Writing as a Means of Survival

After being run over by an eighteen-wheeler, author Katie McKenna found that writing was the only way she could survive.

Katie McKenna

I actually know what someone means when they say, “I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck,” because I was. Twice, if you count the axles (and I do). On the morning of October 2, 2007, I went from being a 25-year-old girl riding my bike before work to a traffic victim with deep tire tracks across my stomach.

After 10 hours of emergency surgery, I woke up horrified. My body was fractured, stuck with tubes, covered in fresh wounds and surgery scars. I looked down at legs that were attached to my body that refused to do what I asked them.

Everyone has had a moment where they feel like they have been run over by a truck. One pivotal moment that breaks apart everything one knows to be true. My truck moment was literal, but others are figurative. We all have a choice: either mourn the life you lived or fight to create a new life so beautiful that you can’t help but fall in love with it. This memoir, How to Get Run Over by a Truck, is a record of that fight.

I started writing because my mind wouldn’t let me stop remembering. I re-lived the crash over and over again. I hoped that ceasing to think about it would make the experience go away, as if I would wake up one day and look at myself in a hospital bed, unable to walk, stuck full of tubes, and not know how I got there. If I could stop remembering, then all of the little memories would disappear—the color of the sky that day, the kindness of strangers, the terror of hearing that I was probably going to die.

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I needed to put everything I remembered about the crash in one place, someplace outside of myself. So while I was still hospitalized, my Godfather gave me his son’s old laptop computer and, with creaky fingers, I began typing. I took down every single detail I could recall. I was writing to save myself from the pressure of remembering. I went down the rabbit hole of what I had been thinking and feeling, and after a few words, I was right back there once more. I could hear the blare of the ambulance sirens, taste the intubation tube in my mouth, and feel the longing for my mom. It scared the shit out of me. My eyes welled up with tears. At first I thought I was crying because I was reliving the worst experience of my life, but after a few pages, I realized that these were tears of gratitude, because this was the first time I truly conceptualized what had happened to me: I had been run over by an eighteen-wheeler truck. My entire body had been crushed. I was supposed to die, but miraculously, I didn’t. It was real. It was fucked up. And it was my story to tell.

From that point on, whenever I couldn’t wrap my brain around what it was that was happening to me emotionally or physically, I started writing. I did it to soothe myself and to give me some distance from my immediate circumstances. While I was writing, I could feel myself processing what it was like having a doctor tell you that you weren’t going to walk again. I could understand how Jeopardy can become the most important part of your day when you’re stuck in a hospital room or how, on a trip outdoors, a snowflake falling on your face while your mom spins you in circles in your wheelchair could be one of the most beautiful moments in your life. Writing made sense of this new and confusing life. Having it all down in a Word document on an old Dell laptop didn’t just make it feel real, it made me feel real.

When I sat down to write, I didn’t have to be positive about my situation. I didn’t have to pretend that I wasn’t terrified and so incredibly sad. I stared harder at myself in the reflection of that computer screen than I ever did in any mirror. This accident was a reset button, and writing forced me to look at myself honestly. Who was I before I almost died? Who was it that left the crash? What did I want from the rest of this fragile little life? They were hard questions, and without forcing myself to write, I would have never been brave enough to ask them.

Writing about who I was and the process by which I got here made me believe in my own strength. It’s easy to discount those magical moments when you are the most courageous version of yourself as one-off incidents, but having it all there in black and white gave me the reference point to say to myself: “Sweetheart, you’ve been through worse. You can handle this. Everything can and will be better. You’ve just got to fight for it.”

I didn’t write because I thought that my story would be a bestseller or because I thought it would make me famous. I wrote because I was looking for the words to understand what was happening in my body, my heart, and my head. I wrote because it was only while writing that I felt like myself again. The memoir that poured forth, How to Get Run Over by a Truck, has let me understand myself, my relationships and this terrible, fantastic, beautiful life. I would never have imagined that writing a book about the time I almost died would be the thing that actually saved my life.


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Image credit:

Original illustration by Michele Miller.

About KATIE MCKENNA

Katie McKenna

KATIE MCKENNA is a professional fund-raiser and stand-up comedian living in Brooklyn. She runs a blog called Small Bites and Little Victories and is an expert on the best date spots in New York City. How to Get Run Over by a Truck is her first book.

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