A Drunk Driver Crashed Into Me. When I Woke Up, I Was A Completely Different Person.

<span class="copyright">Douglas Sacha via Getty Images</span>
Douglas Sacha via Getty Images

On a Tuesday morning in 2006 in Dutchess County, New York, a woman ran out of beer. She was drunk at 10 a.m. but not as drunk as she wanted to be, so she stole a truck, procured a case of Bud, then crushed a parked car. I was in the parked car. EMTs pried me out.

I woke up in a freezing room where techs were extracting sharp things from my skin. It was a Code 4 emergency, which means my life was threatened. Then it wasn’t my life.

The good news was I survived. The bad news was brain damage. Years later, a neurologist said I suffered the same type of injury that former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords suffered when she was shot in the head.

One moment, I was a freelance writer and a single mom — making dinner and deadlines all over the world, perking up headlines while picking up kids. I survived Time magazine, New York magazine, Vogueplus a handful of haute editors and a “Devil Wears Prada” or two.

Then my brain was disconnected. So were my legs and my arms and my feet. Post-truck, I was parked with trauma patients, rolling Play-Doh balls and pounding pegs in boards. We included a former physician, a former professor of psycholinguistics, a former custodian and a former owner of a kebab café.

There’s not much demand for brain-damaged writers. Since I couldn’t comprehend — leave alone manage — business affairs, an attorney completed my last career financial transaction which was refunding a five-figure advance to a client known from Burundi to Beverly Hills. To pay mounting bills, he was forced to sell our home. This was all far above my new head.

Movers I can’t recall packed boxes I can’t recall for a trip I could not wrap my head around. I landed in a sleepy southern town east of somewhere and west of somewhere else in a rambling wooden farmhouse peering out from tangled brush. It was nine hours south of my old life and my child. No trace of the move remains in my mind — it’s like it didn’t happen or I wasn’t there.

I rarely recalled I’d been moved to Virginia. This means I wondered if I should move to a place I already lived in, or leave a place I already left. My child stayed in college in New York while I spent one year in outpatient therapy. I relearned how to walk, how to talk, how to place my hands on a keyboard, how to read, how to write, how to make a cup of tea. Three years post-truck, the Social Security Disability Administration ruled my injuries were “permanent and incurable.” Still, my daughter’s “diagnosis” was by far the worst. She said her mom disappeared.

In my first life, I made sense of thousands of stories on global warming and lip gloss and sports bras and organized closets and candidates. Normal people do things like that, plus wake up, brush teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, get kids to school, keep clients happy and clean dryer lint. It felt like I had been thrown from a plane. Then it felt like trying to piece together any remnants of the person I was before I was thrown out of the plane. And then? It kept feeling that way.

Most of us lose people we love. I lost the person I was.

The author several years after the accident.
The author several years after the accident. Courtesy of Judith Hannah Weiss

The new “me” had never read books I loved, never shared favorite times with my child. They tested my brain hundreds of times and found lots of things bit the dust, like the file that encodes new memories, and the file that integrates physical movements so you don’t fly down the steps or fall out of your chair. I lost what happened a minute ago, a page ago, a lifetime ago. This is called amnesia.

Amnesia can take anything and make it disappear. Your child’s first words. Your mom’s last words. Mine came with a side of aphasia. That means I couldn’t find the words I needed or put them together so they made sense. I said stuff like “white stuff sky,” which meant snow, or “cow thing pants” which meant belt or “green thing dirt,” which meant plant. Words often seemed to start mid-sentence — and end there, too.

There are three stages of making a memory: encoding (which means you learn something), consolidation (which means you store it), and recall (which means you can find it again). Learning was hard. Storing was hard. Recall was almost impossible. I was impaired and could not be repaired. A doctor told me so.  There’s an irony: The drunk woman who hit me was impaired, too.

You may wonder if “insurers” covered health care bills or compensated me for pain and suffering. The answer is no. The drunk driver had three prior DUIs and no longer had a license or insurance. Because she had stolen the truck she was driving, the owner’s insurance didn’t pay either. The car I was in was parked and I was waiting for the woman who owned it to return, so she was not at fault and her insurer didn’t pay.

As a result, most of the massive medical bills were paid by me, or rather the power of attorney on my behalf. Health insurance did not/does not cover motor vehicle accidents. I encountered a Catch-22 that removed me from outpatient rehab at the end of year one, which may or may not have been linked to insurance, too. Or, rather, lack of it. The head guy (pun intended) in neuro rehab decided I was both too screwed-up and not screwed-up enough to keep receiving help. If I were more screwed up, they could do something. If I were less screwed-up, they could do something. But I wasn’t, so they couldn’t.

And, so, I relearned to read under the patient care of no one at all. I achieved mixed results. In year two post-accident, I began trying to read a book. I read the same pages for two years. At first, they meant nothing. Then they meant something, for a few seconds. If I began where I’d left off, say on page 5, and found a character was on a train, I had no idea why he was on it or where he was going.

At the same time, I started scratching anything I could recall on any surface I could find — paper plates, paper cups, placemats, napkins, coffee stirrers and Popsicle sticks. I called them scraps. They were not in alphabetical order, not in numerical order, not in chronological order, but out of order, like me. I stuffed them in brown paper shopping bags and then stashed the bags in a closet.

A few years ago, Google provided 115,000,000 ways to “clear your mind.” These included clearing your mind of stress, clearing your mind of guilt, clearing your mind of clutter, clearing your mind of negative thoughts, clearing your cookies, clearing your cache, clearing your sinuses and clearing your mind of all thought. I had. I also found 8,310,000 jokes about brain injury on Google. Plus, of course, in cartoons all over the planet, people like us are hilarious, especially when our skulls get smashed. Think baseball bats, rifle butts and coconuts on craniums.

The intact brain is amazing. The three-pound blob remembers the theme music for “The Flintstones,” the name of your fifth grade French teacher and your childhood phone number.  But put it through a windshield at 70 miles an hour and then it’s a crapshoot. You might remember something that happened a moment ago or you might not. You might not walk or talk again. You might wake up as an entirely different person. Or you might never wake up.

Seven years ago, I began attending a newly formed brain trauma group. One member, Daniel, “came back” from two weeks in a coma. Daniel’s counselor says that the “old” Daniel is gone. The new Daniel has new frontal lobes and a new personality, as well as the wife of his former self and three kids he can’t name. Another member, Mel, kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” like he did something wrong. We were told most of us were in the program due to someone driving while drunk.

A recent photo of the author.
A recent photo of the author. Courtesy of Judith Hannah Weiss

Brain trauma is not about the past: the successes, accomplishments, accolades. It’s not even about losses. It’s a muddy, rutty, hands and knees crawl up to the first rung of the ladder, and up each rung after that. There is no cure. I’m sharing this story not because I think it is exceptional, but because I know it is not. Many others with similar stories can’t write because they’re more disabled than I am or because they lost their lives.

We all have plaque in our brain — some of us know it. Plaque can advance like armies in the night, taking more and more of us, leaving less and less. You take a detour when you see us coming, and think we don’t notice, but we do.

In 2021, the latest year for which there are numbers, the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA) reported 401,520 Americans were killed or injured due to someone driving while drunk. Also according to NHSTA, two out of three Americans will be impacted by drunk driving in their lifetime. Every day, lives of adults and kids are taken by impaired drivers who gain a few seconds, then take a few lives. Each statistic is a person. Each death is preventable, as is each injury.

According to a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “From 2020 to 2021, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has since calculated, the number of crashes in the United States soared 16 percent, to more than six million, or roughly 16,500 wrecks a day.” The article goes on to point out that, “For public-messaging reasons, vehicular wrecks are almost never referred to by experts as ‘accidents,’ wording that implies no culpability on the part of the participants.”

The fatality figures were somehow even worse. In 2021, the latest year for which there are figures, 42,939 Americans died in car crashes, the highest toll in a decade and a half. “Of those deaths, a sizable portion involved intoxicated or unrestrained drivers or vehicles traveling well in excess of local speed limits.”

This would be a different story if I regained my former life, complete with my former mind. I didn’t. Eighteen years post-accident. I still think with a stutter, speak with a limp, and have less usable space in my brain, so I run out of memory fast.

Today I had two coins in my hand. One was a dime and one was a nickel, and I didn’t know which was which. I can spackle all I want but underneath I’m still broken. I frustrate others by leaning on them and by not leaning on them, and baffle them when I seem normal and when I don’t.

It takes decades to build a life, and seconds to destroy it. The next time someone warns you to be careful when driving home from a night out, don’t roll your eyes. Heed their warning. Disabled people are the single largest minority in the world, and likely the least heard from. We are also the only minority anyone can join at any time. Trust me, you won’t want to be disabled — or to take someone’s life.

Judith Hannah Weiss freelanced for 25 years, writing print and broadcast promotion for New York, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and other major media. In 2006,she was hit by a drunk driver, which put things on a long pause. Her post-accident work has appeared on NBC News and in The Washington Post, The Oldster, Iowa Review, The Rumpus, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, Memoir Monday and The Pulse. You can find her on Substack at  judithhannahweiss.substack.com and at judithhannahweiss.com.

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