Her screams cut me deeper than she meant them to, but the facts were clear: I was deficient, and this helplessness was a new layer to my trauma.
To her I’m a constant; one of two people she knows to rescue her from the hunger she can’t yet understand, and the fear of loneliness she knows only by instinct.
But in this state —without use of my arms after a vehicle crash— I could feel the vulnerability of not fully acting as the big, strong daddy my 7-month-old needs me to be; the one who can lift her the highest, and embrace her the tightest.
Or the one who comforts her when she cries.
I maneuvered my fractured left wrist to her one side, and my separated shoulder and damaged right arm to the other, as I bent into her bassinet as deeply as I could.
With every ounce of my strength and coordination, I pulled her small, emotionally-exhausted frame to my chest in a kind of desperate bear hug.
By the time my wife returned to the room my daughter had calmed.
But I had not.
As a journalist, most often I had heard PTSD mentioned in the context of war, or perhaps in the residual and still serious challenges of a survivor of violence or abuse.
But in the days and months after a car slammed into me, I began to realize that the physical consequences of the collision were only part of my injuries.
As my family drove me to doctor visits I’d have to close my eyes when going through intersections, as my irrational, damaged self worried that another crash was imminent.
Even months later, after a long process of physical therapy and the purchase of a car I felt safe in, I would flinch if another car sped too fast or too close to me.
A study on PTSD after vehicle crashes said many symptoms don’t surface until the return to normal activities, and anxiety in cars is one of those symptoms.
“Although complete driving avoidance is rare, most motor vehicle accident victims subsequently experience distress when driving or riding as passengers. Patients may report self-imposed limitations on their driving (e.g., only in daylight, only on city streets) or general uneasiness when in a vehicle.”
PTSD is pervasive and pernicious because it can surface in many ways, in many parts of your still-healing life.
From re-experiencing the traumatic event during the day or while sleeping, to anxiety, or sleep problems, or heightened emotion, or an absence of emotion, studies show the possible effects of PTSD to be wide-ranging.
This, compounded with whatever other physical challenges are left by the trauma, is an immense strain by itself.
But babies don’t understand that.
Through the tears of a baby’s loneliness, or hunger, or instinctive fear the wolves are coming, it’s hard to explain the complexities of injury.
Babies often work on a reactive level: when hungry, cry; when scared, cry; when tired, cry; if diaper is uncomfortable, cry; and so on.
Parents learn to decode these cries, and respond appropriately.
And picking up the child is often a given, and the most basic of aid.
As a dad, I feel the immense joy and responsibility of holding the tiniest family member in my much larger arms. I’m the strongest, the protector; the one who can open pickle jars; the one who bounces, rocks, and sings the youngest to sleep.
Until I’m not.
At times in this recovery process I could feel the temptation of admitting the trauma stripped me of my fatherly identity.
Because I can’t lift the child, or unlock the pickles, I must not be performing my role as protector and provider.
Even through the mist of psychological healing, I’ve come to reinforce in myself the antidote to that temptation: the true strength in fathering is in being present and aware.
Experts advise PTSD sufferers to focus on the things in your control, and still being attentive if not fully able is something I can control.
My wife and I are a team in parenting and in life, and adapting my activities to help the team in a different way is something I can control.
I’m still very much dealing with the trauma of my car crash, even nine months later, but I have indeed improved: I can lift my children, and play guitar and sing silly songs for them, and drive a car, and use a fork — it’s a normalcy that seemed so foreign just months ago.
Being aware of the changes you’re experiencing, and the lasting effects of a trauma, are not always easy to admit or identify, but it’s an important step on the road to recovery.
Self care and attention to mental health are acts of strength, and service to the family.
And it’s something — even if you need help to get there — that you can begin to control.