This one is pretty personal and there’s a lot packed into the paragraphs, so take your time reading them. These first three letters were the hardest for me to write. But I did so instead of sitting down with you when you’re older, because it’s still easier for me to catch everything I want to say, in writing. And because while the lessons are for you firstly, they might be helpful to others too, so sharing them is the right thing to do.
When I was 21 I was driving the car in the picture on State Highway One. I was heading to Palmerston North to buy a friend’s birthday present. Something cool from the city.
I didn’t make it to the mall.
I crossed the centre line and crashed head-on into a van coming from the opposite direction. You can still see the driver’s seat I was sitting in, and if you can imagine what happens to soft skin, bone, and tissue in a collision where a car’s steel gets that twisted and bent, you can probably picture how I ended up.
I was in a coma for three days, then lived in a wheelchair and hospital bed for about four months afterwards. I suffered serious head trauma, a snapped thigh bone, shattered jaw, punctured lung, one foot reduced to bone dust, and more pain on most days than I’d experienced in my life so far.
Reading that in isolation you might feel sorry for your dad, because while “suffered” isn’t a word I like to use often, that’s what I did. You might feel bad about all the times you pieced together the words for your “Daddy carry” demands, knowing now that I’ve got arthritis in both feet and that those days carrying you or jumping up and down for your amusement physically hurt.
Then when I tell you the woman driving the van I hit passed away at the scene, and because I crossed the centre line, a husband lost his wife, and her friends lost a mate, you might feel a bit less sympathetic. You might wonder if I was drinking or high. If boy racing is still a thing you might ask if I was racing or speeding. You might even feel a bit angry with your dad.
How you decide to interpret any situation or facts, will change your response and change how you feel.
I wasn’t drinking, high or speeding when I crashed. I don’t actually know what happened. I don’t remember anything between stopping at the petrol station for a coffee, and waking up as they were cutting me out of the car. A man in a bright fluro vest told me I was going to be OK.
I do know I crossed the centre line for some reason, and as a result the woman in the other car lost her life. Her husband did lose a wife, and her friends did lose a mate. I’m not going to write her name here – it feels less wrong to call her the woman than it does to use her name for some reason.
About a week out of my coma a uniformed policeman visited your confused, scared twenty two year old dad. He stood up straight at the foot of my bed. “Mr Barrett, we are charging you with careless driving causing death.” His voice was flat. At least he took his hat off.
That sad Saturday was nearly eleven years ago today. It’s something I’ve never stopped dealing with, and never will. I learnt some good lessons as a result of a bad turn of events, and they were really expensive lessons to learn.
So I’m writing this in the hope that you can learn them too, without paying the price I did. A lot of it centres around resilience and happiness, which I talked about in children over here but you can apply these lessons to your adult and teenage life like I do. I’m not a psychologist, I haven’t studied any of this in laboratories with test cases across decades, I’m just your Dad, and this is just how I dealt with some tough setbacks, and what I learnt in the process.
LESSON ONE: HAPPINESS AFFECTS EVERYTHING, SO WORK ON IT
I was in my third year at university studying Marine Biology and working part time when I crashed. While I was recovering I put my studies on hold and, thanks to ACC and my boss at the time, I managed to keep paying the rent for my room in the city, while living in a rented hospital bed at your nana and granddad’s in Otaki. But once I could walk again it was back out to the life I lived before I had nearly lost it.
The times over the next few years I spent down and out about the accident are the times I got sick easily, they’re the times I drifted away from friends, didn’t do well at work or uni, and overall wasn’t doing justice to the life I was lucky enough to still have. That’s because anxiety, prolonged stress, and self-doubt all make your body and mind behave differently to ‘normal’. While stress is designed to get us out of threatening situations quickly (fight or flight), just like self-doubt and anxiety, it’s really unhealthy in big doses. Those three assailants had two battlefields to attack me on. The first was a focused assault in the months leading up to my court date, the second scuffle was. and still is, longer term over the years following.
The months leading up my sentencing in court were the most stressful of my life so far. I was scheduled to stand in front of the people that loved the woman I’d killed. I had exchanged letters with her best friend, and mum and dad went to her funeral while I was in hospital, but I’d never met them face to face.
This was also the day I would find out if I was going to spend my 23rd and maybe 24th birthday behind bars, in jail. I dealt with those two things very differently.
To help process being responsible for her death and prepare myself to see her family, I wrote. A lot. That helped me understand and self-explain emotions that I’d never held before, and helped me be comfortable in the uncomfortableness of them as best I could. Most of that was writing was music. I made a bunch of songs like this that were pretty much pages of me processing what happened and coming to grips with it in a setting that was comfortingly familiar (hip hop). But if I didn’t write music I guess I would have worked through that pain & confusion with regular writing to get to the same clarity. I talked about the benefits of journaling in any form here – if you don’t already do this, I hope you start. The next twenty years will drop a lot of first time experiences on your doorstep. I hope you talk with me and your mum about some of those, but if you don’t want to, writing them down will help turn those emotions into clear thoughts that will be easier for you to understand.
Get comfortable explaining your thoughts to yourself, before you need to explain them to the world.
Preparing to spend nearly ten percent of my time on earth in jail, was different. I had to understand and believe that the judge’s decision was outside of my control. There were things I could change, like what I would achieve and get done when I got out. And what I could do there and then before the big day – but everything else? I didn’t have a say in it. There’s not a lot of preparation for jail you can do from a wheelchair other than the mind-set you take in, so that’s what I worked on.
By court date I believed I was ready.
I was still scared, and when I let myself think I didn’t deserve it, I was still angry that after making the life choices I had thought meant I wouldn’t be following some of my friends and family that were headed for, or in, jail, I might end up going for something I didn’t remember doing. I was anxious about missing out on life for any stretch of time, but two years isn’t twenty, and I would still be a young guy with things I wanted to achieve when I got out.
If something is outside of your control and affects you negatively, all you can do is adapt. Do what’s needed to get something positive from the situation.
You need to understand what is and isn’t within your control, sometimes the right thing to do is fight and change the outcome. But you’re smart like your mum, you’ll understand when to adapt and when to put up your fists.
Adapt to the things you can’t control, and own the things you can.
The judge decided it was truly an accident with no mitigating factors. I wasn’t speeding, drinking, driving dangerously etc. The thing about accidents is they can still cause pain, even if you can’t figure out what you should have done differently.
It was hard to take responsibility for causing the accident when I didn’t actually know what I did. But I did cross the centre line, so it was my fault. So while I don’t understand how it happened, I understand what the impact was, and I strap that accountability on my shoulders every morning I get out of bed.
I can’t go back in time and swap seats with her or stay sipping my coffee for 10 minutes longer, so it’s not something I can control now, and I adapted to that.
The Judge didn’t see a need to make an example of me, and recognised that I was truly sorry. So I was allowed to go home and right the imbalance I caused on life’s scales in whatever ways I saw fit.
Over the longer term at times I forgot that lesson about adapting to what you can’t control and owning what you can. That’s when I found myself on the second battlefield where anxiety, prolonged stress, and self doubt would attack me again. Those were the days and weeks I let the accident, and disappointment in myself for causing it, creep into the rest of my life’s lanes. I didn’t keep it wrapped around the car crash and centre line. I would listen to the voice telling me that I cut her life short and questioning what right I had to be enjoying myself after doing something so cruel. I would bring that voice with me and it would drown out all others. The longer I listened, the further it narrowed my vision and my experience of life.
I dealt with those days differently, sometimes I wrote the voice down, again music or journaling played their part – putting it on paper meant that voice and emotion was something I could interpret and control rather than listen to passively and absorb. Sometimes I would exercise and let the thump of blood moving around my body drown it out. Both of those coping techniques gave me the breathing room to remember to adapt to the things I can’t control, and own the things I can. I can’t control the impact my actions had in in 2005, but I can control the impact I have every year after.
I know now that the part I play in the world isn’t limited to or defined by that car accident and the pain that came after. These days my world is often only as big as you and your mum, sometimes it’s the forty odd people at work I’m responsible for, or the thousands (OK hundreds, OK, sometimes dozens,) of people I reach with my music. It doesn’t make sense to apply that guilt, sadness and grief to those worlds – it wouldn’t be fair to you or the other people I’m responsible for leading. And limiting how much I enjoy my own life wouldn’t be fair to me.
Make happiness your goal in life. Understand what will bring it to you, then go out and make that happen
Knowing that now, I intentionally chase happiness and only make smaller more specific life goals if they fit under that umbrella intent – I try and do as many of the things that make me happy as I can (that includes making you and your mum happy – because that makes me happy too).
Across the 8760 hours in a year I try and balance my energy and time across what makes me happy, what I’m good at, what will pay our bills, and what adds value to the world – this helps make those goals as sustainable as possible. (That’s not an equation I came up with – but the maths seems to work).
When you have your ‘car crashes’ in life – big or small – do your best to deal with it there and then rather than letting the impact spread over the rest of life’s lanes, and remember your ability to do one thing isn’t based on your ability to do another. It took me a long time to start driving again, but I drive every day now, an accident eleven years ago doesn’t mean I’m a bad driver today. If you’re not good at drawing, that doesn’t mean you’re going to suck at netball. Come back to those drawings later if you want to practice – for now, put the bib on and see how you go.