You are not invincible. The first time I heard this phrase in a high school health class I nodded and waited patiently through my teacher’s reaching inspirational speech so I could get to lunch. I nodded yes, but didn’t really believe it. It was hard growing up in a generation of such high praise, a generation that got trophies just for participation. Sometimes I still believe that I’m invincible even when I recall some of the mistakes I’ve made—one more so than others—and have to remind myself that I’m not. I’m just young.
When I moved some thousand miles or so away for college, I carried my un-killable mentality with me in all my suitcases and boxes. I wore it to class, to meetings, to bars and clubs. My first couple of years were amazing but, of course, not without the occasional regret. I was on my own for the first time in eighteen years and I was excitable, ready to handle things independently. It wasn’t really until early into my junior year that reality hit me. It was a game day. Some of my most memorable days are game days, but especially this one.
It started out as the usual. A couple of friends and I were tailgating at some of the frat houses, carelessly drinking, dancing and having a good time. As the day started to wind down into night, we went up to one of the apartments at the house and continued our good time there. I was tired and things were starting to get hazy. I honestly don’t really remember what all we did in that apartment, but I know I didn’t leave with my friends.
I can remember the stench of beer, one of my friends talking to a guy in the corner of the too-small-to-cook-in kitchen, but I don’t remember leaving.
I can’t even remember if I said goodbye or not. What I do remember is hitting my head on the top of my steering wheel as I crashed into a small tree outside of an apartment complex on the edge of campus.
My car teetered to the left, perched atop a nearly flattened tree—I’m not sure what kind. The road was empty. I brushed the loose strands of hair from my face, opened the door and stumbled out onto the pavement. Some loose pebbles wedged themselves into my palms as I pushed myself to stand. My heart throbbed along with my head and my eyes searched the area. I was panicking. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I couldn’t even remember how I had gotten to my car. Why was I so stupid to drive?
A few girls in the apartment closest to the site rushed out as soon as they’d heard and called the police. They were undeservingly kind and fed me water and goldfish as I crumpled into a mess of sobs before them. I stammered to speak. I couldn’t look at my car. I couldn’t bear to think about what I had done. I was lucky it was a tree and not a person, although it shouldn’t have even been a tree. The cops came and took my information, then they stepped away for a minute, occasionally glancing back in my direction only to return to their secrets. When they came back, they told me they had called in for another officer who was specific to these incidents. I raised my head to ask what kind of officer, but I already knew. I stared at my scuffed shoes instead.
When the special officer came, he asked me what happened. I stuttered through pitiful sobs to explain. He ran a few tests on me and after much anticipation and anxiety, gave me a warning. He was so sympathetic and forgiving but I wanted him so badly to do more. Just yell at me a little. He wished me a safe night and left. A tow truck came and dragged my car off the lifeless tree. Leaves were torn and scattered on the sidewalk and littered the street. As the cops had suggested, I called someone to pick me up and they took me home shortly after. I rested my head against the window of the passenger seat and softly cried.
The days that followed were bleak. It was as if I had somehow traveled to an alternate universe of complete and utter grayness. I took the bus to campus for classes where I sat silently and watched as the clock ticked by only to go home and shut myself away in my room. I’m a bubbly person but I don’t think I said more than a couple sentences to my friends during that first week. I was unbearably sad and unable to talk to anyone about it. I was so ashamed. I had never felt such deep, coursing guilt before in my life. I was invincible. I was twenty but could hand a bouncer a thirty-year-old ID and not even be questioned. I wasn’t supposed to make mistakes like this. I knew better. I thought I knew better.
I had to call my parents and explain what happened. Explain the damages to my car and what it would cost to repair it. My mom asked me if I was ok. I took a long pause, thought of my head hitting the steering wheel, thought of my car being dragged from the pedestal of flattened limbs, thought of the flashlight probing my pupils. I said I was fine and pulled my blankets tighter around my body.
I still haven’t really forgiven myself for it and I don’t think I ever will, but it really put things in perspective. You are not invincible. You are not perfect. Things I should’ve realized when I heard them so long ago started to become clear, although I admittedly wish it had happened sooner. College is an exhilarating time, whether you’re away from your parents for the first time, thousands of miles from home, or only two. It’s liberating and lively but it’s challenging. Don’t forget that.