I Killed A Man and I Want to Die
Coping with PTSD after her involvement in a fatal auto accident, Erin Maynard navigates a campus full of perceived dangers, like the parking lot full of cars behind her. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum
I dream about blood.
Its bitter, coppery taste fills my mouth.
I see it, dark and oily, pooling around the broken body on the asphalt.
I wake up screaming – hands outstretched, like Lady MacBeth looking for blood on my hands, wrists, sheets.
My days are no better. At the sound of squealing tires, my left hand flies to shield my eyes while my right one clenches. I can no longer sit in a car longer than 30 minutes without medication.
Exactly three years ago today, I killed a pedestrian on the Long Island Expressway. The accident wasn't my fault.
The detective in charge of the case looked me in the eyes and told me so.
Yet, still, I am haunted.
He died because my car ran him over.
Countless conversations with priests and counselors will never change that. Sometimes, it is hard to go on knowing what I did.
And yet I do.
Living honorably is my way of paying tribute.
And yet, so often I feel as if I am perpetrating a fraud when I try and do something kind. It's as if I have become so tainted by the accident that I can never be good again. Sometimes, I think it would have been easier if I had died, too.
Each day, I wake up wondering which 113 Americans will die in traffic accidents. Will it be the little girl in pigtails who's not wearing a bike helmet? Will it be some of my UB classmates, who drink too much and drive too fast and think they are invincible? Or will it be the father of four who talks on his phone as he steps off the curb?
One hundred and thirteen people. Those are the statistics, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's 42,000 a year. Another 350,000 Americans are injured yearly.
I wish those numbers were abstract for me. But ever since a little after noon on that sunny November day three years ago, when I was heading home from my job as an editorial aide at a public relations office, steadily doing 55 mph on the Long Island Expressway in my tan Nissan Sentra, and thinking how happy I was to have my boyfriend down from Buffalo, those numbers are indelibly inked on my psyche.
So are my memories of the psychiatric ward, where the ambulance brought me after the accident. It's a place where chairs are bolted to the ground, men walk around in nothing but diapers, and the smell of antiseptic pervades. I didn't belong there, but yet, I didn't belong outside either.
My boyfriend, his parents, and a large dose of medication saved me.
The sedative blurred the pain. My boyfriend got me out, took me home, wrapped me in my pink, flannel squirrel pajamas, and kept me safe from phone calls, news articles, and TV coverage of the accident. He also saved me from myself.
I wandered around the house like a living ghost, with a bottle of sedatives in my bathrobe pocket. Often, I prayed I would fall asleep and not wake up.
Yet even my dreams couldn't shield me. I kept re-experiencing the accident.
It's always the same. The sky is bright, the cars are few. It is a little past noon and I am almost home. I am excited to have my boyfriend back on Long Island, and even more excited to have the house to myself.
I move into the right-hand lane because my exit is coming up. A silver car has barely pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. I pass the car and feel a little "thump." No big deal, nothing major, I think, perhaps the sideview mirror.
I pull over, fish my cell phone out of my purse and start to call 9-1-1. I look out my windshield and notice that the passenger side of my hood looks like a crushed paper fan.
I get out of the car, hold the phone and walk toward the other car. Then I see it.
"Oh my God, I hit…There's a man…Please…Oh my God…NOOOOO!"
Asif Ali, 30, was pronounced dead at 1:21 p.m. at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center. But he really died on the asphalt. I know. I was standing there when the EMT said it.
When he did, I passed out.
The next few days are a kaleidoscope of vicious images. There is the congealing blood, his lone sneaker on the highway, the twisted bits of tan yarn from his sweater stuck in the mangled grill of my car. There's the pulsating light from the police cruisers and the whir of the MedEvac's helicopter blades. There's the sting of gravel biting into my cheek when I fell to the ground.
I can't get any of this out of my head – ever.
Within a few days, the accident report came out. Three witnesses said it was not my fault – that Ali had stepped into the road where I was driving; that he couldn't be seen until it was too late; that there was nothing I could have done. A detective told me Ali had been changing his tire and stepped into the road just as I came by. There was nothing I could have done.
I walked away with no external injuries, but inside I was lost. I had killed someone. Because of me, Ali's daughter would grow up without a father.
I got nightmares, and I now live with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Like veterans coming back from combat, I keep reliving the trauma. It's made me angry, bitter and nasty. It's made me hurt the people trying to take care of me. In the months after the accident, I punched my sister in the jaw and decked her over a trip to the supermarket. I almost sabotaged by best friend's relationship. For a year, I yelled at anyone whom got in my way.
I knew I had to change. I couldn't stay in Smithtown, Long Island. I couldn't be near the accident. In June of 2009, I moved to Buffalo to be near my boyfriend. But the nightmares continued.
I could no longer drive a car – what if I killed someone again?
I could no longer even sit in a car without medication – what if someone else killed someone?
I couldn't even cross a street without getting panicked. My friends have started holding my hand, which is humiliating. I still can't watch the news, see a film about a crash, or even hear the sound of screeching brakes without getting panicked.
In April 2010, I had an attack inside my friend's Jeep. I couldn't stay in the car any longer, so I jumped out while he was driving on Route 33.
My head slammed into the pavement. My left leg scraped the asphalt until it was raw. My friend's Jeep was inches from running me over.
I suffered a traumatic brain injury, which meant more hospital time, more medicine and more pain.
The head injury causes memory loss, migraines and aphasia.
But it also woke me up.
My best friend said he could no longer be around me. I was too angry. Too crazy. Too troubled.
That's when I realized I had to come to terms with the accident and with myself.
I found a great therapist and enrolled at UB to study English and anthropology. I'm a junior now, and I'm determined not to let this accident define me.
I'm also determined not to let this all have been for nothing. A friend asked why I would tell such a personal story in such a public way.
If even one reader is more cautious as driver or pedestrian, then sharing has been worthwhile. Preventing another tragedy is worth the discomfort I've experienced with what I have chosen to write.
There is another reason. It is not often you get the chance to publically apologize. I was not a nice person after the accident; I hurt a lot of my friends and family. They did not deserve it and there are no excuses. I am sorry.
I will never be that innocent girl driving on that sunny November day. But I can choose who I become.
I owe that to Ali's memory and to myself.
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