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Thursday, August 18, 2005

 

Fear Factor

There are many reasons why people don't like themselves. Some people think their noses are too big. Some people feel bad about posessing what they perceive as overly large asses. Some people think their voices make people want to rip out their ears. These are all perfectly fine forms of self-hatred. As for me, I really kind of hate my mind.

I have what you might call very specific low-level panic attacks. They're specific because they only happen when I'm driving on a highway. They're low-level because I don't hyperventilate and/or pass-out and because they're not as debilitating as I imagine full-blown panic attacks to be. (I'd hate to claim that I have panic attacks just to have some irate person give me a three page dressing down because I "...don't know what real panic attacks feel like, you glib fuck.")

It goes something like this: When I'm driving at high speeds on a highway, I begin to fear that I will lose control of my actions and suddenly jerk the steering wheel to one side, crashing into (or off of) whatever's beside me and killing myself. This fear takes root in my head and I can't get it out. I physically start to tense up and my breathing becomes rapid and shallow. It builds and builds. Finally, I feel the awful sensation of everything sort of closing in on me and I feel like I'm about to black out. Generally speaking, this is where it suddenly ends and I recover my senses and feel shaky and afraid. It hasn't ever ended with me actually jerking the wheel to one side and wrecking the car, so I suppose I should be thankful.

This problem goes back about nine years or so. It first happened when I was working for a nursing home. I was driving a group of residents from the Tulip Festival in Puyallup, Washington back to the home in the southern part of Seattle. I don't know what precipitated this. Maybe I was depressed that I had a job that involved driving people to the Tulip Festival. Whatever happened, though, I had to pull off and have my boss--who was also on the trip--drive the rest of the way.

The problem persisted for a few months and I was unable to drive on the freeway at all. Then it went away. Poof. Suddenly, I was fine. Don't know what happened there. Maybe the Neurosis Fairy came while I was sleeping and took the panic attacks away, leaving me with a shiny quarter under my pillow. I resumed my old driving habits and everything was hunky-dory. Probably more dory than hunky.

A year or so later, they came back. This happened while I was working at a different nursing home. This time, I was driving a resident from the home on the north side of Seattle to his apartment downtown so that he could pick up some of this things. I was driving across the Ship Canal Bridge, which is a very tall structure spanning a canal that connects Lake Union to Lake Washington. The panic hit me (WAMMO!) and it felt like I came very close to taking this guy with me off the bridge and into the water. This episode was a little easier for me to understand, because this was a truly odious little man. He was this wheelchair bound dwarf fella who felt justified in making everyone else around him suffer. Not that that justifies the impulse to drive a wheelchair-access van off a bridge.

This time, the panic stayed with me for a good year and a half. I could not make myself drive on the freeways. My girlfriend could not make me drive on the freeway. I just avoided it, taking longer routes, having someone else drive. It's actually pretty easy to avoid things that cause you panic if you really try hard. And oh, I did. My girlfriend didn't appreciate that. She felt like it was intruding on her life. I didn't see what the big deal was. She had to drive. Big whoop. She didn't see it that way, particularly the time when she had her wisdom teeth yanked out and the anesthetic wore off in the car and I wouldn't take the freeway home to get her prescription filled. That was a fun ride. We got in screaming matches over this. But I wouldn't budge.

Finally, I agreed to see a shrink. I saw the shrink every other week for maybe seven months. (Maybe less. It's a little disturbing how that sort of shit becomes indistinct as it recedes in time.) The shrink didn't really do a lot for me. Maybe she was a lame shrink. Maybe I wasn't up to being honest enough to open up and tell her what she needed to know to help me. But probably, what the problem was was that I didn't listen enough to what she told me.

Eventually, my girlfriend had oral surgery on the other side of Lake Washington and needed me to drive her there and back, as she'd be under anesthetic and might not be the best at steering. Now, the only practical way to get from Seattle to the east side is to take one of two bridges over the lake. You can drive north and go around the lake, but that adds a good two hours to the trip (give or take). So I had no choice but to suck it up and do it.

I was helped by heavy morning traffic, which allowed me to feel safe on the freeway. (You can jerk the wheel all you want to when you're driving two miles an hour and it's hurting nobody.) When traffic started to move, I just told myself that I only really had to make it as far as the next exit. When the exit came, I told myself that it hadn't been that bad and maybe I should try getting to the next exit. I repeated this until I'd gotten us to the doctor's office. This success didn't make the problem go away, but it gave me enough confidence to keep trying.

Gradually, the problem sort of eased off and I got to the point where I was driving normally. I remembered, maybe a year or so after I stopped seeing my shrink, that she'd told me to monitor my breathing when the panic started and I realized that she'd been absolutely right. Go figure. The panic never really went away. It's not there all the time. I have long drives on the freeway when I'm perfectly fine and don't even think about it. Other times, I come very close to just pulling off at the nearest exit and checking myself into a Motel Six for a month so I don't have to deal with it. I try not to let my wife know when I'm having a rough time (because neuroses are really fucking annoying when they're not yours) but she's usually able to help me when things get truly hairy.

So when I went to Ohio a couple of weeks ago, I was a little apprehensive. It's an eight hour drive, entirely on the freeway, and I'd be doing it solo, as my wife still had to work for a week before she could join me. It was just me, my dogs and my panic across all of Pennsylvania. And I did fine. Sure, there was a problem here and there. I had to change CDs a few times when this song or that was talking about death and I was worried it would set me off. My younger dog tried to get into the front seat a few times and it was a pain dealing with him and the steering wheel. But mostly, I was okay.

Then coming home from Ohio this past Monday, I drove for a few hours (splitting the drive with my wife) after having literally twenty minutes of sleep the night before. We'd been, you see, on the bumpiest fucking flight ever from San Francisco to Pittsburgh, which brings up even more neuroses which I won't get into at this time. Oddly enough, the fatigue trumped the panic and the greater danger was that I'd fall asleep before I got the chance to drive off the road on purpose.

I guess I'm trying to take as much positive from my stupid, defective mind as I can. I can be positive about the fact that I'm dealing with it instead of using avoidance. I can be positive about the fact that, if I'm going to be psychotic, at least I've got the same psychosis that Christopher Walken had in Annie Hall, which always gets big laughs. And I can be positive about the fact that I never have jerked that wheel.

Negatives, I guess, would include the fact that anyone who reads this is going to be very hesitant to ride in my car from here on out. (I'm okay, guys, I swear. Just bear with me if I occasionally have to pull over to the shoulder and puke.)

And anyway, things could be much, much worse. For example, I could be a complete idiot who gets his country into a war and then goes to his "ranch" for a month and a half while people are dying. Man, that would suck.

Comments:
lol. you aren't the only one with that psychosis. My mom has a similar one. She was starting to drive across a bridge in upstate N.Y. and stopped ten feet onto the bridge and got out of the car. My grandfather has never let her live it down. My sister won't drive on the interstate in the rain. I guess we all have them....
 
If I can't drive somewhere I don't want to go. Flying is my panic button.
 
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