When I was about 24 years old I was driving my car at night, in the winter, after a snowstorm. The highway was clear, but while traveling though a city I hit a patch of black ice. My car started spinning.
What happened next I did not expect. As my car started spinning, time slowed down for me. I developed tunnel vision, and what I did see, became vivid. I don’t remember hearing anything, even when a truck went by me.
I wasn’t scared at all, even though I knew I could die. What I felt was more like disbelief and awe. But no fear.
As my car spun off the highway, I hit a snowbank on the side of the road. My car tipped on its side, then upside down, then on its other side, then upright, then came to rest on its side.
I sat there, still in my seat (sideways), waiting to see I was okay. I was. I got out, tipped my car back on its wheels, drove out of the ditch, and continued on my way.
Years later, I found what happened to me is common in instances of extreme stress. It happens to soldiers and cops in gunfights.
The theory explaining what happened to me is that in these instances of extreme stress, the mind shuts out what it does not consider essential. It focuses on what it considers the immediate threat.
Writes Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Blink,” “Our mind, faced with a life-threatening situation, drastically limits the range and amount of information we have to deal with. Sound and memory and broader social understanding are sacrificed in favor of heightened awareness of the threat directly in front of us.”
This condition I was in was not pleasant. I don’t want it to happen again. But I now understand how things get out of control with soldiers and police officers when they feel threatened. I’m going to repeat something Gladwell wrote: “…broader social understanding…sacrificed…”
In the condition I was in, I had no thoughts whatsoever except that I could die. I was more paralyzed than anything else. If I had any thoughts, they were centered on me. I didn’t give one thought to my girlfriend, my friends, my family. Nothing. Just me.
My imagination shut down completely and I went completely into sensing things. Images in my head? Not a one.
In a way I didn’t even feel ”human” anymore. It felt like I had reverted to something very primitive, which, actually, it was.
When people are in this condition for too long, say soldiers, they end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What happened to me, decades ago, is as vivid as can be. It’s imprinted on my memory, the vivid memory and feelings of disbelief and paralysis.
I can empathize with some 18 or 19-year-old who goes off to war thinking he’s being patriotic and comes back thinking he’s been fucked bigtime because of what he went though.
I think this is how many soldiers get killed. In this condition, you’re not afraid. But you are paralyzed and not thinking right. You’re not sure what to do.
I’ve even been in this condition, although to a lesser extent, in fights. Tunnel vision, visual clarity, time slowing down – and a reduction in pain.
Because of what happened to me, I know that in situations like that, if they are too intense, you just collapse. If I had been too upset and had a cell phone, I seriously doubt I could have even dialed 911.
There is nothing like going through it yourself to empathize with someone else