Sixteen years after Rebecca White lost her mother, Marcia Bowman, and her best friend, Katie Decubellis, as victims of a 1999 drunk driving accident, White brought her newest presentation, Five Keys to a Happier Life, to Cranston High School West.
The presentation was sponsored by the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and took place just about a week prior to the school’s Winter Ball.
White, as a 13-year-old, was the only survivor of an accident that took place in Rhode Island on Route 4. Surviving the accident and the feelings she was left with afterwards were the inspirations for her first key to living a happier life, “Free your heart from hatred.”
“Now, in order for me to explain this one fully to you, I need to introduce you to two people that were very, very important to me,” she said. She showed the students a slide that showed photos of Bowman and Decubellis.
White then described the accident, which split the car she was in into two parts, and its aftermath in detail as the audience sat silently, witnessing her emotional presentation. White lived through the accident with a few minor injuries, and spent the next four days living through the worst four days of her life, the pain and trauma of her mother’s wake and funeral and best friend’s wake and funeral.
Following those horrific days, White sunk into a period of grief and anger. Despite having a great support system behind her, she was not ready to let go of her anger and hatred toward the driver who had taken so much from her.
Until, at 14 years of age, she viewed an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, which shared the story of another living victim of a drunk driving accident who had forgiven the driver of the car which had killed the other passengers and had left her severely burned and disfigured, but alive. Upon hearing the victim, Jaqueline, say that she had forgiven the driver, White’s perspective changed.
Through time and therapy, she was able to find that same forgiveness and free herself from the weight of the hatred she had been carrying with her since the accident. She was later featured on Oprah herself, and showed the students a clip.
White’s second key to living a happier life was “Don’t stress.”
She defined stress as “a mental, physical and emotional behavioral reaction to perceived demands or threats” and said that stress is 90 percent self-induced.
“This means you are causing your own stress,” she said.
She defined short-term stress as stress that can be good for people and cited examples such as what athletes feel before a game. She talked about why long-term, chronic stress can be such a serious condition, affecting immune systems, ulcers and aging.
She listed the four areas that lead to stress: environmental – such as noise, bad weather and traffic; social – such as deadlines, money problems and other disagreements; physiological – such as illness, lack of exercise and alcohol and drug use; and thoughts – such as decision-making, worrying, competitiveness and self-criticism.
“I do all of those,” she said. “Mentally and physically, stress is draining on our bodies.”
She spoke about the fact that stress can lead to some of the top causes of death and how to better manage stress. She acknowledged that the students in the audience were in the midst of a very stressful time in their lives and encouraged them to speak to someone about their stress, whether a guidance counselor or other person who can help them get through it. She also encouraged them to set goals and to choose activities that make them happy in order to get through their stress.
The third key to living a simpler life was “Laugh so hard you pee your pants.”
This discussion of the third key came along with the chance to view several humorous videos which led to a great deal of laughter as White shared research about laughter and how it affects the brain, immune system and body, and one’s overall perspective.
The fourth key White discussed with the students was “Make good choices.”
“You know what good choices are. I’m not going to stand up here and say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ you know what they are,” White said. “You are in charge of making your own decisions in your life. I just hope that today, in sharing my story that you will take away that drunk driving can and will affect other people, if not yourself, if you choose to get behind the wheel of a car impaired, and just make good choices. Every choice you make has a consequence and it’s so true. Your life today is a product of all the choices you have made up to this point.”
She encouraged the students to go out and step outside of their comfort zone. She talked about how her presentation forces her to step out of her comfort zone, reliving the accident each time she does it.
“People always ask me ‘Why would you ever want to get in front of a group of strangers and share the worst day and the worst thing that happened to you,’” she said. “My answer always is this: if I have an opportunity to possibly save one person in this auditorium and maybe give some insight into how it actually happened, and how I am a Rhode Islander, and how this actually happened to me, and that the person who got into the car and decided to drink and drive that night and kill my mother and kill my best friend – they weren’t planning on doing that but they had to go to jail, and their life is ruined and they have to live with that for the rest of their lives…My mother and Katie didn’t survive, but I did, and I want to make the best choices I can, so that they can be proud of me.”
She had the students view a powerful campaign about texting while driving, sponsored by AT&T, which is another form of distracted driving and can also lead to tragic accidents and injuries.
“After seeing this video, it changed my life, and I put the phone down,” she said. “It’s hard not to text and drive, I admit it, but think of the other people on the road, please. Think of yourselves. You don’t want to be going to jail at your age because you were texting and driving and killing someone. That’s just all I’m going to say about that.”
White’s fifth and final key to living a simpler life was “Take time for what really matters.”
She read the students a story about a professor who taught a philosophy class about the things that matter in life by filling an empty mayonnaise jar with golf balls, pebbles, sand, and two cups of coffee, items in the jar representing the important things in life, the less important things in life, the demands in life and the jar as life itself.
As the presentation concluded, White left the students with one last piece of advice, “Take time for what really matters.”