Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.

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Coming out of a car crash

If your car goes into a skid, the advice is to steer into it. I always thought in that situation I would panic and try to steer the other way, as continuing a skid seems counter-intuitive. Last weekend I found out that this advice has actually found its way into my subconscious – but also that if you go into a skid in a car, you really don’t feel like you have any hope of steering your way out.

Last Saturday I was driving up to the Midlands for a wedding with my partner. It was the first time I was doing a long drive to somewhere I’d never been, and that made me anxious. I also find weddings in general anxiety-inducing, as I find the endless small talk with strangers awkward. We negotiated the M25 without too much difficulty, although traffic was heavy and difficult with a lot of stop-starting going on. People were driving badly, not moving out of lanes when they should and driving too slowly in the faster lanes. Earlier in the week I’d had the pleasure of a longish drive with my brother, who is an excellent driver and changes lanes with ease and endless practicality. I’m sure all of this informed the way I drove, both the anxiety and the experience of driving with someone far more experienced – although maybe I’m just over-thinking what informed my reactions on that particular day.

Once we were on the M40 I was hoping the driving would become easier, but there were still a lot of people and I still felt unsafe with the way we were driving as a group – people were quite close to each other, and I felt edgy and wanted to get out of the way of people if I could. I think that was what made me decide to switch to the next lane over to the left – I had been in the fast lane for a bit but I wasn’t going as fast as I knew some would want to go, and there was nobody to my left. I indicated, checked, pulled over. Then when I was halfway through getting into the lane, or maybe more, I’m not sure, my partner shouted something to warn me. A coach was moving over from the slow lane, hadn’t seen us, and was terrifyingly close to the car.

I think I panicked. Which isn’t unreasonable as a coach was bearing down on me. I steered sharply to the right, but at that speed sharp changes of direction do not go well. My partner was shouting ‘FUCK’ which each breath, which was totally understandable but made me panic more. I tried to correct the steer by going to the left but it was just as sharp and just as scary. It was an out of control zigzag at 70mph in the middle of a motorway. I think I had some thought that I wasn’t going to be able to correct it, or that I needed to try and get away from the other cars, or both, or maybe I felt like I was skidding as I went back to the right and my brain told me in a skid, you steer into it. One way or another, I steered hard to the right. My partner was still shouting FUCK as we hit the central reservation. This felt a lot like playing dodgems at a fairground, and has made me think since that that must be why I have always detested dodgems. Where is the fun in simulating a car crash? He was still shouting FUCK as we spun round. He says we spun more than once. I don’t remember.

We came to a stop facing the wrong way, still in the fast lane. I remember everyone else moving past us in slow motion. Thank god for the speed of their reactions – if someone had hit us during that spin it could have gone very badly. As it was we were sitting in the car, totally shocked but entirely physically unharmed.

I sat and stared at the dashboard, which was completely blank. I realised vaguely that the engine had switched itself off. I wondered dazedly if I could turn it back on and turn round to keep going. I said ‘I don’t know what to do now.’ I think my partner was asking me if I was all right. That’s when I looked at him and felt the guilt of the decisions I’d taken to steer as I had. I said, ‘oh my god – I could have killed you.’ And that was the main thought I had for the next six or seven hours.

Why had I steered that sharply? Why hadn’t I just moved back into the lane I’d come out of? If I’d panicked less, if I’d been less anxious, if I hadn’t wanted to keep moving lanes to show I was a good driver, if, if, if, if… we would be safe and still driving, shaken but okay. I should have done it differently, I shouldn’t have over-steered, I shouldn’t have done that, I should have done this… should, shouldn’t, should, shouldn’t.

Luckily, a wonderful man – a brilliant, real-life good Samaritan, angel of a man – stopped a way behind us (or in front from where we were looking) in the same lane, and put his hazard lights on so people had some warning and wouldn’t come bowling up to our stationary vehicle. He came over, shouting to us to check we were okay. My partner answered, I couldn’t. When the man – Kevin his name was – got close to us he said that the car was leaking fluid and we should step out. We were under a bridge so I huddled against that. I realised that various parts of the front of my poor car must have got strewn across the road, as people were driving over them with a terrifying CRACK which made me flinch every time. Our Good Samaritan called the police while my partner tried to comfort me. I was shaking and crying and retching but could hardly bear to have him touch me. I had almost killed him, so how could I accept his comfort?

Eventually the police came, I was reminded I needed to call my insurers but having found the number and dialled I couldn’t say anything anyone could understand so my partner and the Good Samaritan handled the call. The police stopped the traffic a way down and pushed my car onto the hard shoulder. They swept – and kicked – the bits of my car over to the sides of the road. I was still shaking but explained what had happened to the police who took it all very casually. I expect they see it all the time and in fact another accident had happened further down the road behind us – possibly caused by people not slowing down fast enough to account for four lanes becoming three for a while because of our cars. I felt even more guilty when I heard that.

At some point when my partner was on the phone and I was talking to Kevin, a.k.a. the Good Samaritan, I told him that I felt so guilty. I could have killed someone. He was brilliantly down-to-earth and reassuring. He said: ‘No. What you did was an Evasive Manoeuvre. You had to do it, and if you hadn’t, there could have been a massive pile-up. All these people driving past could have been involved. You did the Right Thing.’ I have no idea if he knew how much those words were going to stick with me.

The Good Samaritan and the police carried on, and the traffic restarted with a roar and a rush. An ambulance stopped by us but we said we were fine. After a while a Green Flag bloke provided by Direct Line picked us up. He provided meaningless chat interspersed with tactless comments, like telling us that someone from the other crash had been loaded onto a stretcher. I had barely stopped crying since the accident but that brought a fresh wave.

Direct Line are an amazing company who provide you with a taxi to reach your destination if you aren’t able to keep driving – which of course we weren’t. The bonnet and side panels of my car were unharmed but everything from the bonnet down had disappeared. The bulbs for the headlights were dangling from wires, the plastic had completely gone. The bumper and the radiator had vanished too. After a chat my partner and I decided to carry on to the wedding. I pictured going home, shocked and defeated, and having nothing to do but stare at an empty parking space. Even if the wedding would be difficult, it would be a distraction. An incredibly sweet taxi driver took us to Evesham. My partner’s friends – it was his friends who were getting married – were absolutely brilliant. One took me away somewhere quiet as soon as we arrived, as she saw from her first look that I was about to break down in front of everyone.

A few hours into the wedding, and a few glasses of champagne in, I finally told my partner that I could barely look at him because I felt so guilty. The entire taxi journey of nearly two hours I’d barely said a word. He took me for a walk and told me that from his perspective, whatever I’d done had got us out and saved his life – he felt he owed me one. He’d told me at the side of the road that he felt his panicked yell hadn’t improved things. He might be right but what else are you going to do when a coach is a few feet from squashing you?

Together we enjoyed the rest of the night. Copious amounts of alcohol aren’t the recommended treatment for shock as far as I know, but I think it meant a lot of the emotion that could have been buried for hours, days, or even weeks, was brought out as quickly as it could. I paid for the emotional lack of control a bit when it was time to go to bed – I was exhausted but somehow terrified of going to sleep. I couldn’t stop crying as my partner lay down and fell asleep almost instantly. Luckily for me, a good friend was still awake at half-past one and she talked me down. I found a mindfulness body scan recording on my phone, and managed to focus on that long enough to get my brain out of its spiral.

In the days since, I’ve experienced fatigue like I’ve never had in my whole life. Going back to work in London was tougher than I expected – King’s Cross made me very jittery and I found myself walking along as close to left-hand walls as I could get wherever possible. Concentration has been extraordinarily difficult, and body and mind have felt perpetually exhausted. This began to lift a little for the first time yesterday, five days since the accident. Today I am nervous again as I’m going to pick up a hire car provided by my insurers. Hopefully I’ll be able to use said car to get to the garage which is examining my poor, broken Clio, so I can collect all the things out of it that I had to leave behind – including the remote control which lets me take a car through a gate into the close where I live. Getting a replacement would cost me £40 I can ill-afford as I need to get a new car and my insurance premium has just doubled. Unfortunately the people who provide the remote control fobs aren’t willing to give me a refund if I get mine back. I am resisting the urge to tell them they’re being heartless fucks.

I am nervous about driving again and nervous about seeing my Clio. I thought I had seen it for the last time at the centre we were taken to after the crash. I’m not sure I want to see that smashed-up front again. Some other strange part of me thinks I should take a picture of it as some gruesome reminder of what happened, or to shock people in years to come at dinner parties when I feel safe to bring it out when the conversation reaches a low or tedious ebb. Probably this is all a bad idea and a reminder of how bizarre our society has become, that we feel the need to record anything shocking or sensational or faintly interesting, even if it points to a dark or maudlin aspect of our brains.

I hoped that writing this out would be cathartic, and I believe it has been. I have no doubt that the anxiety I had just been overcoming about driving will now rear its ugly head again, but I hope I will be able to cope with it. I will now be a sturdy middle-lane-hogging driver on the motorway, and never switch lanes until absolutely necessary. Although perhaps that wouldn’t have helped us anyway, as the coach – which drove cheerfully on after the crash – simply hadn’t checked its blind spot sufficiently before beginning to move over. Accidents happen. As time passes I’m blaming myself less for the way I reacted, which after all I could hardly control in the heat of the moment. All I can really do is thank my lucky stars that nobody else hit us, that we hit the central reservation at an angle which meant the bumper took the brunt not either side of the car, and that that brilliant person stopped to help us in our moment of need. Thank you to him, wherever he is, and to everyone who has been so brilliant ever since – to my friends and my partner’s friends, particularly those who gave us a lift home after the wedding, and to our families. We love you all.