BY NATHAN WILL SHEETS
Photo by Ben Husmann; some rights reserved.
The noise is what I remember the most.
The noise itself was not deafening in a literal sense; however, my mind remembers it as such. When I have flashbacks, it is the thought of the noise that triggers me first, putting me into a state of anxiety or apprehension. Music is constantly flooding my mind: a song from this musical, or a classical piece by that person or even something that I have made up; I typically do not notice noises around me, or even, in some cases, noises directed at me. This noise, however, could not be avoided or ignored.
I had finally chosen to come out of my shell and visit with some old friends on that Friday night, the day after Thanksgiving. I was having mixed feelings about seeing them, but overall I was feeling ready to wander into this social New World. We were meeting in Gladstone, only a few miles from my house. I remember, en route, approaching River Road, wondering if I should diverge (it runs perpendicular to McLoughlin, the street I had originally intended to take). I decided to keep on cruising down McLoughlin -- River Road was too curvy for my tastes. Besides, I was driving my parents' van due to my car being out of commission, and curvy roads and big vans are to be avoided when possible.
I wonder what we'll be doing tonight, I thought with some apprehension. These people were my old church friends -- a church none of us were a part of anymore. Incidentally, I was no longer a part of any church or religion or "spirituality," having gotten my fill of religious indoctrination in the years previous. They're still kind of really into God -- that's going to be awkward. I wonder if we'll do anything, or if we'll just sit around talking. That would be nice, only I really don't want to talk to them about God. I'd rather just hear how they're -- F*CK!
I hope the reader excuses the language, because when a person runs in front of your car while you are driving 40 miles per hour, the "f-word" is the only word that any English-speaker thinks, regardless of religious affiliation or moral view of cursing. Indeed, my mind had not finished the entire one-syllable word before the noise entered into my mind forever.
Her head hit the windshield, so the noise included cracking. Her body hit the hood, so the noise included crumpling. My foot was slammed on the brake, so the noise included skidding and swerving. My voice was engaged in some form of horrified expression, so the noise included a whimper.
My eyes squeezed shut as I slammed on the brakes as one does when startled, but I still saw her hit the windshield and hood nonetheless. When I opened my eyes, I saw her -- a person: a living, breathing fellow human being on this confusing world of ours, with passions and family and a history -- flying 20 feet in front of my car. She lay lifeless in front of my van.
What? What just happened? Is that a person? Oh my god, it's a person. A person just ran in front -- oh my god! What if she's dead? All of these thoughts, occurring simultaneously, filled my mind, while my body managed to grab my phone, get out of the car, and walk ahead to the nearest cross street so I could tell a 911 operator what had happened and where I was.
There were people. "Somebody help her!" I screamed. Deep down, I knew I should not approach and look at her. I knew she was dead. I had no idea if it was my fault or not, and I knew seeing her up close would not be good for me later. What I did see from afar was hard to stomach: the shin of one of her legs -- Oh my god, look at her leg! I did that! I did that with my car. Oh my god, she's dead -- was broken in half, lying irregularly at a ninety-degree angle.
People were hovering over her, with one lady administering CPR. "I'm on McLoughlin and Glen Echo -- this woman just ran in front of my car!" More people were gathering -- out of taverns, out of cars. Oh my god, I did this. "What if she's dead?"
"Sir, just stay calm; I have emergency response on their way," the 911 operator gently said, keeping calm, as if we were having a casual Sunday afternoon chat.
My disbelief of the situation began to overwhelm me. More people. Gladstone police, Milwaukie police and Clackamas County Sheriffs were all on the scene. Don't faint, Nate. The 911 operator is still on the phone, asking you questions. Be a man. Don't get overcome with emotion. "Yes, ma'am, the police just showed up."
"OK, go ahead and hang up with me and find one of them to talk to."
As I hung up the phone, my body went into shock. "Where is the driver?" I heard people asking. The voices were muffled and a high-pitched sound filled my head. My head kept drifting down -- Must . . . find . . . officer -- and I had to make a concerted effort to keep it up. I walked like a zombie, taking six-inch steps. The noise . . . she hit my car so hard. There's no way she can be alive. Oh my god I just hit a person with my car. It was so loud. Where are the police? I need help!
"Where's the driver?" I kept hearing. Forty people were on the scene by this time. Witnesses, bystanders, police, paramedics. I could not find a police officer, even though there were a dozen running around me. My mind did not recognize them. Finally, I found two bystanders on the sidewalk. I looked at them with sad, lost eyes. "I'm the driver. I can't find an officer," I told them. I must have looked like a child who loses their parents at Disneyland and finally musters up the courage to seek help from a random person on the street.
"Oh my god!" the woman exclaimed with compassion while taking me by the hand, a mere 10 feet to the nearest Sheriff's deputy.
Photo by csnoke; some rights reserved.
"I'm the driver," I said, as if those were the only words I could put forth. Internally the noise -- the cracking, crackling, skidding, screeching, whimpering -- kept going through my mind. It would not stop. Over and over again my mind heard the noise and saw her hit and fly in front of the car. It would not stop.
And yet, I was answering the deputy's questions. "I had one drink about two hours ago," "Was I speeding? I don't think so . . . ", "No, she just ran in front of my car -- maybe ten feet ahead of me . . . " The deputy was beckoned over to the scene. She informed me that the officer taking care of me -- like a restaurant hostess telling me who my waiter would be for the evening -- would actually be an Oregon State trooper. Four different police agencies, all responding to something I had done. She just ran . . . in front of the car.
The deputy walked away, leaving me by myself. I stood, forty feet from the lady's lifeless body, watching as they performed CPR on her. People were still everywhere. The entire highway was closed. Oh my god, I did this. Is it my fault?
Two men approached me and asked me if I was the driver. They told me they saw the whole thing, smoking outside the bar they were at. "Dude, she just ran right in front of you!"
"She . . . she did?" I asked. "Could I have stopped?"
"No way, dude. It was insane."
I have probably not been as grateful for anything in my whole life as I was upon hearing that it was not my fault. I do not know if I felt the gratitude at that moment, or just afterward, but they planted an important seed that would help me later. It's not my fault . . .
The evening pressed on slowly. Blood and urine tests, a trip to the emergency room, being told the woman had died -- everything was happening in a slow-motion, surreal way. I was trying to awaken from my nightmare, but I was not granted such a privilege.
Days passed, and then weeks. I do not know anything about the woman except for her name and that she was 60 years old. I tried to put together what had happened as the results of the investigations came in. They found that I was not speeding. She's dead. All six witnesses said it was not my fault. It was so loud. The insurance companies and lawyers started their calls. But it's not my fault! I retold the story, as I remembered it, hundreds of times over the next few months, answering questions that ranged from the basic to the ridiculous:
"No, I hadn't been drinking before I got into the car. I had a drink two hours prior."
"What kind of music was I listening to? I don't think I even had the radio on. How is that unusual? I just like driving without a radio on -- ask my friends. Why is this relevant?"
"I was driving my dad's van because my car is out of commission. Yes, I'm insured on that car. No, I will not settle."
"I was going to a get-together."
The noise was so loud . . .
Work resumed, people's memories faded, but the noise remained in my head. During meetings, talking about kids who need help, my mind would hear the noise. I would picture the woman's head smashing against the windshield. "Jonny needs to get his prescriptions refilled." It was so loud. "So why aren't the foster parents getting them filled?" Why didn't she use a crosswalk? "They say that there's an issue with the prescription's insurance." She must have misjudged where my van was as she sprinted across the highway . . . "OK, I'll get right on it. It's probably just the computer system; you know how that is." I picked the wrong week to become an atheist . . .
I became more isolated than I had ever been before, even more so than after leaving my faith, my "god" and my friends. Hot wings became my nightly companion, in addition to a two-liter of soda. Night after night (playing video games, eating hot wings, and drinking soda) I withdrew from normal human activities, with my only interactions occurring at work. Each day, as soon as I was done working, I would retreat into a fantasy world of swords, guns, portals and bad voice-acting. I began to gain weight. My depression worsened and I could not cry. I did not talk to god, nor to anyone else (except perhaps one close friend) about what I was going through.
And yet I desperately wanted people to know -- I wanted them to know that, during our interactions, I was not really there. I was in a place of sadness and horror and melancholic reflection. But how does one convey the message without feeling like a basket case or a narcissist? Too apprehensive to reach out, I continued my journey in silence.
My personality was completely different than before. I was more cynical, more pessimistic and less smiley than I have been my entire life. I did not make jokes, go to parties or even leave the house on the weekends. My co-workers did not reach out to me, and I did not reach out to them. I allowed them to think that I was a distant person, only warm in certain instances that were few and far between.
We all go through times of mental anguish, perhaps suffering from mental health issues -- mostly silently. For the first time, I experienced what that vast majority of my clients at work have experienced their entire lives -- a mental health condition. And I am not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26% of the American adult population has a mental health issue at any given moment. Because mental health issues can be treated and go away, this does not account for people who at one time or another have had a mental health issue and have worked through it. So the number of people who have or have had a mental health issue is actually quite higher if one takes into account all of the people who have, have had or will have a mental health issue at any time in their life.
Today, mental health conditions take a backseat while we have national dialogues around accommodations for disabilities in the workplace. We, as employers and co-workers, are typically willing to accommodate and help someone in a wheelchair, or someone who is blind or even someone with a developmental disability, so long as they are able to do their job -- but what of mental health conditions?
Mental health conditions are still treated like something that we just do not talk about. It is the teenager, upon her parents finding out she is pregnant, going to live with her aunt in Iowa for eight months. It is something about which to be ashamed: people who are retarded cannot help it, but people with Bi-Polar Disorder need to "get over themselves." We consider inquiries into one another's mental health statuses to be inappropriate and extremely intrusive, unless the person with the condition volunteers that information, in which case they may come across as an attention whore or as being socially awkward. When a person breaks their leg, they receive a vase of flowers and a nice card from the office whereas when a person is admitted to the hospital because of a nervous breakdown, their co-workers probably never find out and assume they have the flu. This hush-hush attitude toward mental health issues is ironic, in that so many people have a mental health issue while significantly fewer have actual disabilities that require accommodation.
Life is not like a movie, where something occurs or someone wanders into our life, encouraging us to be refreshed and start life anew. Having spent the year 2010 grieving and living in my mental health condition, I noted that the next year was 2011. My favorite number since childhood has been the number 11. It is a balanced number, yet "odd." What better time to claim something for myself: to rise out of my depression and become bigger than the event that changed me so? So I did it: I claimed 2011 to be "my year." Even more so, I am fortunate to have a clearer understanding that people all suffer internally at some point in their lives, and I -- as a manager, as a friend, as a human being -- can be in tune to that, and be the person that can encourage them to turn it around, get some help and rise above their mental health condition.
We all have the choice to be transparent about our issues and use it to change the culture and dialogue about mental health issues, or we can continue a culture of silence around an issue that affects nearly all of us. By the culture changing, encouraging people to be more open about their issues, it may even help decrease episodes of depression, suicide or neglect of mental health issues that leads to institutionalization or violence.
Since writing this essay for a college course, Nate has been able to work with his co-workers to understand his mental health issues, and he encourages others who are experiencing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or any other mental health issue to be honest with friends, families and co-workers to help end the stigma. Nate found BringChange2Mind.org to be a helpful resource. Nate welcomes emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nate is living a very happy life in Portland, Oregon, where he works with foster children with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges.