Ode: Sara Culley Survives
My first experience with travel was from Florence Crittenton to a foster home in November of 1959. Within a few months, I moved to a cattle ranch in western Kansas with my new family, a mom and a dad and a big brother, two years older than me. My brother was adopted as well – from outer space. I loved my life on the ranch. I had cats and dogs and my pony Sugar Lump. My animals were my closest friends.
As my brother and I got older, we loved to go with Dad to do chores. On one of these outings, we got out of his big, red truck to open a gate like we’d done so many times before, but today, Dad didn’t see me and ran over my frail 4-year-old frame when he drove through.
I remember gravel in my mouth and hair and this eerie feeling of not being present but, instead, watching from a different place. My memories of the following months in the hospital remain hazy, but it seemed like I had the whole town of 300 people looking after me. It was comforting at first, but then I felt like a traveling freak show: “Oh look, there’s the amazing Sara Culley, the kid that got run over.”
My escape was in Kansas City, a wonderful place full of art and music, all the way across the state. I saw a specialist there every six months. I learned to love the anonymity of the city and that it introduced me to a life beyond the ranch. Best of all, the doctor’s office was filled with people who had injuries as serious as mine. Here, I was not a novelty.
After the accident, though, I began to experience episodes of PTSD. I would carry all of my favorite stuffed animals around with me all the time for fear that something bad was going to happen. I had night terrors. I was scared of everything. My parents didn’t know what to do. My brother loved to scare me. I was such an easy target. I began to withdraw and find solace in my farm animal friends. This series of events began to fracture our family unit. The accident wounded us all, not just me.
You hear people say, “Kids are resilient,” but an unlucky day in October would put that statement to the test. It was none other than Friday the 13th in fourth grade. The teacher wrote a warning on the chalkboard to be careful that day. After school, those words easily slipped out of my mind as I pedaled down a dirt road by our ranch with my friend.
Our ranch was a small hill where teens in cars sped by, trying to “catch air.” A young man was doing just that when my friend and I were riding our bikes up said hill. Approaching the peak, he saw us, slammed on the brakes and lost control. And yes, you guessed it, he ran over me. It was truly a miracle – I was under the car, in between the tires looking up at the engine. I had some serious road rash, plus more gravel in my mouth and hair.
After this wreck, my PTSD became more pronounced. My parents did everything they could for me physically, which included the trips to Kansas City to one of the best orthopedic doctors in the country. But they didn’t understand my fear and withdrawal, my movement away from people.
Our family didn’t ever talk about me being run over, even though, in the years following the first accident, it was a hot topic in our small town. I don’t even know the full extent of my injuries. When we went to the doctor, he spoke to my mother. I know that my pelvis was crushed with 41 fractures, but other than that, it just wasn’t discussed, so I don’t know.
My father was full of guilt, and my mother was trying to keep things level. My brother resented all the attention I received, and I didn’t want any attention.
When I was 12, I lost what little sense of security I had left. My parents sold the ranch and moved to town. The good thing was that I could take Sugar Lump and my cats and dog with me, but they weren’t enough to keep me out of trouble. Moving to town and starting junior high introduced me to beer.
At 12, I had my first drink. It was a magical fear eraser. This began an odyssey of an entirely different kind.
Drinking and drugs helped survive high school in my small town. I hated high school, and when I went off to college, my extracurricular activities led to many moves, which is what addicts do to try and leave their problem behind. I went to four different colleges. I couldn’t get the hang of it. Showing up for class would have helped.
Instead, I had a lot of incredibly exciting artificial highs and some amazing fun, but it doesn’t last. The last year of my using was terrifying because, even though I wanted to, I couldn’t stop. Drugs and alcohol had turned into a beast of terror far worse than the original fear I was trying to escape.
I eventually ended up in Sioux City. Without knowing it, I came here for recovery when I was 24 years old. Another journey had begun. I was so scared. I did not know how I was going to do fear without artificial substances. However, there are some very generous folks around who can show you how it’s done.
After five years of sobriety, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where three of my greatest fears were getting lost, having my car break down on the freeway and earthquakes. Of course, I experienced all three and survived.
San Francisco became my favorite city in the world, and during my time there, I did every touristy thing I could afford, taking in the art, the ballet, the opera, the symphony and Alcatraz, twice. I became a huge San Francisco Giants fan, and I listened to music by two great jazz musicians, Pat Metheny and Van Morrison, that moved my soul.
Feeling squeezed out by the rising cost of living in my beloved San Francisco, five years later, I returned to Sioux City and have been here ever since. I’ve had to go back to Kansas to bury both of my parents and found that whatever I left undone in my hometown was there to greet me. I have not made it a habit to go back. I believe it’s helped me stay sober and make something of myself.
I did manage to complete my education. Actually going to class is amazing. I received my bachelor’s degree in English from Morningside College, studied in the paralegal program at Santa Clara University and graduated from law school at the University of South Dakota.
Right now, I work with horses, and I have another pony named Sugar Lump. My animals – two dogs, four cats and just as many horses – are still my best friends, but people are OK, too.
I’m not completely healed, inside or out, but I’m grateful for the journey. Through it all, I know life can run me down or run me over and I’ll survive. I’ve done it before.