The purpose of this post is to make the symptoms and experiences of PTSD a little more real and concrete for students to understand. Often when we talk about symptoms of psychological disorders (e.g. PTSD) we have to be abstract because we’re covering such a wide range of traumas, experiences and symptoms. While I never had PTSD, I did experience some similar symptoms after an experience with a car crash involving a train, a lot of fire, two kids and one dead father. I’ll first tell you the story for context and later I’ll describe the short-term effects it had on me.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC DETAILS
IT was a summer afternoon when I was about 22. My mum and I were driving home from our holiday house along a long, straight quiet country roads about an hour north of Christchurch, New Zealand. I had fallen asleep in the passenger’s side when I awoke to my mum’s panicked voice repeating, “oh my gosh, oh my gosh, my gosh.”
I woke as she pulled the car over to the side of the road. We were the second car to arrive on the scene and all I could see was a thin line of smoke coming from the bushes next to the train tracks and a train stopped about a mile up the line. I had just completed a first aid course for my teacher training and I remember telling my mum as if I was some sort of trained paramedic, “it’s OK, I’ve done first aid.”
I got onto the train tracks that were only slightly higher than the road (in New Zealand we don’t have a lot of trains, so the tracks are not fenced off and are often right next to the road). Walking towards me along the tracks were two kids, a girl about 7 and a boy about 9, covered in pieces of broken glass and blood. They were crying, saying “daddy’s still in there. My daddy’s still in there.” Training from first aid (which, by the way everyone should do) had taught me that a number one priority in an emergency situation was to take care of bystanders, so I beckoned for my mum to take care of the children. She ushered them under a blanket with another woman and went to the other side of the road where they kept safe and out of sight. Of the things I tried to do that day, it’s probably getting the kids away that was most important, as they wouldn’t have to see what happened next.
Now I was standing on the tracks and looking down the bank about 6 to 8 feet in really thick bushes was a smashed car. The windows had been smashed out and the engine was on fire. I started to climb down the bank to the car and I heard a man behind me say, “I’m a bit worried about that fire.” I was, too, as I’ve seen enough movies to be scared of it blowing up (for reference, cars don’t blow up like in the movies). I tried to reach the driver through the back, passenger side but it was no good. I then waded through the thick, thorny bushes to be standing next to him on the driver’s side. Once again my first aid training came back to me and even though he appeared to be unconscious, I told him my name and that I was there to help him. I remember he had a shaved head, was quite tall and slim, and had a steady stream of blood pouring from his nose. I reached into the car and felt the heat of the fire in the engine on the side of my face. I undid his belt, tried to hook my arms under his to drag him out, but he was just a dead weight. I then had the idea that maybe I could recline his driver’s chair and drag him through the back window. I tried this approach, but still it didn’t work.
So I went back to the driver’s side, the whole front of the car is now on fire and the flames are licking the side of my face. With all my strength I try to pull him from the car, but he just won’t budge. As the flames grow his body starts convulsing as if it knows it’s in serious danger. The blood flow is now a torrent from his nose and with the convulsions it’s flying everywhere; my clothes are covered. At this point I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder pulling me away. With one last effort I try to drag him free….but it’s no good. Soon I’m a safe distance about 20 feet away, watching with another man as the car is completely engulfed in flames, with the father still inside. I can still see his silhouette in the orange light.
At this point my mum is on the train tracks asking, “where is my son?”
“I’m here, mum,” and I have to walk away.
After the accident I was back sitting in our truck on the side of the road, looking at the dead man’s blood on my clothes. I remember a lady-bird rested on my arm and I thought, “at least that’s a life I can save,” and then someone who is trained to deal with people in traumatic situations came and put their hand on my arm to console me, accidentally crushing the ladybird.
At this point I didn’t feel much. I was just numb. We drove home silently, but when I got home I flipped out a little bit at being covered in blood and as I undressed I was yelling, “get this dead guy’s blood off me!” I told mum to burn the clothes, but being wise she washed them and put them away, knowing that I liked those trousers and would want them back (which I did).
In the first 24 hours I didn’t want to talk about it. I kept replaying the scene over and over and over in my head. It was like a film on repeat. Except it wasn’t really like a film at all, because when I recall the crash now it appears as a series of single images: the kids on the tracks, first reaching the car, the man trapped in the seat, the flames larger and leaning in to the car and the final image of a silhouette. Any time I closed my eyes, an image from the crash would appear. The most common thing I saw in my mind’s eye was fire; I remember that being the dominant image.
That night I had nightmares. Not horrific, but just reliving the crash again and again.
On the second day I suddenly wanted to tell everyone every little detail. It was as if I needed to get it out. I even told my step-father about it about three times (he is a policeman who patrols country roads so he comes across this stuff all the time, and often much worse). So for almost a whole day I remember just telling every person I saw what happened in minute detail. And then after that, I was done. I no longer wanted (or needed) to talk about it.
I didn’t have any nightmares except for that first night. But the two symptoms I clearly remember are related to those we talk about in our PTSD unit regarding hyper-arousal. Any time I saw fire hitting flesh I would wince and feel a sudden jolt of arousal (heart pumping, heavy breathing, etc., like I was a little panicky). It was summer in NZ and so that means BBQs! Every time I saw meat on a BBQ I would have a minor flashback, with the physical feelings I described above and also images of the crash, those that were playing through my mind just after it happened, would flash back again.
The other trigger for similar feelings was driving over train tracks. The crash happened on a level crossing, which we have a lot of in NZ because our roads are so empty (especially in the South Island). A level crossing means there are no barrier arms or red lights, so cars are free to drive over train tracks without having to stop if a train is coming. This is how the driver of the crash drove straight over the tracks, just as a train was coming. So every time I drove over a level crossing my body would have a jolt of adrenaline, I’d wince and suddenly feel anxious and a bit nauseous. The same thing also happened when I saw men with shaved heads (at this point I still had some hair, so luckily my reflection didn’t freak me out). This probably lasted for about two months.
From having experienced this, I have somewhat of an understanding of the type of stimuli-triggered symptoms that war veterans, rape victims and other sufferers of PTSD must experience. Thankfully, for whatever reason, my symptoms didn’t persist. I wonder now if that was because of my cognitive appraisals of the event. I felt very guilty for a long time that I could not save that father. I kept playing the scene over in my mind, trying to think of things I could have done differently. But there was nothing. A couple of months after the accident I met the other man (who pulled me away from the car) in a pub and we had a beer and talked about the crash. He had heard from his friends in the fire department that it had taken over one hour to cut his remains out of the car, as his feet had gone through the floor. There was literally nothing we could have done. To know this was reassuring. Had I kept on thinking in my life that I could have saved someone and didn’t, perhaps the memories would be more traumatic and hard to deal with than they are.
I also reflect on the crash and think, “at least I tried.” I often wonder how the man feels, the one who said, “I’m a bit worried about that fire.” He stood and watched as others tried to help. Perhaps he might have experienced worse trauma than me, not because of the experience, but because of the way he thought about it afterwards.
A few years later I was introduced to the man’s sister as my friends knew her (NZ is a small country). We hugged and cried and I apologised for not being able to save his life. As I write this, the emotion floods back and I have never experienced a hug so heavy. But she thanked me and told me the kids were doing great. She thanked me for trying to help.
You can never expect to come across a scene like this and I hope you never do. But for me I don’t think of it as a traumatic experience. It was heavy, but not traumatic, not for me at least. For a man in his early 20s it taught me a lot, too. And I want to share with you what I learned:
- Treat vehicles with respect.
- When you’re driving children, you better bloody drive carefully.
- Don’t drink or smoke marijuana and drive (not that I needed to know that one).
- You’re far more likely to regret not helping, than you are jumping in and getting messy.
- Don’t keep strong emotions bottled up; pour them out and deal with them.
- Do a first aid course!
So that’s my story. Again, the reason I share is because it might help to give a little insight into the word of dealing with traumatic events and the possible side-effects and symptoms that come with it.
Thanks for reading.
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.