Went Places and Came Back Like This: Chapter 1.
Single. Sober. Striving.
I am not much. But I am these three things. Today, somewhere in the blur of spring 2016, baptized by the flames of what has felt like five hundred fires. Over and over and over. And then over again.
I have scars you wouldn’t understand. I have made mistakes you might judge and damn me to hell for. I have come undone. I’ve been homeless. I have handed over slivers of my soul to merciless hands. I survived odds many women don’t. But I decided to get up after every gut punch to the belly of my dignity, identity, and womanhood. There were days I almost didn’t choose to get back up. I have wounds to account for those days – three on my wrist, three thousand on my heart.
But I’m here. I’m breathing. Albeit, on life support, paranoid of hearing the sound of the flatline and not being alive to tell my mom goodbye and not to cry. I’m hanging on by a hair that’s been shredded by a dozen razor blades. Blades of guts and of glory – blades that I chose to not let take my life. And all by way of unknowingly saving someone else’s.
Blood splattered on my mother’s car. A 911 dispatcher on the phone. The beaming red buzz of ambulance and fire truck lights snaking along the dark black roads from a distance, blinking closer and closer as my heart pounder faster and faster. That’s where it all started.
I am not an expert on much – certainly not on matters of love and life. But I am an expert on one thing. The most important thing and the only thing that matters in this moment. That thing is: my story. The one thing no one can steal from me. And trust me, many hands have tried.
The chances of you believing these words might be slim. But I’ve gambled with far worse in my 29 years and have lived to tell the truth about them. So here I am hanging by that shredded hair to tell you that truth.
And it starts here:
It was three o’ clock in the morning on an overpass in Florida when, in a series of seconds and minutes that felt like hours, I saved a man’s life. Exactly how it transpired remains a blur. But I’d like to tell you about the important parts and why it matters now. Because it was there on a street in the swampy heart of a city called Ocala, applying pressure to a bloodied body shrieking in pain and panic with a car flipped over and on fire five hundred feet away with another man pinned underneath that my life was changed forever.
I was on my way to the Orlando, Florida airport to catch a red-eye flight to California. I had flown to my mom’s house for Easter – the best rationalization I could think of for the cross-country ticket at the time. The alternative was to stay in California and spend the holiday in a situation I have not written nor disclosed details about until now. And as surely as I had truths and stories to share, my bones trembled at the thought of ripping down the curtain and coming clean with the causes and complexities that brought me to where I am now and where I was on that night on the overpass.
“Slow down, that car is going way too fast,” I cautioned my little brother as a red Honda sped by us at what sounded and appeared to be at least ninety-miles an hour. Given that it was three in the morning I felt a pang of worry but was too preoccupied with my flight details to care.
I turned on Paul Simon mindlessly and as the ballad “hearts and bones” began to play and we turned a slight corner, a collision as loud as a crack of thunder that immediately precedes a flash of lightning rattled my brother and I in our seats.
“OH MY GOD JAMIE!”
My brother screamed louder than I had ever heard him in his seventeen years of life.
“What?!” I looked up and immediately slammed the radio off.
“STOP THE CAR!” I yelled as my pulse quickened to the speed of someone sprinting a seven-minute-mile.
What I saw when I looked up was nothing short of what one might expect to see in a horror movie. The red car that had zipped by only seconds prior was flipped over, engulfed by flames and shrouded in flumes of smoke. And from the clouds of ash and flames a body emerged that looked to be that of a man covered in blood.
“I’m jumping out, stay here, I’m calling 911!” I yelled. Adrenaline pulsed through every vein of my body as my brain strained to process what I was witnessing twenty-feet away from me.
“HELP! HELP! HE’S DYING, CALL THE POLICE, MY FRIEND IS UNDER THE CAR!”
The figure that had emerged from the smoke screamed. His panicked tone elicited a sense of shock that was jostling enough to cause every instinct I had ever acquired toward helping someone in an emergency to kick in.
I dialed 911 and began to explain the details to the dispatcher. I did my best to remain calm. And I think six years of experience as a social worker helped me to do so.
“There’s been an accident and there is a person pinned beneath a car that is on fire and a man with visible, bleeding injuries panicking at the scene,” I reported. Just as these words came from my mouth, the bloodied man raced toward me screaming “HELP! PLEASE HELP ME AND MY FRIEND!”
With the dispatcher on the line asking questions I did my best to answer, I remembered that my mother had a stack of clean beach towels stored in the trunk of the car. I yelled to my brother “pop the trunk!” As soon as he did I sprinted to grab the towels and while propping the speaker of my iPhone up to my ear with my left shoulder, prompted the man to lay down on the road and stop moving to minimize further bleeding.
“You need to calm down and get on the ground so I can help you,” I directed him calmly.
He listened to these prompts and laid on his back while still yelling about his friend under the burning car.
Recalling what I had learned in basic first aid courses I’d taken for my job as a case worker, I took each towel and carefully began to wrap the wounds I could see on his arms and legs and applied as much pressure as I could muster to each.
I kept the dispatcher informed as I did this. She reassured me there was help on the way.
After I had wrapped the wounds, oncoming traffic began to appear from a distance. At this point I told the man to remain still on the road because I needed to direct the approaching cars. With hand motions and a few loud exclamations of “accident! please stop!” I was able to prevent three vehicles from driving toward the parts of the scene that the first responders would need immediate access to upon their arrival. Two men jumped out from one pick-up truck to help and ran toward the burning vehicle in an attempt to help the man pinned underneath.
Seconds later, I heard the sounds of sirens approaching. Just as the dispatcher had promised, help had come. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars – there were at least a dozen of them. I ran back to tend to the bleeding man on the road and as I checked his wounds I could see a swarm of firemen running full-speed toward the burning car. The dispatcher said it was okay to hang up and as soon as I punched the “end call” bubble on my phone, I began to sob with relief. Watching the firemen and paramedics begin their work to try and save the man pinned beneath the car and extinguish the flames brought more tears to my eyes and made it hard to catch my breath as I was spellbound by a cocktail of the most potent and raw emotions I had ever felt. There were heroes at work right in front of me, braving the flames to try and help to save a human life.
“Miss, we need you to move, we’re taking over,” a paramedic commanded as they approached me with a gurney and hoisted the body of the bloody man, wrapped in my mother’s beach towels, onto it.
It happened so fast that I hardly had a chance to process it. And as soon as I began to a police officer walked up to me and said the following words that for the rest of my life, I will never forget:
“You must be off duty…I don’t know how you managed this on your own. Wrapping that man’s wounds and calming him down and everything, you probably saved his life you know. You’re a hero young lady.”
I talked with the officer a bit more to give my account of what had transpired. But his words echoed in my head both then and for hours following:
“You probably saved his life.”
“You’re a hero young lady.”
It felt like a dream. A tragic, awful, yet redeeming and beautiful dream.
Mortality and the precious, sacredness of human life had been put into perspective for me in a way that these words fail at giving justice to. In a matter of minutes I saw how fast life can be taken from us.
There were no doubts about what I knew I needed to do upon my return to the west coast.
I boarded my flight just in the knick of time two hours later. And the point of this story is best summed up as follows:
By helping to save a man’s life that night I had in turn made the decision to save my own. By ending it.
I would return to Orange County early that next day to discuss and finalize the details of a divorce from my husband of five years. A divorce from someone whom I loved and cared for deeply. But whom also had, for the latter half of our relationship, become emotionally, verbally, and on several occasions, physically abusive toward me.
The journey of all that I had endured didn’t begin on the night of this accident in Florida, but it would come to it’s end – the abuse, the agony, and the illusion that everything was okay. Because in helping to rescue a man in flames, I realized that I too, needed to rescue myself. And that is what made the event the tragic, sad, yet redeeming and beautiful dream that it felt like. And also what made it the beginning of what I have set out to do in telling the story of the only truth that I know – the only thing that is real and entirely my own: my story.
I have a lot to say. This is only the beginning – a beginning that began by seeing a life almost come to an end and deciding because of it that I needed to be the hero I was on that night for the woman who returned to California the next day. A woman with nothing left to lose except her very life itself, in every sense of the word. A woman who had grown to know the fear of not knowing how her spouse might react on a bad day. A woman who witnessed how quickly life can end. A woman who had known the tears of defeat at the hands of a man who on one occasion, grabbed her by the wrist and threw her onto a bed because she didn’t want to listen to his insults any longer. A woman who emerged from her own flames, somewhere in the blur of sprinng 2016, to finally tell the story of how she ended her life with a man she loved for five years. A story for a world in need of heroes both on overpasses at 3 a.m. when there’s blood and fire and a body pinned beneath a burning car, and from behind the closed doors of relationships where there’s a body pinned down in defeat, screaming and hoping someone might stop and know how to call for help and stop the bleeding.
Sober. Single. Striving.
I am not much but I am these things. Baptized by the flames. And still standing because of the hero they required me to be – a hero no one else could have been had they not had the courage to jump out of the car and taken matters into their own hands. Wounded and weary hands – the only kinds of hands that can birth the champion I became and am still becoming. Somewhere in this blur – this beautiful, broken, and beaten-up blur that I have the honor of calling my life. And in the one thing they can’t steal from me no matter how hard they try: the story of how I got each and every beautiful scar I wear every second and every hour of each new day. They are my armor. They are my truth. And they are the battle-wounds of a life lived by blades of guts and of glory. Blades that have made me the hero of a story that almost ended many times. And possibly would have had a hero not stepped in to apply pressure to the wounds and stop the bleeding once and for all.
The hero that I was that night on the overpass. And the hero that I proved I could be for the woman that I have and am still becoming.
I went a lot of places since that incident on the overpass. I went places and well, I came back like this.
June 5, 2017