In the U.S., car accidents are all too common. Approximately six million occur every year, leading to 1.25 million deaths. If you’re a survivor of a fatal car crash, life can become excruciatingly difficult, whether you were responsible for the accident or not. NFL executive Terry McDonough knows exactly how crippling survivor’s guilt can be; he decided to open up about his personal experience with drunk driving that resulted in the death of friend and classmate, Leslie Messina, back in 1982.
“Not one day will ever go by,” he said, “that I won’t think about Leslie.”
Drugs other than alcohol are involved in approximately 18% of motor vehicle deaths. In McDonough’s case, however, the culprit was beer. After having illegally drunk some Miller Lites just one month after his 17th birthday, McDonough and his six friends got into a crash; Leslie was the only one who didn’t make it after having been thrown 27 feet. McDonough got sentenced to two years after being found guilty of motor vehicle homicide, of transporting alcohol as a minor, and of failing to possess his license.
“It might not be until you’re 40 years old, but I promise that someday you will forgive yourself,” Detective Joseph Mayer, one of the first responders to the accident, stated to McDonough on the night it occurred.
He was right. McDonough’s pain over the incident agonized him for decades, and he often turned to alcohol and drugs to soothe it. Though he got a job as an NFL scout just a few years later, he was a barely functioning alcoholic. His shame and guilt over the accident caused him to become dependent on the drug Klonopin, a benzodiazepine that can cause paranoid or suicidal ideation and impair memory, judgment, and coordination.
When his wife left him, taking their three children, at the same time he was at risk of losing his job, he knew it was time for a serious change. He devoted himself to his children and his career; he even brought his kids to his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, his son Brendan later said, “when it would have been easy for him to hide it and leave us at home. It spoke to how much he cared about his family and his sobriety.”
On his 40th birthday, McDonough gave (now retired)Detective Joseph Mayer a call.
“You promised me that night that I might be 40 years old before it happens, but that I would forgive myself. I turned 40 today, and I just wanted you to know that I have.”
Survivor’s guilt is never easy to manage, but it is manageable. As long as you find something to anchor yourself to — whether it’s friends, family, or your career — and have a solid support system, you’ll be able to make it out of the woods. Just like Terry McDonough did.