Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mental Shock Absorbers

When I was 16, I crashed my car at an intersection just outside of Prescott Valley. I was going about 45 mph at the time, but the car I rear-ended was stopped at a red light. I remember slamming on the brakes and hearing the sound of the impact, but despite (or maybe because of) the fact that my forehead shattered the windshield, I did not feel anything. I opened my eyes and the entire front end of my car was folded up like an accordion – but the car I’d hit had only the slightest dent in its rear bumper.

My passengers and I walked away with bruises and a bloody nose, while an ambulance took the back-seat passenger of the car I hit. I remember she screamed and screamed while we waited for help and I didn’t understand. My car was totaled, and theirs was fine. Why was she hurt? The answer, according to my friend’s mechanic father, was the difference in our bumpers. Mine was full of Styrofoam, which then spilled all over the road. Their car had a steel bumper, which protected the car but absorbed none of the impact.

In addition to insulating car bumpers, packing electronics, and containing take-out food, Styrofoam is also used in bicycle helmets – another mental shock absorber. I’ve never had a serious cycling accident, probably because I never took to the sport, but almost everyone I know who rides on a regular basis has a story about how a helmet saved their lives. 

But not all shock absorbers are physical. The mind has its own way of protecting itself from a shock. I believe “going into shock” is actually one of them. Sometimes, depending on the trauma, the mind suppresses it. Or the trauma leads to a fractured personality or post-traumatic stress. If a mind is repeatedly subjected to disturbing  or stressful events, then it acclimates. It tries to cope, through meditation, or alcoholism, or exercise, or humor.

In the prison, whenever something bad happened, I always asked if any books had been damaged in the incident. This was not because I cared about the books (although I did), or because I knew that no one else gave a damn about them (which they didn’t), but because I thought it was funny. Someone gets beaten or stabbed in their cell, someone starts a fire or a flood, someone goes on dirty protest – whatever… are the books ok?

Maybe you had to be there.

The first time I asked, I was serious. There had been a flood in a cell in the segregation unit. The prisoner’s property had been bagged up to be disposed of, and I could see one of my books through the plastic. I asked if I could get it because I wanted the barcode to withdraw it from the library catalog. One of the officers handed me a pair of gloves and watched as I dug through the damp clothes and papers to reach the book at the bottom of the bag. “By the way,” he said. “That’s toilet water.”  I swore at him and threw the dripping book in the trash.  But after that came the jokes. 
*This post was first published at The Daily Theme on March 17, 2011

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