I got into a pretty bad car accident Wednesday morning. I was driving home from dropping off Andrew’s backpack at school (we forgot it on the first trip). The roads were icy in patches, so I was driving slowly. I was being careful, puttering along on in second gear, but my mind was racing with thoughts of how to structure my day ahead. I was in a very good mood. The day before I had returned from an amazing four days at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference . I was buzzing with energy and ideas.
Out of seemingly nowhere, a maroon car barreled down a side street and blew through her stop sign. I locked the brakes, laid on the horn, and tugged the wheel away from her car. But I couldn’t stop in time, or turn in time. She plowed into the side of my trusty Subaru. My glasses flew off my face. My chest hit the steering wheel, directly where my defibrillator is implanted. My car sailed across two lanes and came to a crunching stop in a yard.
“Why me?” I thought, as I dialed 911 with shaking fingers. I thought it again, when the paramedics were initially concerned that the impact had jolted loose the defibrillator’s leads buried deep into my chest. I thought it again as I watched a bruise blossom on my chest, and my neck locked up and my knees and ankle swelled. “I never get a break. I don’t even get a week without some health catastrophe.”
That morning, after my dear friend Martha picked me up at the accident and sat with me until Jay dropped out of a major meeting on a work trip and came home, I settled down to watch season two of the breathtaking show Breaking Bad with Jay. In one particularly gripping episode, Walt (a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and begins manufacturing crystal meth to provide for his family), learns at his doctor’s appointment that his brutal chemo regimen did its job and put his cancer into remission. He is nearly as shocked at this positive development as he was upon learning the dire news. “When I got the diagnosis I asked, ‘Why me?’” he said. “When I learned about the remission, I again thought, ‘Why me?’”
I chewed this over for the rest of the day. Why would he say that? It made total sense that he would question his fate when he got bad news, but why doesn’t he take the good news and run? Then it finally hit me—right in the solar plexus of my self-pity. It’s all too easy to see the bullets that hit us, but not the ones that miss us. We fixate on the awful amalgam of events and fates that bring us into danger (for me, the forgotten backpack that put me on the road at that particular moment, the ice on the roads, and the speed of the other driver), but not the equally mysterious forces that save us from something worse (my car sacrificing itself to protect me, the low speed I was keeping). Let me put it another way. When the ambulance drivers were monitoring my defibrillator’s suddenly odd behavior, they told me that two 911 calls came it at the same time. One was mine. The other was about a 27-year old woman who was walking to work, and then slipped and fell on the same icy roads I was driving. She is not getting to blog about her mishap, though. By the time the ambulance arrived, she was dead. She had hit the ground at exactly the wrong angle, at the wrong force. Why her? Why not me?
It’s funny, when you’re able to stop the chain of morose, self-aggrandizing thoughts that start with a self-pitying “Why me?” everything changes. I was able to appreciate the wonderful friends I have. Martha left work to come take me home from the cold accident scene. Jay put me ahead of an important work project and came home to care for me. We have excellent car insurance. I was alive. The other driver was alive. Andrew was not in the car—where he would have been sitting directly where the other car hit me. The police were kind and caring. I did not need immediate surgery on the defibrillator.
I’ve asked “Why me?” countless times in my years in Chronic Town. “Why me?” when I got diagnosed with a chronic and potentially fatal disease when my baby was only three months old. “Why me?” at every chemo infusion over the last four years. “Why me?” at all the weight I’ve gained. “Why us?” when I see my husband or my son struggling with my illness.
Asking “Why me?” is a good starting point, but, like Walt, we’ve got to keep asking it. “Why me?” that my doctors quickly diagnosed my disease, before I had a fatal heart attack or stroke. “Why me?” that I have good health insurance in this crazy country that leaves so many uninsured. “Why me?” that tough treatments like regular chemo actually swatted back the sarcoidosis and let me return to a somewhat normal life. “Why us?” that my husband and son are healthy and happy, that we love each other, and are weathering these years in Chronic Town together.
Have you ever got stuck on the first part of “Why me?” How did you learn to see your many blessings, regardless of an obstacle? How do you get beyond self-pity?