Arc of a Driver

Arc of a Driver
 

Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It’s the only way to live
In cars

–Gary Numan, “Cars”, from the album The Pleasure Principle, 1979

I love cars. They are perhaps my favorite material good. I like driving them. I like putting the radio on. I like putting my window down. I enjoy the power and style of the cars I like, and exploring the world from behind the wheel. I never suspected that a car would be the thing that changed my life forever, with extreme and permanent consequences.

I always felt somewhat this way, growing up playing with Hot Wheels and Matchbox toy cars. But this interest was casual, and one of many. I put away those childish things as I got older, and my interest in cars matured and became a real appreciation when I was a teenager. I came then to like my cars enormous, American, and ancient. Or at least, as a 16-year-old, what seemed ancient to me. Many of the cars I liked were only 10 or 15 years old. However, it just felt like manufacturers were not making vehicles in the late 90’s that appealed to me. Mechanically, the car should be rear-wheel drive, with an eight-cylinder engine and body-on-frame construction. If these cars were slow, they were nevertheless strong—you might get beat off-the-line by many vehicles on the road, but it was still real smooth and easy to pass someone on the highway. I was drawn to a boxy design with too much chrome trim on both the inside and outside. I loved fake wood paneling on the interior trim of a car and sometimes, as in the case of a 1989 Buick LeSabre Estate Wagon I drove in high school, wood on the outside too. I liked Cadillac Fleetwood

1979 DeVille

A 1979 Cadillac DeVille I owned, until a minor rear-end collision totaled it

I tried to learn to work on cars as a teenager, but I lacked the patience. Much of how cars worked and how to properly maintain them seemed beyond my ability to understand. More than a lack of comprehension, my problem was distraction: in high school, I was drinking. I drank as much as I could get, every chance I got to drink. From the first hint of that unparalleled ease that comes for some (like me) with ingesting ethyl alcohol, I wanted to reach out into the world and scoop up every bottle and can it contained and then dump them down my throat. Really. If you saw me drunk, I was probably too drunk. However, I was a shy kid and the opportunities to drink could be limited or infrequent. This sometimes drove me crazy at the time, but in retrospect I know my inability to access alcohol kept me safe as a teenager. Despite my overindulgence in booze, I never got in real trouble.

1987 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham

A 1987 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham I owned

But even if I couldn’t fix a car, I loved driving. From the first time my right foot touched the gas pedal, I wanted more. When I got my license, I drove everywhere I could. Sometimes I would drive all day long. It’s important to remember that in the summer of 1999 the price of gas was on the decline. It fell closer and closer to below one dollar, and we waited in tense anticipation of it getting there. Even with those big gas-guzzling V8s I drove, it was financially manageable to drive around for fun. More than fun, it became a sort of mission as I became an adult; a compulsion to get behind the wheel and travel in a direction whose endpoint is unknown. That mission has now led me to visit 49 US States (you can’t drive to Hawaii—yet).

There was also an endless history of songs by people who loved cars as much as I did. There was the afore-quoted, eponymous “Cars” by Gary Numan. Perhaps more eponymous was the band named The Cars. T. Rex sang about cars frequently. So did George Thorogood. For some it was not love, but lust: Bruce Springsteen urged Wendy to “Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims and strap your hands ‘cross my engines.” Songs about cars didn’t even have to articulate in what they were trying to say. I couldn’t tell you what “Baby You Can Drive My Car” means, but I liked it.

One of two 1992 Buick Roadmasters I have owned

Here in my car
I can only receive
I can listen to you
It keeps me stable for days
In cars

But with adulthood, other things were becoming a compulsion too. Namely that old, unstable compound that could explode at any time—my drinking. After I graduated high school, I graduated to a more substantial way of using alcohol. I socialized closely with a lot of people over 21 so I would have all the access I needed. Once I was able, I began to drink every day. For most people, drinking is usually an evening adventure, but at age 19 I found myself drinking a six-pack of beer in the morning just to get the day going. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of an ordinary night and find myself needing to put alcohol in my body, which need I gave into. Advanced drinking began to create advanced problems. There were blackouts and hurt feelings, and episodes of drunkenness marked by irritability or maudlin sadness. By the time I was 20, I found myself without my family or many friends speaking to me. I was unemployed. I was uneducated. Overall, I was unable.

Once the pain of how I was living got to be bad enough, and without knowing where to turn, I dragged myself to Alcoholics Anonymous. I found the program and people to be very helpful for me, but I was generally  unwilling to take their suggestions about how to stay sober, and I was soon back at the bottom of the bottle.

In a few years’ time, those bad consequences of my drinking only grew. I had entered college and maintained my grades, but my personal life and mental stability were spiraling down the drain in a stream of high-proof liquor. At 24, I entered rehab for the first time.

It took about a year, but at 25 I finally gave in and took the simple advice AA had always offered. And just like they told me—it worked. I was sober for six months. Then a year. Then another. My life improved, and greatly. I graduated from a good university Magna Cum Laude, and had a good job that I cared about. This, for a guy who a few years earlier was a chronic dropout and no-show. Life wasn’t perfect, but seemed to improve so much with each passing year that it didn’t strike me as crazy to aspire to what I thought of as a perfect life.

2001 GMC Yukon XL

I drove this 2001 GMC Yukon XL across the country a few times with my dog, Daisy (pictured). Today, my best friend owns this car.

And I still loved cars. In my drinking, I had lost interest in the hobby, and now it came back. I bought and sold several of those cars I liked. Even though I was never going to be a mechanic, I learned to do a number of important things on a car. I changed my own oil. I did my brakes. I learned to replace (the more simple) broken parts with those from the junkyard. The biggest help was YouTube, which had thousands of hours of people working on their cars, and explaining step-by-step how it was done. I was happy with the progress I was making with cars, but also with myself as a person, and that intangible asset is truly one of the most valuable feelings a person like me can have.

I came to feel safe in the belief that it would last forever. This is never what a person should think. Some things do last for what we perceive as forever—the course of our own lives—but nothing in life is guaranteed and anything can happen at any time. Over the years I encountered a number of defeats that chipped away at my belief in myself. There was a heartbreak. Then a career that didn’t work out. Then a creative project that fell apart. I began to see myself differently; I pictured myself as someone chronically unable to achieve my goals. At this time, I also began to drift further and further from AA and the things I had learned there.

1997 Lincoln Town Car

My nephew, Shane, washes my 1997 Lincoln Town Car in 2014 when he was still just a little guy

On July 20, 2014, after six continuous years of sobriety, I drank. This story is, if nothing else, a cliché. Millions of people with an addiction have, over the course of history, falsely told themselves that this time will be different. Only it never is. We alcoholics who achieve sobriety only to find ourselves with a drink back in our hands are like those career criminals in the movies who believe they can pull one more job, this one to retire on, only to be met with tragic consequences. So naturally, this is what happened to me. The mess I had been in my early twenties announced its return, and this time it was stronger.

So there were more rehabs. Each time I wanted desperately to be sober, but I couldn’t pull it off for more than a few months. Ultimately, it was a recurrence of an earlier problem: I was unwilling to take advice and do what I knew I had to. So I didn’t get better.

By the Spring of 2017 I found myself in a sober living home in LA. I began to do AA earnestly again and at 30 days sober I was feeling very optimistic. What I didn’t know was that my life was about to dramatically change forever. At 2am on May 18, 2017 I was awakened by my roommate. He explained that a girl from work had driven him home, only to have her car battery die. I was exhausted. I did not want to get up. But I know how it feels to be stranded, and if I could help another person (stranger or no) avoid that feeling I was going to. So I jumped her battery and we wished her luck. But minutes later she called. The battery had died again a few miles away. So we got into the 2010 Ford Mustang GT I was driving at the time and traveled to the scene.

2010 Mustang GT

The dog that bit me—my 2010 Ford Mustang GT

Now that GT was a beautiful car. It wasn’t my usual style, but there was so much I enjoyed about it. The Mustang was powerful and nimble, and I thought it had a real sharp look. More than that, I was proud of the great deal I had negotiated when I bought it used. A lot of my vanity was wrapped up in that car. This would create a powerful irony with what came next.

We found the girl’s car, a Chevy Trailblazer, on a quiet road. It was actually a school zone. There wasn’t a soul in any direction. Cars were not passing. It was truly the dead of night. We began to connect the jumper cables.

But we were interrupted by the greatest force I have ever felt. It was a sudden pushing of my whole body at a speed I couldn’t comprehend. There were sparks, but that was all I remember seeing. In an instant, I was on the ground, on my back. I couldn’t move hardly any of myself, but I knew with lighting speed that the problem was in my right leg. My driving leg. What I felt in my heart at the time wasn’t important, but it would be later. In retrospect, my back was the best place I could be. A bone from my lower leg was actually poking out through my calf, and I am grateful to have been spared setting my own eyes on it. What’s more, I was bleeding. A lot. I didn’t know it in the shock of what had just transpired, but time was of the essence. People bleed out in situations like mine all the time.

My roommate took the same impact I did, only on his other leg (because he was facing the other direction). I couldn’t see or hear him. After telling me she was calling 911, the girl ran to find him. I couldn’t see her, but the blood-curdling scream she let out was inescapable. It felt like being on the wrong side of the screen in a horror movie. The noise felt like it shook the world, after the world had just been badly shaken. In that moment, I was sure my roommate was dead.

Then the sudden tragedy became, as suddenly, surreal. There was a man standing over me shouting swears down at me. Shouting swears in every direction, actually. Having had experience, I could tell from the slur in his voice that he was drunk. Perhaps very drunk. While I didn’t know what happened, it seemed obvious that this gentleman had been the cause. Later it would emerge that this guy had plowed into the Trailblazer’s rear at what the police said was 70-90 miles per hour, crushing my roommate and I between its bumper and that of my car with incredible force. As is often the case in an accident like mine, the drunk man had stepped out of his totaled, brand new Audi without a scratch. Later, I learned that when a crowd had gathered, the man punched my car and attempted to flee. I was lucky in that the good people of that quiet neighborhood barred his exit. Today he is in a California prison. Almost from those first moments, the irony of a drunk like me getting hit by a drunk driver was not lost on me.

Audi A3

This is the damage from the accident to the Audi A3 belonging to the drunk driver who hit me

This is the damage from the accident to the Audi A3 belonging to the drunk driver who hit me

A closer look at that Audi A3

Fortunately, the Los Angeles Fire Department is among the best in the world. They arrived quickly and got me to the hospital in just eight minutes. But in the ambulance was when I first began to feel a pain like none I had hitherto experienced. It was agony. A paramedic quickly gave me IV morphine and asked if it was helping. I screamed that it wasn’t. So he gave me more. Nevertheless, the pain didn’t budge an inch. Once I was at the hospital, they tried to ease it again, this time with the famously dangerous fentanyl; a drug with such a nefarious reputation these days that many don’t know it isn’t exclusively a street drug. Even with this heavy-duty solution, it was as though the nerves in my leg were ringing invincibly. There was no relief. There wouldn’t be for a while.

I was quickly informed that I needed to be rushed into surgery. I didn’t understand how bad the damage was, I just knew it was serious. Soon they were putting me to sleep, and I felt such a relief that anesthesia would at least spare me the pain for the time being.

I woke up about 16 hours later in the intensive care unit, still in great pain. A futuristic looking device held my right leg firmly in place, with evenly-spaced four posts drilled into my leg, all the way down to the bones. I was still in intense pain. Slowly, my friends began to show up and explain what had happened. As it turned out, thank God, my roommate was alive. He had simply been knocked unconscious and been badly cut. This, in addition to a severe injury to his left leg similar to mine. I think when his coworker had seen him, motionless and bloody, she must have thought the worst and let out that horrified cry.

When I finally spoke to my doctors, they said the damage had been very bad but I would recover. In the night they had needed to transplant a large vein from my left thigh into my lower right leg, and give me multiple blood transfusions, but I had survived the worst and the prognosis was good. They said there would, however, be more surgery.

Then, a revelation. Why hadn’t the morphine or the fentanyl helped? It turns out I knew. A few weeks earlier I had begun taking a drug called Naltrexone. Naltrexone is an opiate antagonist. If an opiate addict tries to use opiates while also taking Naltrexone, they will find they cannot get high. I was never an opiate addict, but research implies that Naltrexone can also help alcoholics with cravings, and I found this to be to be true. But just a day before the accident, I had been in a conversation with another one of my roommates about how the danger of Naltrexone is that one won’t be able to be treated for acute pain if they are in a sudden, terrible accident. It seemed true to me in that conversation, but nevertheless far away, like a very real thing that could only happen to someone else. If only we had known how prophetic our speculation would be. But in the chaos of the accident, I hadn’t been able to summon this memory and put the facts together. Those first few pained days in the hospital were hard, but the Naltrexone began to wear off and after about a week I was feeling real relief.

1995 Cadillac Fleetwood

This is a 1995 Cadillac Fleetwood I recently sold

I have no doubt my doctors gave me this news in good faith, and that they had every reason from what they were seeing to believe in its truth, but even the most qualified doctors can be proven wrong. About a week later I went under for surgery again, and awoke to another shock: much of the tissue in my lower leg had necrotized (died) and the leg would have be removed just above my knee.

Here in my car
Where the image breaks down
Will you visit me please
If I open my door
In cars

I don’t know how I dealt with that news. Maybe the pain meds were working too well. Maybe it was too shocking to fully devour. My surgeon told me it was my choice, and that I could try to save the leg, but there would be no point. I would walk much easier and have a much more functional life with a prosthetic leg. He had seen patients back on their feet (so to speak) in 90 days. Feeling like I had no other choice, I believed him, and to this day I believe him. I gritted the teeth of my will and told him, “Yes. Do it.”

So they amputated my lower right leg. I went under with my whole body, and woke up with a part I had used my whole life gone. The doctor told me there would be pain, and I thought because of my ability to handle the pain from the accident, I would be okay. I was wrong. From almost the moment I woke up I writhed in my bed with unceasing sensations of burning, painful tingling, and crushing. Luckily that writhing was mitigated by the love of my family, and my parents were present, giving me their hands to hold tight when I just couldn’t escape this awful, previously unknown level of suffering.

What I would soon learn was that I was experiencing the beginnings of the phantom I pain I live with to this day. Phantom pain, if you’ve heard of it, is every bit as bizarre as they say it is. It is truly the very real sensation that a missing body part is still there and suffering terrible pain. At that time, I could still feel every bit of what was gone. These days, most of the feeling caused by incorrect signals to my brain indicates my heel, toes, and portions of my foot are still there.

There are the things that one expects when facing an ordeal like mine, but then there are the things that surprise. For me, it was an acute feeling of betrayal. I learned, from a friend, that some friends and acquaintances of mine had come to a consensus about the accident, and they had some nasty things to say. “They should have waited for AAA.” “They brought this on themselves.” I don’t know if that’s true. I guess you maybe bring anything on yourself. But hindsight is—an easy tool for use in judging other people. Kennedy should’ve worn his protective bubble while riding in that convertible, but his strength was in the way he connected with people, and he chose not to. Was it his fault? I say no. The irritability I felt, or perhaps the irony of the whole thing, was compounded by the fact that I knew these people from recovery. Some of them had used heroin and crack for years. Even recent years. I don’t judge anyone for this, but I fail to understand how one who thinks it a reasonable idea to put a dirty needle in their arm can say that it was a bad idea for me to attempt to help a stranded motorist in the night. One of these people had even hit and killed another person with his car while driving drunk, only to avoid prosecution due to a technicality. Maybe seeing it as my fault was the only way to see it, because to blame the drunk who hit me would make him face something about his own past he was unable to. Maybe a lot of things—it’s not worth speculating. But it stung, and while the wound to my feelings has healed, there remains a scar.

I was in one hospital or another for over three months. In Los Angeles, the quality of hospitals varies. I started out at Ronald Reagan UCLA, where the care was excellent. Thereafter I went to a nursing home in the valley. But there, in a place that never seemed very clean to me, I caught a bad infection. I complained that my pain was increasing for days but the staff failed to see the infection, despite their dressing of my wounds every day. When a doctor finally saw how infected my incision had become, her response was simply, “Whoa. That’s infected.” The infection had grown so much in the nursing home that it would soon emerge that it had reached my bone, and I had osteomyelitis.

I ended up in Valley Presbyterian Hospital. This is a hospital I would not send my cat to. Everything I observed implied to me that Valley Pres was a filthy, cramped, old, profiteering dump. I was initially taken to West Hills Hospital, but I had to be moved when Anthem Blue Cross refused to pay for it. Anthem was happy to do business with Valley Pres, apparently. I think health insurers should have to visit and accredit those institutions with which they have agreements. And when something goes wrong, the insurer should be liable to the patient just like the hospital is. I’m happy to tell you I don’t have Anthem now. I advise you to avoid it too, if you can. These are just my opinions about Valley Pres and Anthem, but I can you tell you that I haven’t had trouble finding others who share them.

While my surgeon had seen people fully recover in 90 days, this wasn’t the case for me.  Over that first year there were nine surgeries. There were frequent infections. Because of these infections and the recovery time for surgeries, I couldn’t heal completely, and I couldn’t be fitted for a prosthetic leg until my incision had fully closed. Finally, when it had been 11 months since the accident and I felt things were never going to change, the incision healed. By the end of April 2018, I was walking on a robotic-looking titanium prosthetic. It was, in a word, liberating.

Of course, life was permanently different. A few months after I got out of the hospital I was riding in a car and we passed a trampoline park. I had the realization that I would never be able to go to a trampoline park. However, this was supplanted by another realization: as a person with two legs I had never elected to visit such a place. In fact, I had chosen not work on a particular day in 2012 so that I could avoid a work outing to a trampoline park.

There were of course things I had done that I would miss. After I had been on the prosthetic a few months, having learned how to use a car’s pedals with my left foot (very weird at first but now seems natural), I hit a bump and got a flat tire. In the old days, a flat tire was perhaps the easiest thing for me to fix on a car. Attaching a spare is a simple operation. Now with one leg, I found it nearly impossible. It’s very difficult because, having no ankle or knee, I cannot crouch or kneel. The hinge that functions as my fake knee doesn’t align exactly with my remaining knee, so if I try to kneel I tend to lose my balance and tip over comically. Have you ever stood upright and touched your toes without bending your knee or ankle? This is how I function. If I drop something and need to pick it up, or my shoelace is untied, this is how I must remedy the situation. That probably sounds more annoying than it actually has been. In reality, it doesn’t take long to get used to a change like that. But it severely affects my ability to maintain a car. I’m quite certain I’ll never change my own oil again because I can’t imagine how I would get beneath the car. I have enough trouble getting in and out of a car if I can’t swing my door all the way wide open.

And would you believe, this is all okay? I have a mechanic I trust and he does much better work than I ever could. It’s certainly more expensive, but unexpected expenses—even ongoing ones—are a part of all our lives. No, I won’t go trampolining anytime soon. I won’t be skiing. I won’t be skydiving. I won’t even be able to pick up speed to hurry when the light in a crosswalk is starting to count down. Regardless, lacking all of these things is perfectly fine. I was never passionate about trying any of them. To the extent my life is different now, I’m just used to it. I don’t remember what it was like to be able to wake up and spring out of bed in the morning. I’m just used to reaching for the apparatuses that comprise the prosthetic and attaching them when I awake. Pretty much everything else that’s different is the same way. Sure, when I am in a situation like the aforementioned crosswalk, I suddenly feel stress and am reminded that I’m not like everyone else. But that sensation is fleeting. Most of the time I’m able to let it go and resume my day with an emphasis on what is positive in my life now, and there’s much to be grateful for. I’m about to enter my second year of law school. I have a family who loves me very much. In all likelihood, I’m going to live a long time. I’m even working with a new pain doctor who might be able to take away the phantom pain once and for all, albeit with another surgery. And once again, I am sober and happy with the progress I am making in life. My needs, largely speaking, are met. I could ask for more and sometimes I do, but much (not all) of the time I’m simply content with things the way they are. I think I’ve got it pretty good.

What did I feel when I found myself on my back in that dark street, feeling my life was in danger, but closer to death than I knew? I felt the most extreme and overwhelming desire to live. I wanted to continue, whatever that meant. Muttering in the moments before anyone appeared, I begged God to save my life. I told him I would do anything it took. I told him I would live with whatever it meant. I just knew then, and believe now, that at the core of me the strongest drive is merely a will to survive. This should not be news, as survival appears to be the primary mission of all life on earth, but it’s quite a different thing for this drive to present itself to you at full volume and refusing to take no for an answer. When I do struggle with negative feelings, I try to remind myself of this simple desire, and be grateful that my prayers have been answered by somebody or something, or just fate. I don’t question it.

Cool High School 90s Brian Macaulay, back then my thinking was whack

This is a teenage me in high school trying desperately to be cool with my 1986 Cadillac Fleetwood. Note the phresh cargo pants.

And what about cars? A few months ago, I had a taillight housing crack and break. Somebody must have backed into me, but I wasn’t there to see it. I’m happy to report I changed that taillight housing myself and felt proud and satisfied afterward. It was an easy replacement that didn’t involve kneeling or crouching, just a lot of unscrewing/screwing while leaning into the trunk. For me though, it was progress. It was something I could not have done a year prior. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I now believe there’s no reason to think it doesn’t involve more progress and good things. It’s not worth believing anything else.

Here in my car
I know I’ve started to think
About leaving tonight
Although nothing seems right
In cars

This year, I also became the proud owner of (what I consider) a real flashy 1992 Buick Roadmaster Limited. I love the car and I drive it whenever I can. It’s old and it’s surely traveled some bumpy roads over the years, but like me, this car is a survivor. If you’re alive today to be reading this, so are you.

1992 Buick Roadmaster Limited

This is the 1992 Buick Roadmaster Limited I drive today

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