I went to console them and put my hand on them for a bit and felt all that sorrow. I remember hearing through the sobs “my friends don’t even talk to me any more, They don’t even wave back” or something like that. I remembered feeling so alienated from my friends.
After a bit, I stepped away, and into the back stairway, where i fell to the floor and cried. Hard. I sobbed. I wailed. I was escorted to a couch, and held by David Stern-Gottfried., who just held me as I cried. At first I thought it was just releasing the other person’s sadness. Then I started to remember how I’ve been mostly out of contact with everyone from high school. I hadn’t even been invited to my high school reunion, which might be taking things too personally, but that’s not the real point, because whether this abandonment was real or not is unimportant. It was the trigger that led me to the release.
I started to really feel the pain and the shame I had been carrying those last 19 years. It hurt. I had been avoiding it for nearly 20 years, and that day, I felt it. It was in there. I sobbed and blubbered for 10 minutes or so, then composed myself to resume my production duties. I knew there was more in there, but I wanted to be part of the completion of the course.
The course ended and people shared how grateful they were for things, and several people singled me out, which made me smile, but I was still hurting inside, and that hardly made a dent in the pain I was feeling.
We cleaned the center and the production team gathered, and towards the end, someone asked me what had happened, and I started to tell the story you’ve been reading, and the flood gates opened again. I sobbed and sobbed and wailed and moaned, this time with the entire production team holding me through it, and supporting me as I worked out what needed to be worked out.
All the shame I’d been feeling for 19 years came to the surface and I cried and cried and cried until I felt all the pain I’d been carrying.
The amazing thing is, that under that pain that I had been avoiding, was a good feeling. That happy kid still lived under that coat of pain, and I’m in touch with him again.
Something that courseleader Guy had said became even clearer: the distinction between guilt and shame: guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done. It’s our conscience talking to us. Shame is feeling that you’re a bad person for what you’ve done.
I can accept and love myself again. Yes i feel the guilt, but I’ve carried the shame long enough.
It’s been another 15 years since that course. And since then I’ve met 5 other people who for one reason or another feel responsible for someone’s death. It’s a heavy burden to carry, and there’s a solace we’ve found in connecting with each other.
I’m working with some of them to create a gathering for people like us. So we can hold space for them the way it was held for us. If you know someone who carries this weight, please share this with them, and put them in touch with me.