Tailspin Clarity


As I formulate my thoughts on recent events, you may find that I have more questions than answers (unlike my typical posts). There is no how-to guide to follow this time, rather, a proposal for you to share your thoughts and experiences, composed or otherwise. Where to start…

Last Friday morning was cool and clear, and whilst the stretch of highway between Penticton and Vancouver I was navigating was known for treachery, I had done it 100 times before, without incident. My wife and I piled into our 4 wheel drive SUV, equipped with brand new snow tires, and left our house about 15 minutes later than we had planned (what else is new), but were making reasonably good time after passing a few semi-trucks and campers. There was a little snow on the ground, and a little snow in the air, temperature was hovering around freezing, but otherwise, conditions were pretty good for travel. And then it happened.

About 2.5 hours into a 4-hour drive, and on a soft and gradual right turn, I felt the rear tires start to slide. Remembering that over-correction could be disastrous, I eased off the gas and turned the steering wheel a little more to the right, and the car began to correct. Only it didn’t. It over-corrected, and then I over-corrected in the other direction. A shimmy turned into a tailspin. I looked at the speedometer - 90 Km/h. I downshifted and tried to pump the breaks, but by this time we were across two of the four lanes of traffic, almost completely facing the other direction, and headed to the forest on the far side of the road. And then, for a moment, time stood still.

It’s amazing, really, how much can happen in a very short period of time, and how our bodies and minds instinctively react to danger. I can honestly say that through this entire episode, my wife and I were calm. Dead calm. Not even one ounce of panic. In fact, I have never felt so at peace in the face of danger in my life.

Here is the order of events that I clearly remember unfolding, the second I realized that I had completely lost control:

  1. I looked at the forest where we were about to plunge into; specifically, I remember looking at the one tree we were certain to hit

  2. I remember thinking, “how do you survive a crash?” (they say to relax your body, by the way; the human body accepts an impact with much less damage if it is not tense and rigid)

  3. I removed one hand from the steering wheel and placed it on my wife’s leg. I thought to myself, do I tell her that I love her, one last time, in case this is it, or do I say something to try to help the situation?

  4. I turned my head completely, looking my wife in the eyes, and said, “Relax.” Now, what I meant to say was “relax your body” to prepare for impact, however, my wife tells me that I just said “relax”, and in a tone that suggested I thought she was going to nag me for getting us into this mess. In fact, she said that my tone was such that might suggest that I had a plan, and that this was all part of the show…kind of a wink and a nod

Here's how to control your anxiety in stressful situations

So what happened, you ask??? Did we survive? Yeah, I mean obviously; this article isn’t penned by a ghostwriter (copy that). It had snowed a bunch in the days prior and the plows had created an embankment of ice and snow which we side-slide into after turning 180° over 4 lanes of traffic. The down shifting must have helped too, as other than a little spill of my wife’s tea, the contact was a fairly light bounce. The car looked the same, though we did hear a new clunk that caused for concern, but no damage we could see and no whiplash to speak of. A $400 tow truck ride and a $100 repair bill later and everything was right as rain.

It’s funny, at first I was upset about the whole thing: $500 and hours of our life down the drain, I had put my wife at risk (I wasn’t driving irresponsibly by any means, in fact, I was 5-10 Km/h under the speed limit at the time), and I also couldn’t believe that I didn’t steer out of it. I mean, I’ve seen Tokyo Drift like at least 5 times. But when we discussed it later, we realized how lucky we were: no oncoming traffic (an oh-so-common semi-truck would have killed us both), it only cost us $500, and it happened about 500m from a ski resort with a phone (as there is no cell signal in the mountains) and a warm wood fire crackling away to watch while we waited for the tow truck. We even had a solid laugh about me telling my wife to shut up, stop eye-balling me, and “relax”, in the middle of an out of control tailspin, on the drive home.

But the miracle of survival is not the point of this post. Rather, I would like to spur a discussion on the calm and clarity that came with a real, “Jesus take the wheel” moment, where my fate was truly and utterly out of my hands, and all I could do was wait for impact. Where is the evolutionary advantage to absolute calm and resolution in waiting for your sentence? Have you experienced this? I suppose my point (if there ever was one) is that gratitude is relative. We spend so much of our time trying to build an empire and trying to gain the approval of peers and strangers alike, that we forget about what we already have and what truly matters. And, perhaps even more importantly, that it could all be gone in the matter of seconds. Prepared or not.

p.s. My wife has brought to my attention that in order to have a true understanding of the incident, you need to hear the tale from both sides. So here’s her list of thoughts as the episode unfolded.

  1. Fack

  2. Is this really happening?

  3. I guess this is happening

  4. Oh shit, we’re drifting into a ton of trees, and I’m hitting first

  5. Why is he looking at me while we’re sliding? Did he let go of the steering wheel?

  6. Relax? Did he just tell me to relax??? Am I not supposed to be panicking right now? Does he know something I don’t? I AM relaxed. You relax

  7. We stopped. Ok. We’re OK. Did that just happen? Fack.

Ever wonder what it's like to be blind? I was for 73 days

#psychology #anxiety

Brendan Rolfe
Recommended Reading
Search By Tags
No tags yet.

Articles on healthy living, by Brendan Rolfe, also published in