Drawing Toward Recovery After Being Hit By A Car
On Wednesday, April 20, 2022, I took a short break from working from home to walk to pick up my cat’s prescription. It was an errand that should have taken 20 minutes at most. I remember telling my cat on the way out the door, “I’ll be right back, sweetie.”
According to Transportation Alternatives’ internal database, between April 20 and May 18, 2022, twelve pedestrians were killed in New York City, including a 16 year old outside of her school, a 21 year old NYU student, and an 89 year old.
My own story was not over on that day. At 4:16 pm, as I was walking through a crosswalk in Brooklyn with the walk signal in my favor, a driver ran a red light while turning left and slammed into me. In the millisecond before I was hit, I knew I was going to be hit, and there was very little I could do about it. I attempted to jump to my left to hopefully clear the car’s tires, but I was still hit.
I was not run over by the car, but I was knocked back hard and my head slammed into the asphalt. I was in immediate, horrible pain, and lying in the street. I’d always wondered if I would be a person who screamed or kept silent in an extreme circumstance such as this one, and it turns out I am a person who screams. Pedestrians had seen the crash occur, and they immediately called 911.
My right hand went to the back of my head. Instantly, a painful giant bump bigger than my hand and at least 3 inches thick had formed, searing through all other sensations. I did not know if I had broken bones, but I knew my head had been badly hurt. Realizing I was miraculously still conscious, my first thought was, “I have to stay awake. I can’t pass out or die, because I am alone right now.”
I thought about how no one would be there to give my cat his critically important heart medication at the right time if I passed out or died. I got scared that I would lose my wallet or keys if I passed out. So, I focused on staying awake. “It hurts! It hurts! Has anyone called an ambulance?! Help me!” I remember desperately saying to the pedestrians.
They reassured me that an ambulance would arrive shortly. “Thank you,” I said from the ground. The pain was so bad that tears streamed down my face. I found out later that though the person driving the car never came over to me or asked me how I was doing, they did stop.
Emergency Medical Technicians arrived and stabilized my neck in a tight brace, strapping me to a board, in case I had spinal cord injuries. From this immobile vantage point, lying on the ground, I could see two police officers. One of them came over and asked me what happened. I was in so much pain that it was hard to talk, but I gave a basic account, emphasizing that I had had a walk signal in my favor. I found out days later that the officers did issue a summons to the driver.
The pain intensified as the ambulance took me to a local hospital, where I was left to wait on a stretcher, still strapped to the board and in the neck brace, in the triage line. Misery permeated the grim emergency room. I was told that a patient was coding, so I would have to wait. Many hours passed. I was still strapped down. I wondered what would happen if I had to use the bathroom. From my personal prison of immobility, I could only see another patient on a stretcher who had the most seriously sickly and damaged foot I could imagine. This foot was directly facing me. Several of the toes were blackened, and it appeared that two of them had just fallen off. I glanced to the floor to see if the toes were there. The rest of the foot was red and the skin was peeling off. I felt so bad for this patient, and wondered how he could ever walk again with a foot problem such as that.
After looking at the foot for a long time, I closed my eyes. The image of the foot is indelibly imprinted in my mind. Eyes closed, I focused on the sounds around me, of multiple thick, wet, rattling coughs. My right hand went up to my face mask and pressed it down, hoping to somehow keep coronavirus from getting in. I pessimistically thought to myself, “There’s no way I won’t get Covid here.”
I thought about two people I’d heard about who had had injuries requiring the emergency room, where they’d caught Covid and died. I thought about all of the humans suffering and afraid around me at the emergency room, then the millions who were suffering and afraid around the world at that moment.
As emergency room visits are wont to do, hours of time were obliterated. Two compassionate-seeming doctors in masks came up to me and asked me a series of questions, then they disappeared. I was wheeled for scans. Late that night, an exasperated ER doctor finally came to tell me that I was very lucky to not have a fractured skull, a major spinal cord injury, or a brain bleed, and I was ordered to go home and follow up on all of my injuries, which included significant injuries to my knee, elbow, back, neck, and head, with a regular doctor.
Late that night, I took a cab home and barely made it up the stairs. Friends had offered to come by, but I knew I just needed to rest, and I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone that late at night when they had work the next day. I staggered around, getting my cat his heart medicine, grateful that I could. He seemed perplexed that I’d been gone for so long. I noticed my jeans were torn across the knee. I dropped my clothes on the bathroom floor and took a quick shower because I was so fearful of potential Covid exposure at the hospital. I got in bed and called my mother, and cried.
I quickly found out that recovering from a bad head injury is no joke. Light and sound were overwhelming. I couldn’t look at a phone or computer screen without extreme head pain. For the first week after being hit, I could barely turn over in bed, and it took gritted teeth and every ounce of strength in my possession to make it to doctor’s appointments. I was basically non-functional, getting out of bed to eat something, give my cat his medicine and food, then collapsing back in bed.
Friends and family offered to help and visit, but I had to politely refuse these generous offers because even opening my eyes, speaking, or moving at all was too much. All I wanted was to lie as quiet and still as possible. Time is undone when one has a head injury. You are alone, contained in your own body, no matter how many people you know, or friends and loved ones you might have.
Well-meaning advice poured in. Raw turmeric root! Arnica! Acupuncture! Family members and friends of different faiths said prayers. To my surprise, one friend told me that she is a witch and that she was doing a healing spell for me. My heart is forever warmed by how kind and caring so many people have been to me, and I have tremendous gratitude to the pedestrians and medical workers who helped me.
After seven days, I finally started to emerge from what felt like a dead zone. I picked up my jeans from where I had left them in the bathroom, surprised to find that they were torn apart across the back, too. I will spare you the Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare of the days-long scavenger hunt required to obtain the police report and the insurance information of the person who had hit me.
As an artist, making self-portraits had never floated my boat. In fact, I’d even harbored negative criticism in thinking that artists who focused on self-portraits, just like those who obsessively post “selfie” photos, engaged mainly in narcissistic navel gazing, obscuring a broader view of art, others, and the vast universe. I understand now that I was wrong to make such presumptions about self-portraiture, because vanity is rarely an artist’s only motivation.
Emerging from the crash and head injury, I felt alone, fragile, and as though I were barely still here. The crash had splintered my brain within its groove. Lying in bed, I thought about making a drawing of the new post-head-injury me. Would how I felt and the pain and trauma I’d experienced be visible, if I drew myself? Would drawing myself help me return to life? In my mind I pictured the intense emotional states of suffering that German artist Käthe Kollwitz conveyed in black and white, then somewhat ridiculously envisioned myself conveying something that dramatic via artwork. Dragging myself out of bed, I began drawing.
The marks my hand made were short and scratchy. The tangle of my jangled brain and hair meshed as I drew. Dark circles under my eyes and a frown I could not force away defined my face. My drawing was rough, and I was not able to work on it long. My finished drawing looked nothing like the deeply expressive and beautifully raw Käthe Kollwitz images I’d aspired toward. Still, I was here. On this day, when I made a drawing, for the first time since the crash, I knew that I could come back.
The act of drawing is profound. It is a simple human action that makes imagination physical and tangible, and lets others see what you feel or dream. To draw is to leave a mark in the face of death and eternal obscurity. Drawing is a way of saying, “I was alive and I was here.”
The next morning, which was the eighth day after the crash, I was in much worse pain, but I knew I had to make a drawing. If I didn’t, I might fade away.
I hadn’t felt depressed through the first week of recovery, but as my body repaired itself enough, it was also suddenly able to feel depressed. A friend told me he knew I was getting better because now I was able to feel depressed. People kept telling me how lucky I’d been that it hadn’t been worse and that I was alive. I agree. I know I am lucky. But, I felt relief when my neighbor told me, “Even if you’re lucky about injuries not being fatal or worse, being hit by a car is also incredibly unlucky.”
I felt so much pain that I could only create a simple image, with transparent washes and basic lines. But still, completing the image of myself felt like a triumph that morning. I got back in bed and closed my eyes.
I felt worse through the day, like I was slipping away. I kept picturing the car coming toward me. The view of the police, pedestrians, and sky from when I’d been lying on the ground invaded my mind. I kept seeing THE FOOT.
I willed myself to make another drawing later that day, to force my brain into the present moment and pull myself out of the images of the crash and remind myself that I was still here. I couldn’t work for very long, but making the drawing helped me.
The ninth day after being hit by a car was my lowest point. I was not able to make a drawing. I felt a lot of anger, not just about being hit by a car and in pain, but about everything. I believe this anger was because of the head injury. I also felt overwhelmed, because along with getting slightly better comes a flood of the responsibilities that have been shirked, work, the emails gone unanswered, and the bills that are due.
Ten days after being hit by a car, I made another drawing. My drawing skills were making a comeback. I felt more in control of my line and achieving the effect I desired. This reassured me. As someone who has drawn or painted almost every day of my life, it had been disconcerting to feel diminished in my capabilities after the crash. My drawing on this day looks angry and sad, which is an accurate depiction of my state of being. Making this drawing helped me to get the anger and sadness out, and leave it in the drawing.
On the eleventh day after being hit, for the first time I began to feel more like myself, if myself means someone who still has a sense of humor and enjoys the world and everything in it. I looked like hell, still disheveled, but some fun was coming back because I wore a t-shirt with a Nintendo-themed alphabet on the front. I was able to do more work and begin tackling everything left undone. I also realized, after testing a few times, that I had likely not contracted Covid at the emergency room, so there was a sense of relief on this day.
Twelve days after being hit by a car, on May 2, 2022, I woke up feeling determined. I took a shower and put on a pale lavender top. For the first time since being hit, I put on a little makeup and blow-dried and fixed my hair. As I worked on that day’s drawing, some color started to slightly seep into the composition. Though I was determined, I was still greatly diminished, because working for a few hours made my head and neck hurt tremendously. This drawing expressed my spirit of determination, while the paleness reflected the faded sense of myself with which I was still living. I was headed in the right direction. I was making a comeback.
I was getting back into the swing of things. I still had follow up medical appointments, but I also had a lot of work I had to do. I worked on a creative project proposal. Computer and phone screens still made my head hurt, but I could tolerate them for increasing periods of time. I got tired very easily.
Once I was able to do some more things, I had a lot I had to do. Laundry had piled up. Bills and correspondence and work left ignored had to be tackled. I still needed much more rest than normal, so I was going to bed early, taking breaks and naps. Once I started to return to life, I didn’t feel as much urgency to make a drawing of myself every day in order to reassure myself that I was still here. So, I let myself rest a lot and heal.
My drawing on May 5, 2022, fifteen days after being hit, intuitively became a swirl of slightly strange, unnatural colors. This reflected my state of mind. I wasn’t consistently energetic or happy, but joy and energy were returning.
On May 18, 2022, one month after being hit by a car, I drew another self-portrait. By this point, even though I was still contending with fairly severe pain that continues to this day, I felt much more optimistic. Things my doctors had been concerned about as potentially serious permanent problems, such as the possibility that I had neck compression, had turned out to be things that I could recover from instead, such as nerve damage. My energy was coming back a tiny bit at a time.
As I began to come back into the world, things I’d been oblivious to started to return to the forefront of my perception. Roe v. Wade was probably going to be overturned. A sequel to the film “Top Gun” came out. Kim Kardashian wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress at the Met Gala. Horrific mass shootings occurred, including a racist attack on a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and the massacre of many children in a school in Uvalde, Texas. Everyone was angry, upset, and divided about how to solve the gun problems. But would anything change? My email inbox was bombarded with Memorial Day sales. Summer was here. My doctors finally cleared me to return to moderate exercise, so I could go roller skating again, if I promised I would go slow and wear a helmet. The Covid pandemic continued. Tornado season had arrived, too. I finally, finally felt like an American again. So, on June 6, 2022, when I sat down to draw my portrait, I realized that my head was a cheeseburger. It was on this day that I really knew that I was back to being myself. Will this country and world chew me up? I hope not.
My story did not end on that day. April 20, 2022. Every day that I am here, I know I’m here one day longer than the twelve pedestrians who were killed by cars in New York City in the month following my incident. Those are days they could not make drawings, or be angry, or work, or call their mothers, or give cats medicine, or sleep.
I already understood this, but being hit by a car reiterated to me with crashing clarity that all of our days are numbered and none of us knows how long we might have. When I consider the possibilities of everything that might go wrong on any given day, in catastrophic and disruptive ways, I wonder why we all don’t simply run around screaming all day long. I’m not sure why I don’t, especially now that I know I’m a screamer. When I consider the fragility of humanity and the suffering of so many, it makes me wish we would all try harder to be kind to each other while we are here.
I’m still in a lot of pain, one year later. Life is hard and overwhelming in many ways, especially with a cheeseburger for a head, but I’m still here. So is the image of THE FOOT. I take a licking and keep on ticking, when fortune is on my side. I know I am very lucky to be alive, but aren’t we all?
ALL IMAGES & TEXT COPYRIGHT © 2022 ELIZABETH MEGGS