Photo by Michael Jin on Unsplash

Why You Totaled Your Car

Dawn Downey
7 min readAug 25, 2023


Pain jackhammers my skull. White hot shards stab my neck. Pins and needles radiate down my shoulders. My jaw aches from the effort to speak, as a chiropractor interviews me. “Have you been in any car accidents?” Dr. Nicole asks.

I flinch at the sound of her voice.

When I was a kid, I was used to flinching at the sound of a voice — Dad’s, a rumbling threat around the house on East 15th.

I say, “Long time ago.”

“How many?”

“Maybe three …”

“How serious?”

“The cars were totaled. But I was fine.”

“Sounds like untreated whiplash.”

“I don’t think so.”

Whiplash was something you faked to get out of going to work. Irresponsibility horrified me. On East 15th, you’d better do what you were told. Don’t complain. Don’t whine.

Dr. Nicole opens her arm, and the conversation, to include a man sitting beside her, his forehead creased with worry lines. “This is Jeff, our massage therapist. Right now, your pain is too acute for chiropractic. I want to try massage first. Are you comfortable with that?”

I nod.

I shuffle beside Jeff across the lobby, and he helps me climb onto a massage table, where I stretch out, face down. “We’ll only do a half-hour session today, enough to get information directly from your body. Massage for three weeks to calm down the inflammation.” Jeff’s palm questions my cervical spine. Gentle, deferential. Still, a man’s hand on me … I brace.

Whiplash. A whip’s lash.

At the next massage appointment, I’m surprised it’s Dr. Nicole who greets me. “Jeff got the sense you’re my patient, not his, that your body needs a woman.”

For an instant, I feel seen. The instant fades, and I feel exposed. Exposed is dangerous.

“Your body is still too inflamed for adjustments; acupuncture will be gentler.”

Her hand on my back like a dance partner, she guides me into a room barely larger than the span of my arms. I don’t feel the needle insertions, their sensation drowned out by the jackhammer at my skull. Dr. Nicole instructs me to lie still until she returns.

I relax. Still plus quiet plus alone plus tiny space equal safety.

On East 15th, I hid in my room, immersed in My Weekly Reader, to shut out the downstairs soundtrack — slap of leather against flesh.

There are several acupuncture treatments. As the needles open energetic pathways, questions ebb and flow on waves of semi-consciousness. Untreated whiplash? How many accidents? Was I a bad driver?

And finally, adjustments. Acupuncture has diminished the jackhammer’s roar. My weariness and desperation for relief induce a measure of trust.

Dr. Nicole points to the treatment table. “Sit with your legs dangling over the side.” She raises and lowers my arms then turns my head side to side. Testing the boundary, alert for limitations.

From behind, she folds my arms across my chest and wraps hers around me — a white woman holds me in a protective embrace, something Mama never did. “Take a deep breath.”

Dr. Nicole squeezes. Hard. Releases.

The jolt stuns me. I freeze in confusion, a child suspended between the sensation of hot stove and the inevitable wail. And then the wail erupts in sobs.

I cried a lot in my bedroom, tears smudging My Weekly Reader. How could there be any tears left?

There are endless tears left, a volcanic eruption of tears. I heave and tremble. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

“It’s okay,” she says. And then says nothing. Her silence comforts me as nothing, no one, had on East 15th.

Unbeknownst to my mind, my body releases memories I don’t know it’s holding. Cells drag across cells like tectonic plates beneath the surface of consciousness, generating a new emotional landscape. My muscles know I no longer need to brace against inevitable violence, but years will pass before the understanding takes the shape of words.

After I graduated from college, Dad surprised me with a new car, a shiny red compact. I tootled around town for a few weeks, until a 1970s Cadillac — a land yacht — ran a stop sign and T-boned me. My car was totaled.

Dad pounded out the dents and attached a yellow door he’d scavenged from a junkyard. He planned to paint the door red. “Leave it with me another day,” he said.

I shrank away from his offer. It must have turned the world upside down, Dad taking care of me. The sting of his hand on the ten-year-old’s temple infected the twenty-year-old like a virus.

“It’s fine the way it is, Dad. you don’t need to paint it.”

So, I drove a red car with a yellow junkyard door. A throw-away door for throw-away me.

I threw myself away in a decade-long string of collisions. To me, the accidents were isolated incidents. They didn’t seem at all out of the ordinary.

After the T-boning of the red compact, I totaled my next car in an icy spin-out. And the next one when I was side-swiped — thrown across three lanes of traffic. A bystander called 911, but I declined the ambulance; I was fine. And the car after that, when a driver turning left smashed into me. And the car after that, another left-turning driver knocked me through an intersection. Both times, I ended up in the emergency room and ignored advice to get follow-up treatment. I was fine.

But the fuzzy edges of a pattern materialized. Maybe all my cars were too small. Other drivers couldn’t see me. I bought a bigger car.

I had to replace that one after I turned too fast off a fog-shrouded county road and skidded into a drainage ditch. I hit a pole dead center between the headlights, my car’s third eye. I’d left the house too late, gas gauge in the red, and an un-read map tossed on the passenger seat. Sabotage: I felt it in my bones.

The thought blinked on, bright as a neon beer sign, then immediately winked off. I didn’t have time to wonder why I’d sabotaged my day. I needed to get to my job.

I needed to get back to work after every one of my accidents. Get back to work, get back to work, unaware that my real work was the job of numbing out to East 15th.

My mind refused the S.O.S. from my bones, while vertebrae ground down to nerves, accumulating damage until C1 through C7 forced me to a chiropractor, who cared for me from massage to acupuncture to the squeeze that realigned spirit and body. I was a different person when I left Dr. Nicole’s. I just didn’t know it.

Five years later, my intellect got the message.

Construction season turns 39th and Main into a blind intersection. Orange cones squeezed the lanes into a maze. A backhoe crashes into the concrete, peeling up chunks of the roadbed and filling the air with dust. As I creep into the intersection, brakes screech to my right; a driver is attempting to zip across Main through a half-second break in the traffic. I’m in his path.

I brace for the sideways jolt. The crash of metal into metal.

No jolt. No crash.

I look over. The driver has managed to stop in time — my side window frames his face. He might as well be sitting beside me. We smile and wave our mutual relief.

The backhoe shrinks to toy-size in my rear-view mirror.

Nothing happened at 39th and Main, but the nothing throws me off-kilter.

I pull into McDonald’s to collect myself. Diet Coke in hand, I park, facing the busy street. At the burst of cold carbonation, I shudder involuntarily. I relax into the car’s lumbar support.

Nothing happened at 39th and Main, but the nothing feels like a conversation that stalls when the name of your favorite movie escapes you.

Another sip. The carbonation makes me shake my head.

There’s something I need to remember but don’t know how.

Another sip. The carbonation makes me snort.

Wasn’t there an accident prior to this near-miss? A pole had smashed into my car’s third eye … what year was that … which car … and then the string of collisions rolls out in reverse order, a video in rewind.

I’d totaled half a dozen cars.

I’d been accident-free for five years.

I couldn’t appreciate the latter, because I hadn’t recognized the former. I was a Friend of Bill handed her five-year coin on the same day she learns she’s an addict.

My energetic place in the world had shifted. In Dr. Nicole’s bear hug, my conditioning — razor strap, backhands, and threats that were never veiled — had exploded into bits of irrelevance.

I slide the Coke into the cup holder and wipe the condensation from my palm. Midtown chaos surrounds me. A car radio throws hip hop out the window, the driver bouncing. A helicopter throttles overhead. A young woman strolls past in a conversation with the air. A man in last week’s clothes lurches toward her, and they sidestep each other at the last second. Horns blast, construction workers yell. Even the crosswalk shouts. “Wait. Wait.”

I nose my car into the midtown chaos. Let other poor souls worry about the near miss around every corner. Violence is part of life, but it’s no longer part of mine.