“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have” – Bob Marley
March 30, 2018, is now a day indelibly printed in my memory, for better or worse. I woke up quite frustrated that day as I knew my day was not going to go according to plan. You see, I am a creature of habit and I crave routine. I actually enjoy Mondays because I thrive in the predictability of the weekly routine. So on that rainy March morning last year, my well thought out plan to get in my last pre-vacation sweat and pack my whole family up for our trip was already going to require some flexibility on my part.
It all started with a last-minute dental issue that I needed to resolve before travelling the next day. Fortunately, or so I thought at the time, the dentist was able to see me first thing that morning. When I look back on that day and the events that unfolded it seems almost comical to me that my stress about packing and exercising were at the forefront of my mind. When I got into my car that morning to head to the dentist I did not know then that my routine as I knew it would cease to exist and my outlook on life would be forever changed. If only my biggest problem that day would have been overpacking the kid’s suitcases…
I never did make it to the dentist, the gym, or my trip because I was driven off of the highway, on one of the most dangerous merges in my area, by a reckless driver. When you are hit by a vehicle going 80 mph and you didn’t see it coming, your life literally stops. When the airbags deploy all around you, it feels like you are in a roller coaster tunnel, unaware of what twists, turns or sudden drops lie ahead. There is no getting off the ride; you’re physically trapped. You are in anticipation of the biggest drop yet. All you can do is hold your breath and pray for the ride to be over so that you can pull into the station and get back on solid ground.
I never did like rollercoasters.
The sound of the crash and subsequent thrusts into the guard rail resembled a thunder bolt and exploding bombs all at once. I have always heard the term “my life flashed before my eyes,” but never did I know the meaning of that phrase until that March morning. While in the dark tunnel, awaiting a final drop, I saw my son and daughter’s beautiful faces and screamed out in terror at the thought of missing the rest of their lives.
But miraculously, the ride came to an end. I don’t recall the details of how I escaped the smoke-filled car, or how I severed the ligament in my wrist while bracing for impact. I was in shock, pain and disbelief all at once. At the time, I didn’t know just how many surgeries, and months of rehab I would need. I also didn’t know that my physical and emotional journey to regain my strength would be one of the most humbling and difficult challenges I have ever faced.
Life does not just go back to “normal” after a traumatic experience; albeit a terrible car crash, tragic event or loss of a loved one. Human beings have a physiological reaction in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. This is probably known to most as the fight-or-flight response or acute stress response. What is less known is the fight-flight-freeze response. The freeze reaction is when you become so paralyzed by fear that you completely dissociate from it all. This occurs when you can neither defeat nor run from the danger that is coming your way; you become frozen in that moment so that you don’t have to face the fear.
After my accident, I was truly frozen until the moment my kids stepped on the bus to go to sleepaway camp that June.
I was frozen so that I could still be a mother to my kids and somehow do their laundry, feed them, and pack their camp trunks, and get them through the end of their school year despite my physical pain and limitations.
I was frozen so that my children didn’t realize just how close they came to losing their mother, and so that they could not sense just how grateful I was to be hugging and kissing them, probably more than they desired.
I was frozen so that I could still be a wife, daughter, sister and friend to everyone in my life.
I was frozen so that I could continue my job as a psychotherapist and give my patients everything I had without compromising their care.
I was frozen so that I didn’t have to confront just how scared I was that my life would be forever altered.
When my kids left for camp last summer, and my husband and I were alone in the house for the first time in months, all of my emotions came pouring out at once, like a volcano that had waited to erupt until just the right moment.
I wonder how many times as women we subconsciously “freeze” to be everything our loved ones need us to be.
As working moms, for example, we never quite feel like we are giving enough or being present enough. We either feel guilty that our work causes us to miss our child’s field trip, game, or helping with homework. Or we feel overwhelmed, even when physically present, and don’t give our kids that undivided attention they crave.
As professionals, we might try to mask the pain and suffering we are going through, to put the needs of our patients, clients or colleagues first.
As wives or partners, we may feel we are falling short because we are not able to provide the same level of physical and emotional support we once did.
Being frozen can be protective because it allows us to carry on with life as normal for everyone around us. But, when the ice thaws, we are left having to take the time to prioritize ourselves and our healing. Putting yourself first is not a concept that comes easy or naturally to most women, but I have come to realize how essential it truly is.
There are a number of lessons and emotions I am still processing. But, as I look back on this year in reflection—and the progress I have made—I wanted to share a few thoughts that may apply to you—whether you are actively working to “unfreeze,” coming to grips with a new normal or dealing with a physical or mental barrier right now:
Don’t be afraid to start a new beginning. It may be unpredictable and uncomfortable, but the discomfort is usually a sign that we are challenging ourselves.
Sometimes life’s detours present the greatest gifts, and we have to be ready to receive them. When we are forced to veer off path, look for the opportunities that would otherwise lay dormant.
Don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones for help when you are feeling paralyzed. You have a network of people around you—family, friends and colleagues—who are ready, willing and able to help you rebuild.
There are moments each day when I still feel trapped in that roller coaster tunnel, but I imagine that will lessen in time. I may no longer need my son to open my drinks, my daughter to brush my hair, or my husband to help me get dressed, but I will not soon forget that my family and friends became my strength when mine was lacking.
If you are feeling paralyzed by trauma, illness, loss, or unexpected challenges, lean on your support system while you recover and tap into that internal strength you possess… it will get you through the difficult moments, days, weeks, and years ahead.
I don’t know exactly how I will feel on March 30, 2019. I do know that I will celebrate on that day and honor the unexpected detour my life took a year ago and the journey I continue to be on for physical and emotional healing. And I will probably smother my kids with hugs and kisses and they will deep down enjoy it!
“Make up your mind that no matter what comes your way, no matter how difficult, no matter how unfair, you will do more than simply survive. You will thrive in spite of it.” —Joel Osteen
Jacqueline A. Schmidt is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a pyschotherapy private practice in Westchester County, NY. She specializes in depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, adolescence, parenting, and grief and loss. She works with children, teenagers, adults, and couples in a warm empathic environment that encourages self exploration and achievement of attainable and sustainable goals. She enjoys her routine and comfort of being at home with her husband, son, daughter, and 2 rescue dogs. Fun Fact: Jackie is one of the older sisters of Carrie Majewski, founder of the Women in Leadership Nexus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.