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Interviews: Journey to healing of car accident survivors with PTSD

It’s been estimated that an average of six million vehicular accidents happen in US each year. With that, it’s no surprise that these events are one of the main causes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

If you’ve been in a similar situation, you may have felt a mix of emotions like shock, anger, and fear. These feelings could’ve occurred at the time of the accident or the days and weeks that followed.

PTSD is a sensitive matter, but it’s not something you should keep to yourself. There are many people out there with the same experiences, so we reached out to some people and gathered real-life stories they were willing to share.

An Interview with Accident Survivors Experiencing PTSD Symptoms

Nicole Vaughn

Nicole lives with her accident-survivor son, Max, who has 5 siblings living with them and two more siblings from his dad. Nicole describes Max as an amazing kid that loves unconditionally.

truck crashed in accident
Max was in the back seat on the passenger side of this truck.

Can you share a little bit about the accident?

My son was 6. His dad ran off the road and into a tree. He was trapped in the truck between his grandmothers seat and the tree that smashed the side of the truck he was sitting on.

Due do being trapped, he witnessed his grandmother pass away in front of him. She had to be removed from the car before anyone could get him out.

From there, his dad was taken to one hospital and he was taken to a pediatric hospital. He was alone for about 8 hours until I found out what happened and where he was, and drove across states to get there.

They ran cat scans and xrays and multiple tests. He had to be sedated to have his broken arm set in a weighted cast.

kid in hospital bed
Max's arrival at the hospital
His only major physical injury

When did the symptoms of the PTSD start? What were the first symptoms your kid experienced?

The first thing I noticed was he wasn’t as happy anymore. His showing of feelings was rather flat compared to before.

Then he started telling radical stories of kids in his class dying or threatening to bring guns to school which all turned out to be false.

He would only ride in a car with me and didn’t want to see his dad. When he was in a car he needed to be in control of speed.

He would tell me to slow down or when it was ok to go faster. This all started and some continues and he turns 10 this month.

"His emotion was gone." - Nicole

Have you sought professional help immediately? How have you found the professional you’re consulting now?

We waited to seek professional help but did after about two months. It didn’t seem to help so we stopped.

Then about 6 months later we tried again with a different counselor and things were a little better in the first year and then flattened out.

We just switched to seeing a psychiatrist and a new therapist and are seeing much more improvement.

This route was recommended by my son’s pediatrician.

What was recommended to you to help with the symptoms? Did they work?

My son also developed ADD symptoms and it was recommended to try medication for that.

His ADD symptoms have fully improved with the medication.

Overall, do you think the PTSD symptoms of your child improved?

The new therapist actually sat with us to make a plan of action and we made lots of small goals that lead up to helping with his biggest worry (being trapped).

She was the first one to ask the right questions to see what was his worry to know how to work towards helping.

Though we’ve basically just begun this, I feel good about where we are headed now.

Just about four years later. Lots of improvement, but still ways to go.

Any message to other people undergoing the same thing you’re experiencing?

My message to others would be: you are going to feel defeated, like there is nothing you can do to take this pain away from your child. That feeling will come back a lot. 

When you feel the path you are on is not what they need, seek a new path. It’s ok to start over and it’s normal to feel this way. Cry when you need to, that’s ok too. 

But keep going and advocating as persistence will lead you to the most helpful path to helping your child.

Aly Fenn is 20 years old and a married mother of two. She was 16 at the time of her accident. Aly and a friend were driving a green Honda CRV through the mountains, and she was riding in the passenger seat when the accident happened.

car accident

Can you share a little bit about the accident?

We were running late to meet my grandmother because we had slept in. I was trying to put my shoes on in the car. My friend was going about 40 mph on a very windy gravel road, and we almost went off the edge. 

She overcorrected to the left, then back to the right. The car flipped about four times. I remember tucking my head between my legs in case the top of the car caved in and I said “God, please forgive me for my sins, but don’t let me die!” 

I woke up and there was no one in the driver’s seat. There was dust, smoke, and items from the car everywhere. The car was back on all four tires, but it was rolling backwards. I was afraid it was about to roll off the mountain. 

I looked up and saw my friend sitting in the middle of the road with this horribly shocked look on her face. There was blood everywhere. I grabbed my shoes and my phone, then jumped out the window into some kind of thorny bush. 

I ran over to my friend and asked if she was okay, and she didn’t respond. She just sat there. She had been thrown through the driver’s side window and had glass all in her face. I took off running with no shoes on and ran for what felt like forever. 

There were barely any houses on this 30 mile long road that we were right in the middle of. I finally found a house and yelled until the people came outside because their dog was trying to attack me. 

Anyway, my friend wasn’t wearing her seat belt and ended up with several broken ribs, a collapsed lung, stitches in lots of places, a broken arm, and a broken collarbone. I had lots of bruises and scrapes, but physically I was fine because I had my seat belt on. 

The ambulances came and after a while in the hospital, she made a full recovery. She is living a normal life now.

Immediately after the wreck, I was fine with being in the car. I was just sitting there staring in shock. My ears were still ringing.

When did the symptoms of the PTSD start? What were the first symptoms you experienced?

The first time I remember being afraid of getting in the car was when I ran into my (now) husband at a friend’s house and he asked if I wanted to ride with him somewhere. I told him I had just had a wreck and to not do anything crazy while he’s driving because I was still shaken up. 

I was usually a dare devil adrenaline junkie, so he didn’t think much about it and drifted around some corners. I started screaming and cried. That’s when I first realized something was wrong. I will never understand why she is fine mentally, but the experience changed my entire life. I let it go untreated and still haven’t been treated by a doctor.

Here I am almost five years later, and my symptoms have taken over my life. I don’t ride in the car with anyone else driving. I don’t drive in the rain. 

For a long time, I wouldn’t drive if it was cloudy because “it might rain”. I don’t drive when the roads are wet. I am absolutely terrified of thunderstorms or severe weather. I have OCD and am terrified of anything I can’t control. 

I was always up for anything before my wreck, but I have only left the house to take my kids to the doctor and buy groceries for the last three years. My husband and I don’t go on many dates. It has for sure taken a huge toll on my life.

Have you sought professional help immediately? How have you found the professional you’re consulting now?

I have looked into professional help, but I think that at this point, I’m too far gone to come back from.

Overall, do you think your PTSD symptoms have improved ever since you recognized them?

I have forced myself to drive even when I was uncomfortable. I have cried my eyes out driving so many times I can’t count. 

I have recently started forcing myself to go grocery shopping instead of sending my husband to pick up Walmart orders. I have been miserable to live with for the past few years, but I am finally getting better. 

You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone to remind yourself what real life is.

"All the stuff in the background on the road is the stuff that fell out the window, along with my friend, when we flipped. That’s where she was sitting when I woke up." - Aly

Any message to other people undergoing the same thing you’re experiencing?

My advice to anyone going through the same things I have is not to fall into your fear.

By that, I mean if you find yourself getting nervous about driving, drive anyway. I didn’t, and eventually I would go months at a time without ever leaving my house.

You have to force yourself to be stronger than your fear and not let it get worse. Keep doing your every day activities even if you’re scared. Even if you have to cry. Even if you have to scream.

Go out of your comfort zone and soon, your comfort zone will be just a little bit bigger

Midwest Survivor

Due to unsettled claims, we will refer to our 3rd interviewee as “Midwest Survivor”. She is public speaker and writer. She has a dozen books available via Amazon, 4 DVDs and a CD.

Can you share a little bit about the accident?

5/17/18 was the date of the accident.

We have only been paid $1,000 medical. The claim isn’t settled yet but I can tell you I was in the backseat attending a fun event with a day off.

The driver wasn’t paying attention, speeding and when she saw him proceeding through the intersection, instead of immediately slowing down she had road rage and sped up supposedly “showing him”. 

She totaled his SUV at the 4 way stop. I had whiplash and a double concussion.

A photo about PTSD shared by Midwest Survivor.

When did the symptoms of the PTSD start? What were the first symptoms you experienced?

I have every single overlapping and social difficulty on the chart I sent.

Part of my post concussion syndrome trouble is I can’t remember some things. As far as when it started, I spent the 1st 30 day on bedrest, I think then and intensified the 89 days in intense out patient therapy over 2 hours from home. 

I was told by my husband how different I am. Many friends and family shied away. When I tried to attend church it was very noticeable to even me.

Have you sought professional help immediately? How have you found the professional you’re consulting now?

I am on my 23rd doctor. He understands neuro and gives me hope in 3 to 5 years I will be better.

Not the same but better than today. He’s doing FACT—Functional Analysis Chiropractic Technique. I found the majority of doctors don’t have a clue about concussion let alone PTSD. Instead of saying they don’t they accuse of drug seeking and/or say you will never heal.

What was recommended to you to help with the symptoms? Did they work?

I have been told to do puzzles. Another told me to outline my already written books… I can’t say it’s helped. I was told to limit screen time. That’s been the most helpful. Only watch one movie a day or read adult books with larger print I have read before.

Overall, do you think your PTSD symptoms have improved ever since you recognized them?

No, I think I am learning to live with the symptoms.

Any message to other people undergoing the same thing you’re experiencing?

Don’t give up. Find FACT.

Kathleen is a horse trainer, farm owner, mother of 3. She’s been married for 34 years to a first responder (Capt in the NYPD) during 911. (This had a lot to do with Kathleen’s symptoms getting worse, plus a few other things.)

Can you share a little bit about the accident?

I was 18 passenger with a seatbelt on, when the car was hit head on by a speeding car. I broke all my front teeth, other bones. I was in the hospital for a week.

When did the symptoms of the PTSD start? What were the first symptoms you experienced?

Well, I didn’t realize it then, but it was on the way to the hospital in the ambulance. I couldn’t get in a car with anyone driving, for many years. I would have to say I was diagnosed after an accident in my front yard, when I boy about my son’s age hit our tree and died.

Have you sought professional help immediately? How have you found the professional you’re consulting now?

At this time I got help and had to go to 2 different doctors. The first one couldn’t help me—I donæt think she was really a PTSD specialist. The second did.

What was recommended to you to help with the symptoms? Did they work?

In my opinion, they are not well informed on how to help with my PTSD. The second doctor was at least better than the first when it comes to listening. However, they did not give advice on how to control triggers, but I have read books that helped.

Overall, do you think your PTSD symptoms have improved ever since you recognized them?

I do not think they have improved without the medication I am on now, BUT I avoid triggers now and say no when I know it will cause a set back on healing.

Any message to other people undergoing the same thing you’re experiencing?

Get help and make sure they understand what it is you are experiencing. If not, move on.

There is help and you can keep it under control to help live as normal as you can. Don’t let it keep you from living—I have lost many years—but find a good support system that will understand. 

And breathe… it’s ok, you will get through it.

If you think you’re suffering from PTSD from a vehicular accident, it’s normal to feel fear, nervousness, and other emotions. You’re not alone, and seeking professional help could get you on the path to getting better.

It’s often a different experience for each person, but don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals and learn from others as well who’ve had the same experiences.

William