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In 2001, when I was 19 years old, I broke my neck, and then I broke my life. It’s funny how succinctly those two fell into place.
I was a passenger in a car accident where the driver lost control, we sideswiped another car, spun out of control across the freeway, and flipped over onto the embankment. I hit the windshield. I broke my neck in four places. I fractured the base of my skull. I was scalped. I lost all the feeling in my right forearm. I looked like death and felt even worse.
People always talk about your life flashing before your eyes when you're in a horrific accident. I didn’t have any of that. We were listening to “Bye Bye Bye” by NSYNC on a boom box cause this was the early 2000s and the radio in my friend’s car was broken. We drove down the 405 making our way back to Los Angeles. One second we were driving; the next I was hanging upside down in an SUV, blood pouring out of my head. Imagine the irony of almost dying while listening to “Bye Bye Bye.”
I woke up in the emergency room. A nurse was cutting my clothes off, getting to know the barest parts of who I was as a person. Other than my doctor or my sister, no one had ever seen me that naked, but now in a really white room a group of medical professionals were getting a real eyeful.
I was strapped to a gurney. My arms were tied down. I was a prisoner.
"Be still. You were in an accident, dear."
Her shears snapped away at my T-shirt, my bra, my dignity.
There’s dirt in my mouth. Why?
I pressed my tongue against my teeth. I discovered gravel and debris in every crevice of my mouth.
"I told you. You were in an accident. Don’t move."
She touched my hand.
Well, at least I still have all my teeth.
Blips like that are all I have to grasp onto. The accident itself was something I spent years desperate to imagine. It didn’t feel like I cheated death but that it cheated me. How dare I have zero recollection of something that defined my life. But after a while, it didn’t matter; and by now, I’ve learned to appreciate that my brain turned it all off. The art of survival is it’s own sort of miracle.
Everything hurt. Everything. I felt a level of pain that is impossible to describe in words, but if you have ever been in the woods and heard an animal howl as it dies, it was like that constantly. Of course there were the painkillers, which they pumped into my veins the second I was admitted to the ER. I’d close my eyes during the CT scan and wake up in a hallway. A lot of being in the hospital was like this. I’d close my eyes as a nurse administered meds to me and wake up to my entire family staring down at me. And, God, how they stared down at me. Older people were less awkward, but I knew how bad things were based on the reactions of young people; they haven’t been conditioned enough to wear bravery like an iron mask, so their faces tell a lot of truths. When I asked to look in a mirror, everyone told me I should just focus on getting better. And that’s when I knew however bad I imagined looking, the reality was worse.
It wasn’t just that I broke my neck or fractured the base of my skull, but the crown of my head hit the windshield and ripped off the top right portion of my scalp. My frontal lobe was blasted, and where my skull was once covered by skin and hair, it was now exposed to the elements. It looked like someone wanted to see how my thought process worked so they peeled off the skin like it was Velcro.
Because of this, they had to shave my hair in order to address the wound; only they just shaved the area around the wound, and the result was a haircut that looked like it was a fraternity prank; a lopsided shave job, which caused me to look like a really drunk monk. I finally got to see this after spending about a week in the ICU, when doctors told my parents that it wasn’t likely I would be a “vegetable” and probable that I’d walk again.
But they still weren’t allowing me to get out of bed. I was stuck peeing in a bed pan. Calling the nurses for help, having them roll me over onto my side where they’d push the pot underneath me. Then I’d do my business and finally they would wipe my vagina for me, which was the first time anyone other than myself had touched down there. The first man to ever touch my bits and pieces was a gay male nurse, and he was really kind about it.
One afternoon, after visiting hours were over and the nurses had checked on me, I decided I’d had enough lying in bed, sitting in my own piss, having other people wash me and wipe my ass, and I was going to use the bathroom on my own, even if it killed me. In all the times my body has rolled out of bed and my feet pressed firmly onto the floor, this is the one that will always stick with me. My feet were clammy, and turning to stand made me light-headed, but planting my feet into the ground had never felt so liberating. If I’d taken for granted the first steps I’d taken in my life, I wouldn’t this time around. My head whirled. My stomach flip-flopped. I was a baby deer, wobbling about. My hospital gown pulled this way and that, exposing my ass, my cellulite, my life. But I made it to the bathroom where I looked at myself in the mirror and immediately regretted it.
My head was covered in bandages. I stood there and unraveled the gauze carefully wrapped around my head. I ripped at it, pulling off layers intended to shield my wound and my eyes. And there it was: A giant gaping hole.
Somehow, the fact that where my hair used to be was now mounds of my flesh was less unsettling than the fact that my hair was gone. My beautiful hair. It used to reach down to the small of my back. There was an infinite amount of things I could do with it. And now it was just gone.
My body folded into itself like origami. I lost my footing and sat down in the bathroom and tried not to cry. I could feel the hot tears pouring down my cheeks, into my mouth and down my chin; my bare ass on the cold tile floor. I opened my mouth, prepared to scream but nothing happened. I stayed there, in shock, until someone eventually found me. I’d peed on the floor. On my life. Everything had unraveled, just like the gauze, but hospital staff can’t put your life back together.
The nurse that found me cleaned me up, she washed me off and got me back into bed. She held my hand and told me that my hair would grow back, that my life wasn’t over. I cried the entire time. I asked her for something to sleep. She gave me one pill and told me it would all go away in a minute but it didn’t. I woke up the next day and everything was still the same. But now they were moving me from the ICU to the serious but stable unit. Here, people were well enough that they’d moan all night. At least in the ICU most everyone was catatonic and the nights were filled with silence.
Doctors told me I could go home soon, and I really wanted to get out of the hospital and back to my life, back to school and fun and my friends, back to life as I knew it. I was convinced that if I got home, everything would go back to normal. But I was wrong. The thing about being in the hospital is that everyone you have ever met feels an obligation to visit, comfort and cheer you up, but the second you get home, it’s like you fade away because the reality is, you go home to finish healing. My face was still swollen and I was in a body brace. I slept in a hospital bed. My jaw was dislocated. I had to eat soft foods like soup, tofu, or ice cream. Most of the time I cried so hard into the ice cream it melted into a soup, which was it’s own sort of blessing cause then I’d just drink it with a straw.
People felt really bad for me. They brought me lots of food and basically encouraged me to not kill myself. But friends at that age are still shitty and selfish. At 19, after coming to visit me a couple of times, it became clear that what I’d become was a real bummer. I knew this because I called a friend after being home for a few weeks to ask if she wanted to hang out. We both knew that meant asking if she wanted to come to my parent’s house and watch me lie in a hospital bed and pretend it was normal. At first she made excuses, but eventually, she ran out of things to say and told me that visiting me was a “bummer.”
When you’re young and free, the last thing you want is a reminder of how fleeting life can be. I became a reminder that all the stupid decisions my friends were making could land them where I was. So slowly, over time, all my friends just stopped coming to see me. It was the ultimate bummer.
This was also the dark ages of the Internet. When I got out of the hospital, my parents still had dial-up, like barbarians. But since I had no friends and nothing better to do, I began perusing the Internet nonstop. My parents quickly realized that having their crippled, bedridden daughter tying up the phone line had to end, and that’s the day the heavens parted and I was gifted the magic of DSL. It seemed lightning-fast, and I could be online whenever I wasn’t sleeping or fucked up on painkillers.
Since nothing says coping mechanism like the escapism of the Internet, I began spending much less time with the friends who thought I was a bummer and much more time doing searches for things like “Amputee Russian Mail Order Brides.” It was around that time I discovered PrisonPenPals.org, a site to link prisoners with people just like me.
I spent a lot of time choosing the right person for my needs. I wanted someone who was stuck. Someone who understood how underrated freedom was. I needed someone with a long prison sentence and an infinity to view how things had gone terribly wrong. This meant I had to choose someone with a life sentence, likely a murderer. But not one who’d harmed children or women, and definitely not a sex offender. Just your run-of-the-mill murderer. Someone who’d killed someone for drugs or justice. I went through profiles forever, keeping meticulous notes about who seemed compatible, fun, and locked up for eternity.
I’d decided it should be a man with a clear conscience who openly admitted what he’d done. Innocence need not apply because whoever I chose wouldn't be getting out of jail anytime in the foreseeable future. This was when I stumbled upon an ad that really appealed to me: A convicted murderer serving three consecutive life sentences, a guy who openly admitted to killing in cold blood, but who was also a wordsmith whose personal ad was clever. If his opening line was a slip, I couldn’t wait to see what it was covering: "Hi! My name's Michael but my friends call me Six Guns."
Oh Six Guns, a man of class and style. I knew from the get-go he was the one for me.
Six Guns and I had lots in common. He got where I was coming from. We hated everyone who didn’t appreciate that they could do anything with their life. We corresponded constantly. He hated people. I hated people, too! He told me what it was like to kill someone, what it was like to go totally cold. I told him what it was like to piss in a bedpan. He said he missed women. I told him I missed showering alone. He agreed. Plus, we both liked to read. We were the caged birds and together we sung.
For the first time after my car accident, someone really got me. They understood that they couldn't help me or fix anything. And we exchanged letters like crazy, sometimes two to three a week. He’d tell me about prison life, that dickhead in the yard, and how precious it was to be outside and for a minute feel free. We had a lot to say and finally someone to say it to.
But as time passed, I started healing. I could take my body brace off. My hair was growing back. I returned to school and left the house on the regular. But Six Guns kept sending letters. At first I’d read them and tried to reply, but I got busy with school, friends, and life.
Eventually, Six Guns’ letters started piling up on my desk, turning the space where I used to feverishly respond to him into a graveyard of unopened mail, the dead letter office of his life. I didn’t want to open them because I knew the contents were going to be a bummer.
I started writing RETURN TO SENDER, NO SUCH PERSON. Because the person who once answered his letters broke out of her personal prison, and the person I’d become was truly free.