June 23, 2013

Off The Road

Like many, I grew up taking Griswold family-style vacations. Our route typically covered I-95 from Northern Florida to the Jersey Shore and sometimes all the way to Maine. I loved it.

Then in college, I would drive back home every break - 600 miles each way. I took plenty of other road trips too - mainly to see my college football team play or to follow the Grateful Dead & Phish. Jacksonville to Chicago. Miami to New Hampshire. Chattanooga to New Orleans. Blacksburg to Key West. DC to Vegas. Those were just some of my travels on the road during my 20s.

During that time period something happened that turned my love for the road into fear. I started having panic attacks behind the wheel, specifically as I approached and drove over bridges and overpasses. On one spring day I had to drive from DC to Philly and back for a job interview. I had a panic attack on the way there. I spent the rest of the day with anticipatory anxiety that was building until I got in the car again for the trip home. I took another route in an attempt to avoid another attack. But as I approached and drove over the Girard Point Bridge, I thought I was going to die. It was the worst panic attack I had ever experienced. I haven’t driven over a bridge of similar size since. That was 16 years ago.

Things got so bad shortly after that trip that I felt anxious driving over small overpasses near my home. I started seeing psychologists, taking medications, practicing relaxation techniques. My initial question was why. Why am I afraid of the road after loving it for so many years? I also was ashamed and embarrassed. Until this point in my life, I felt like I could do anything in the world without anyone’s help. After the panic attacks started, I became confused and depressed because I believed that asking someone else to help with something so simple as driving was a sign of weakness. For a long time, my girlfriend (who later became my wife) was the only one who knew. Without her support, I don’t know what I would have done.

Years since that bridge over Philly, I finally learned to live with my anxiety. I still have it. I still avoid certain routes. I still can’t help my wife drive during certain stretches of our own family vacations. But I am enjoying the road again. I stopped being ashamed and stopped asking Why me?”. When I finally started telling others about my driving issues - typically because I needed their help driving - everyone was supportive. Whether it was a close friend, family member, co-worker, or even a client, they were all understanding. Their positive reactions helped me along a road to recovery. It helped me become comfortable with a problem that I was so uncomfortable with. It helped me realize that it’s ok to ask others for help. It helped give me the strength to write about my issue publicly, which I decided to do for the first time when Medium posted this weekend’s writing challenge on road trips. It helped me enjoy the road again even if I can’t grab the wheel like I used to.


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