Michelle Berra – 11 years after a life-changing accident
By Rick Padden
Eleven years have passed since the horrific car accident that took the legs of Tyler Carron and Nikko Landeros as they were changing a flat tire late one night on a lonely, dark stretch of two-lane, county road.
Michelle Berra, the driver of the car that struck the two teenagers after a school dance on Jan. 15, 2007, said recently she would never stop regretting it – never forget it – but she has finally been able to stop pouring guilt on herself.
County Road 17 would prove to be a long one for Berra, and everyone involved, but she’s 29 now and coping.
In an interview last Thursday, Berra said she’d received strong support from friends and family immediately after the incident, but things became especially difficult once the story reached the Denver media, and then went national.
“I got cards and letters from people all over the country, which was wonderful,” she said, “but then I made the mistake of reading responses to the news stories in forums.”
Complete strangers suddenly had a lot to say about her, and to her.
“The underlying message from many – about 75 percent – was that they didn’t know how I was going to live with myself for the rest of my life,” she said. “Some said they hoped I could find grace and peace, and know that I was still deserving of happiness, even though it was my fault.
Outside forces would drive Michelle Berra’s feelings for several years.
“I started making myself sad. I would have episodes of just utter sadness. For years afterward, I couldn’t stop making myself feel really bad.”
Therapy wasn’t a big help, she said.
“I went to three different therapists, but only went back to one of them twice, because their focus was on helping me overcome guilt, without actually talking to me about what I might need. And at the time, I don’t think I really knew what I needed. They always just approached it as ‘Oh, you must be feeling so terrible; this is going to ruin you; ruin your life.’ It felt very condescending, and they didn’t take the trouble to get to know me.
“I even went through a phase when I watched horror movies all the time, because I was watching one at a movie night before the accident. That’s partly why I was nervous and distracted by a car behind me on the road. I tried watching horror movies to get over it, but eventually realized their grossness and that I didn’t really like them.”
After graduating from high school, Berra went on to CU/Boulder for a couple of years, studying English, but mostly because it was expected of her. “I stopped going, because I didn’t have a real sense of what direction to go – what to focus on. I had no real purpose or drive to stay with it, but as it turns out I’m making good money now anyway.”
Time would eventually lead to a leveling-off period for Berra, and a measure of healing.
“It wasn’t until I stopped going to school that I was able to sort of settle,” she said. “It took a long time to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to have a physical reminder of it (like Nikko and Tyler), and that there might be days when I would wake up and not think about it. So I always felt that the least I could do was think about it every day – have some reminder of it in my life. I knew it would never have the impact on me that it had on their lives, but continuing to think about it was at least something.
“It turned very dark, very quickly,” she said, “but while it was a lot of little things for me, they all felt very minor compared to the other side and what the boys were going through.”
She hasn’t had deliberate interaction with Nikko or Tyler since the accident, although once at a gathering that included other high school friends about a year ago, Tyler approached her and gave her a hug. She didn’t recognize him, but they chatted briefly.
“One of my friends realized what had happened and who had hugged me, grabbed my hand and said, ‘My god, are you okay?’ I genuinely hadn’t recognized him, because we weren’t very close in school. I’d known Nikko longer, having come up through middle school and high school with him, but I didn’t know Tyler well – hadn’t seen him in 10 years – and of course people change.”
She said that, in retrospect, she’s not sure how she’d have reacted if she’d known it was Tyler at the time.
“I don’t really know what a real meeting would look like,” she said, “or what we would say besides sorry, again.”
In high school Berra was viewed by those who knew her as caring, confident, poised and strong-willed – traits that would help her deal with a life that was put on hold for some time.
“It may not have affected me the way a lot of people thought that it would though, and of course then I had a lot of guilt over that too. I process things a little differently, and people may think I’m cold or that I don’t care; but I do.”
Berra revealed a unique retrospective, in this interview years after the accident, based on what could only be described as personal strength.
“It may sound odd,” she said, “But I’m glad it happened to me. Of course I wouldn’t want it to happen to anybody else, but if it had to happen, I’m glad it happened to me, because I can handle it; because of how I process things.”
Driving after the accident hasn’t been hard for her, except when it’s dark or visibility is low she said, but riding in a car is.
“I couldn’t ride as a passenger in a car for years afterward. I felt that if it could happen to me when I trusted my driving so much, the chances of it happening to someone else were even greater. I still prefer to drive if I can, and there are only a couple people I trust to ride with.”
Berra works for Otterbox, which produces phone cases, and says she enjoys working from home and living in Lakewood. She has taken an interest in mythology (Greek, Roman, Norse and Japanese), and has a side business making costumes for conventions and photo shoots. She has had occasion to do some modeling, and also says she loves cats.
“One of the biggest things that I regret,” she said, “is that Nikko’s little sister reached out to me while I was still in school – in letters, through a counselor. We wrote, but it was mostly her writing to me, because I wasn’t really in a state where I could offer support to her. It wasn’t that she blamed me, but that she needed to know how something like that could have happened. I don’t know that I was ever really able to respond to her or provide a good answer, and I regret that.”
“It’s kind of weird for me, actually, to think that people would want an update on how I’m doing,” she said. “Outside of the context of the boys, I don’t see why anyone would really be that interested.”
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