In June of 2020, emo-mainstay and Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba took a motorcycle ride to clear his head. On a rarely traveled country road, not far from his home in Tennessee, the songwriter lost traction, propelling himself and his bike into a ditch.
At first, it was hard to tell if he’d been seriously injured. It was clear that he’d bit through his lip, but appeared generally unscathed in his protective jacket, padded pants and helmet.
A lifelong rider, Carrabba had been involved in a few accidents before. This time—as he tried to regain his composure and remove his Honda dirt bike from the hole—he attributed the pain to what he thought was a broken rib.
It wasn’t until after his ambulance arrived at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville that he realized the severity of his accident. For the first two days of his stay, the doctors believed he may have broken his neck. So, they began to test the sensation in his feet.
“It’s what you see in movies and on TV—and you know it’s not good,” 45-year-old Carrabba explains. “I could feel, but they were hinting that any wrong movement could lead to paralyzation at the worst. That was really frightening.”
While his X-rays did show two inverted vertebrae in his neck, his medical team found the anomalies were not related to his crash—and believe that they could be connected to a decades-old injury or date as far back as birth. Luckily, Carrabba hadn’t broken his neck, but the extent of his injuries—and his journey to recovery—would be far more extreme than he anticipated.
Carrabba extensively broke and dislocated both of his shoulders, severing his biceps and deltoids in the process. But he was right about one thing, he also broke and bruised a few ribs.
The ramifications of his accident weren’t limited to his injuries, which left him with an assortment of screws, pins and plates in his shoulders. He’d also undergo a COVID-19 scare and resulting isolation between major surgeries. Then, after weeks in bed, the singer’s legs would begin to atrophy. A slender man to start, Carrabba would leave the hospital weighing only 117 pounds.
After undergoing surgery to redrape and sew his muscles together, Carrabba could hardly bathe, dress or feed himself. Even more troubling, with loss of muscle memory, motor skills and range of motion, the career musician needed to relearn how to play the guitar from scratch.
On Sunday, eight months removed from his fateful ride, Carrabba will perform for the first time since his accident. In a display of gratitude, love and progress, Dashboard Confessional is hosting a Valentine’s Day concert stream titled, Lonely Hearts and Lovers.
Despite the ongoing devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic (including the screeching halt of live music and Dashboard Confessional’s 20-year anniversary tour), the horrible accident and its subsequent physical and emotional challenges, Carrabba is vigilantly resilient. He explains that he feels strong, hopeful and positive—that every week is better than the week before.
“I can lift over my head,” he says excitedly. “I can play guitar now! Everything is a ‘can.’ The things that I’ll lose… the range of motion—I’ve lost it. I definitely won’t gain it back 100%, comma, so f***ing what!? I’m functionally able to live my life in a meaningful way. Very easily, I could just be dead. This is a thing of fortune. I’m not mourning for what I’ve lost physically. I’m celebrating what I didn’t lose.”
When Carrabba isn’t celebrating, he’s working. He goes to physical therapy three times a week and is literally relearning how to play the guitar. He’s found both processes to be physically grueling, particularly the latter. At first, he could only play for five minutes a day—even holding his arm in the position to strum a chord was painful. That’s daunting, considering he’s been recording and performing music since Dashboard Confessional’s first record The Swiss Army Romance debuted in 2000.
“It’s not just simply that it’s my job,” he explains. “My longest standing joy in life has been sitting with my guitar and playing music. To have lost that ability was a bit shocking.”
He continues: “The fine motor skills was the part that surprised me. I’d like to speak to my doctor to find out if this hypothesis is true, but I attribute it to the fact that I had my muscles severed and reattached. I certainly lost endurance and muscle memory for a period. And now I’ve either gotten it back or I’ve built new muscle memory.”
Although the musician was previously self-taught, this go-around he enlisted the help of multiple teachers, including former Taking Back Sunday guitarist Fred Mascherino and Covet guitarist Yvette Young. Currently, he takes four lessons a week. And in these strange times, with all the isolation that COVID has imposed on the world, Carrabba has found a sense of purpose in reimagining his craft.
“I think I’m as good as I was before and I nearly have the stamina,” he says. “I suddenly realized that I can get so much better. And that’s exciting.”
While Carrabba’s recovery has been difficult, he’s seen an enormous outpouring of love and support. On Instagram, he posted photos of his homecoming, standing double-slinged and bandaged while he read “Get Well” posters sprawled across his garage door. He also shared photographs of the notes and cards he’s received by mail: some from friends, fans he’s met briefly or others he hopes to meet one day.
“For what has been a hard time, it absolutely has not been a lonely time,” he says. “It’s just selfless kindness.”
Despite the positivity and silver linings, Carrabba still went through hell. He describes the pain of his injuries, which persist to this day, as “excessive and indescribable,” but he isn’t seeking sympathy.
“Talking about these injuries is a little uncomfortable for me, because people do end up in dire straits for the rest of their lives,” Carrabba clarifies. “I haven’t.”
He continues: “I guess you’re given that [choice] pretty early on, ‘How are you gonna spin this for your own inner narrative?’ I grappled a little bit with the ‘woe is me,’ and I realized that there’s no gold to mine in that particular endeavor. Where could that possibly get you but lower? I fought to stay positive. This constant reminder that the world is a good place—the outpouring of kindness— in such a bad time for everyone, has been beautiful.”
Carrabba first jumped on a motorcycle at the age of five, when his uncle Jimmy helped him onto a dirt bike. He continued to ride on-and-off throughout his life and describes himself as a careful, proficient rider, who enjoys wooded trails and is far from a speed demon. But while riding has been one of his life’s greatest joys, the singer has decided to sell his remaining motorcycles, a cafe racer and a street tracker.
“I can live without it now,” Carrabba explains. “I couldn’t have lived without guitar, so that’s the tradeoff. Am I willing to risk this again for the joy of riding a motorcycle? Am I willing to trade the joy of being a functioning human being and also a musician? I’m not willing to trade for that.”
The seemingly benign nature of Carrabba’s accident only further explains why he’s ready to move on. As he recalls, he was driving under 15 miles per hour at the time of the wreck. There had recently been a car accident in the same location just hours earlier. On the road, there were still bits of car, gravel and perhaps some fluids from the vehicle.
Unfortunately, that’s where he spun out on remaining debris, causing his bike to hydroplane. The next thing he knew, he was hurdling through the air. He used his experience from riding and skateboarding to try to distance himself from his motorcycle.
“Once I realized I was heading into this ditch, I goosed the bike a little bit, I kicked it forward with my feet and kicked myself backwards,” Carrabba explains. “I thought, ‘This is gonna hurt!’”
He was anticipating some pain, but felt his low speed would limit the damage of impact (he was familiar with the turn and adjusted his speed accordingly) and was more concerned about damaging his handlebars. But despite his efforts to distance himself from the bike, the shape of the embankment sent it right back at him.
As Carrabba landed in the V-shaped ditch, his bike rode up the other side of it, then flipped backwards onto him. His ribs were hurt in the fall, but his shoulders were broken when the bike landed on him.
When Carrabba rose to his feet, he felt a sharp pain in his side and assumed he’d broken a rib, an injury he’d sustained a few times before. In a state of shock, he removed his protective gear and failed to lift his bike out of the ditch, not realizing both of his shoulders were dislocated and his muscles were severed. When a passerby saw the accident, they stopped and called an ambulance.
“I said, ‘Seriously?’ I don’t want to put anybody out,’” Carrabba reflects. “I just wanted to get the bike out of this ditch, I was embarrassed. But by the time I got to the hospital, I could see on the faces of the medical staff that I was not as lucky as I thought I was.”
Upon his arrival, it took days to determine whether or not his neck was broken as they’d initially suspected. Carrabba was worried, but hardly remembers the intricacies of his turmoil.
When doctors determined that his neck was not fractured, it was time for surgery to begin. Carrabba admits his timeline is a bit of a blur—but estimates he was in the hospital for three weeks overall.
“I was under anaesthesia for quite a long time and I had brain fog, which is common,” he explains. “That’s lasted for a good couple of months. Forgetfulness, inability to think clearly. My life just kinda slowed down to a stop.”
He continues: “I’m pretty sure it’s two plates and two pins on each side. One side has 12 screws and one side has 14 screws and then there’s all kinds of wire… it’s not great.”
Carrabba’s surgeries were not back-to-back as originally planned. The first surgery on the left side of his body was a success. But two days later, as they were preparing to operate on the right side, Carrabba came down with a fever. His surgery was cancelled and he was placed in isolation, per COVID-19 protocol.
Suddenly, his experience became more stressful. The nurses and doctors were clad in extensive personal protective equipment, his room was off limits and Carrabba was totally alone. And he was petrified about how it would feel to experience the virus with shattered bones.
“It was a difficult time,” Carrabba says. “I was really worried that I would get COVID. Thankfully, I did not. Once the protocols were lifted, it felt like freedom. It’s strange. You’re still sitting in a hospital room, bed-ridden, isolated. But you feel like, ‘I’m on top of the world now!’”
Once his fever passed and he tested negative for COVID-19 consecutively, he underwent his second surgery. He has no recollection of the surgery, but found out later it took three times longer than expected.
Despite such a traumatic ordeal, Carrabba feels fortunate he was—outside of his COVID scare period—allowed a visitor.
“The numbers in our county were low enough that they were allowing one person in,” he explains. “Between my brother and my wife, I was seldom alone. It certainly makes me feel for the people that are dealing with COVID—as a patient or as a loved one—not being able to be near them as they go through something so horrific—it really gives me perspective on the pain that must accompany that.”
He’s also grateful for the level of care he received at Vanderbilt: from the emergency room doctors and surgeons to the nurses and physical therapy staff.
“I was treated with such kindness that I felt encouraged the entire time,” he explains. “All these people have come into my life that are really committed to my wellbeing. It’s humbling.”
When Carrabba was approaching discharge, he conquered another unexpected feat: regaining the strength to walk.
“I’d atrophied so much,” he says. “I was walking the hallways with a nurse, unsteadily trying to walk 25 feet—starting with 10. But I did it relatively easily because it was atrophy, it wasn’t an injury.”
After leaving the hospital, Carrabba continued to share his journey on social media, celebrating small victories. The first time he put on his shirt without the help of his wife, he was so ecstatic that he shared a photo to mark the occasion.
But Carrabba was often far from the picture of grace—cursing in frustration while trying to complete the simplest of tasks. In his toughest moments, he looked to family and friends for strength. He realized that there’s nothing to gain from allowing himself to sink into self-pity.
“But I’m a human being—I had a lot of low days,” he admits. “And I have a lot of good friends that I leaned on and said, ‘I’m scared. This hurts.’ It didn’t just hurt physically, it hurt my spirit, my deepest self.” He continues: “I did have a defeatist attitude. But it was helpful to have friends and my physical therapists reminding me that there are thousands of goals before the end goal. That was when my perspective shifted from fear-based nervousness to goal-based optimism, if not at least productivity.”
In the following months, Carrabba got hyper task-oriented, repeating his mantra to focus on “The Matter at Hand.” Now, he’s back to playing guitar and working out his shoulders. He’s even developed, as he describes laughing, boulder-like “pretty-boy” shoulder muscles: “I look ripped as s***, but they’re totally useless.”
He’s making progress, but the singer is still adjusting to life after his crash. Oddly enough, on an impromptu trip back to the site of the wreck, he felt no level of discomfort. And despite selling his motorcycles and retiring from riding, he did take one for a final ride around the block—just so he knew he wasn’t afraid to get back on the horse.
Carrabba expects that he may face some fears returning to the hospital, but can’t say for sure. He does plan to return to VUMC to give high-fives to the staff once he’s able to do so safely.
“Trauma is a weird thing,” Carrabba says. “I’m in recovery that is gonna take at least a year. To have PTSD, by definition would mean, I kinda have to be ‘post’ the trauma. There’s some of me that’s still going through the process. But I’ve got a fantastic support network that keeps me positive.”
When the guitarist does make a full recovery, he hopes to pay it forward and help others who’ve faced similar adversity. For now, Carrabba is trying to keep busy at home. He’s dedicated to improving his guitar skills and has even launched a new entrepreneurial endeavor—a canned wine company, CanVino, which is available online.
His band remains hopeful to get back to playing music again in the fall, so Dashboard Confessional is tentatively booking dates in hopes that vaccinations roll out according to plan.
As for writing new music, he doesn’t see any song ideas coming from his accident.
“I don’t want to write about this,” he says laughing. “I just don’t think it’s like, ‘Hey, remember that year everyone was shut in because of COVID and then we all broke our shoulders and had to go to physical therapy?’ There’s no universality to that song. So I’m kinda waiting it out.”
Even though Carrabba is still dealing with the day-to-day minutia of recovery, he has a new sense of clarity: he’ll endure the pain, accept the limitations and ignore it all to get back to what he loves most.
“At the best, the pain goes away,” Carrabba says. “At worst, the pain stays and I go on. And I couldn’t be more lucky.”
Follow me on Twitter at @DerekUTG.