Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On the Road Again? My Highway Driving Phobia

What did I know about driving? I grew up in New York City, which arguably has the best public transportation in the country. The subway rumbled beneath our living room window. A bus belched fumes at the end of our block. NY schools didn't even bother to offer driver's ed. Then, in my twenties, my husband and I relocated to the Baltimore suburbs where they served bread and butter in Chinese restaurants. I thought I'd moved to hell. No subways or buses. I learned to drive.

From the beginning, at the beginning I loved it--the freedom, the exhilaration of highway driving. In my thirties, I negotiated the hairpin turns around California's Big Sur in battering rain, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in blizzards. No problem.

Problem. One afternoon approaching an exit on the Baltimore Beltway, my life crashed around me. I was a passenger, my seatbelt was buckled, it wasn't my friend's fault; his car was slammed from behind by an 18-wheeler--nearly totaled. I was sirened off to the hospital, head sandbagged. The docs thought I may have broken my neck. Turned out I was fine.
Well, not quite. A few weeks later, breezing along a different expressway, I got rocked by an unfamiliar jolt in my solar plexus, a cold stab of fear that sent my foot hovering above the brake. I gritted my teeth through the racing heartbeat, the dry mouth, the waves of nausea and dizziness, and managed to stagger my car onto an exit. Some never-to-be repeated quirk of nerves, I told myself. I tried again. And again. But the highway driving panic grew worse. Within months I was reduced to taking back roads and two-laners.

And that's the way it's been for more than two decades. As my world continued to shrink, I increasingly relied upon the kindness of family and friends and a network of detours. And though we highway phobics are a secret sisterhood, I began hearing about and from many other women--most at midlife--whose hyper-creative subconscious imagined the horrifying worst. These bright, otherwise capable women were ashamed of what they thought was their weakness. Me too. And yes, men can be highway phobic. But far fewer than women.
For a quarter century I've lived hobbled like a bird with clipped wings. Then a few months ago, something inside me rebelled and I declared " Enough! " Which is where my story really begins.

It will continue in future posts. If you're living with, have conquered a highway phobia, or just want to discuss your own particular fear, I'd love to hear from you.


19 comments:

  1. Good for you! It's hard to overcome "conditioned" fears.

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  2. Can't wait to read part 2--a real cliff-hanger! I can identify with your panic, but in only one very small way. There was a major intersection I used to have to merge onto which really scared me every time I went there. I never had a problem there, so couldn't even figure out why it disturbed me. I just kept making myself drive that route, telling myself it fine and noting that nothing bad happened. After about 6 months, I seemed cured. Very weird!

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    1. Nancy,
      By forcing yourself to drive the route over and over, you desensitized yourself, or as the phobia specialists say, "reconditioned" yourself. You did pretty much what phobia specialists recommend--and because you did it before the fear was firmly entrenched, you nipped it in the bud.

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  3. Thanks for bringing this up, and I'm sorry you're dealing with it. I went through panic attacks for years, most around driving. And in Baltimore, too! One day heading out 83 from the Beltway to Hunt Valley, I felt great, then in a split second knew I was dying. Everything went white, I was shaking and freezing and sweating, my heart was racing, and my brain shut down. I tried to pull over but couldn't. I focused as hard as I could on the signs for the Hunt Valley exit, forcing myself to know I was only a few minutes away. It was years. I didn't stop shaking for hours, and after the meeting I went for was over, I drove back in on crowded, stop-and-go York Road. It was years before I could get on a highway again. I wish you all the best as you stare this beast down. I know you'll do it!

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    1. You really have the symptoms spot-on, Jani! They defy logic, but they are very real. Thanks for the good wishes. Stay tuned for updates.

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  4. Phobias affect the quality of life for so many people. For myself, I have a fear of flying, even though I used to fly small airplanes myself! My husband wonders whether it's because I know how many things can go wrong. Yet, I've managed to get on every plane I've needed to, sometimes with lots of medication, which won't work at all for a driving phobia! I can now fly pretty easily by doing a mantra about how statistically safe flying is compared to .... Oh, wait, never mind.

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    1. The objects of phobias may be different, but the aversion to "whatever" produces pretty much the same symptoms. Your husband may be right--as a former pilot you know all the things thay can go wrong. You also know the comparative stats on safety. But logic doesn't apply when you're in the midst of this, Elizabeth. It is so grounded in emotion.

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  5. It's bridges for me. When I get to bridges on the highway, particularly long, open suspension type spans, my stomach clenches. I hope that it won't worsen, because I can still drive them if I keep my eyes on the road. But I know of many people who share the highway phobia. It isn't as uncommon as you think.

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    1. Yes, that's a common phobia, Pearl. One of the intrinsic problems with those suspension bridges is that we generally don't drive them every day. So we don't have the opportunity to use those helpful techniques of yours and drive them again and again. Repeating the behavior in spite of the fear, defuses it. And once I came out of the closet with my highway phobia, I heard many, many stories of people--especially midlife women--who share my situation. It helps to know I'm not alone in this.

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  6. Pearl, yeah, bridges! You know it's actually easier to cross the Bay Bridge at night when you can't see the water below you?

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  7. My fear when driving is that I'll get lost. I have a very bad sense of direction and feel like I'll get off at the wrong place and will keep going and going further and further into getting lost. I was one of the first to have a GPS when they weren't that popular or cheap(around the year 2000) . That helped me tremendously -- now my fear is my GPS won't have the address I need in it ;)

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  8. Elaine, I sympathize. I don't have a bad sense of direction, I have NO sense of direction. Before the GPS, I used to say snobbily, "I don't talk to inanimate objetcs." Now I not only talk to "her," I thank her profusely.

    Most of the time she's right. Sometimes not. But maps are always changing as housing developments sprout up and highways are expanded. An occasional download of updated material will keep you current. If yours is built-in, the dealer can do that.

    Also, if you feed in your address the day before you need it, you'll be able to tell by the turn-by-turn preview whether your destination address is on board. If not, you'll still have time to get driving directions on MapQuest or Google Maps.

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  9. Toby,
    It is brave indeed to deal with phobias. Most people would rather tell you they have cancer than that they are struggling with a phobia. You did good work and it sounds like you got the correct professional help. Congratulations and keep up the great work.
    Marcia

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  10. Thanks, Marcia. I wanted to spotlight my beltway phobia so that others similarly afflicted wouldn't feel ashamed and alone. They also need to be aware that you don't have to live with paralyzing fear forever. I have a marvelous therapist who specializes in these conditions. He's "reconditioning" me week by week--actually, I think he'd say I'm reconditioning myself. I was ready and, honestly, so far, I've been amazed at the low level of anxiety when I'm driving on a 65 MPH road. More on my progress in upcoming posts.

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  11. here's my problem with highways. everyone is going too fast and with cars to the left and right in front and behind you on a highway you're literally boxed in and forced to go a certain speed to keep the flow of traffic moving and I hate that the maniacs on the road dictate the traffic speed. If someone has a panic attack, one false move and an accident could occur and it boils down to not trusting myself to feel comfortable flying down the highway going 60-75 mph because that speed feels too fast for me. Being forced to travel at that speed feels unnatural and too fast paced and causes me panic attacks driving on the highway and simply put, at 62, I just don't feel like subjecting people to a possible accident caused by me because I'm panicking because I don't want to go along to get along on the highway and secondly, I just don't want to subject myself to that kind of stress and pressure in my life - I'd rather take a slower peaceful pace. I haven't been on a highway in over 20 years. People in my family put up with me, of course they hope one day that I will "get over it". I don't want to be re-conditioned. I'm not a piece of furniture. I'd be Amish minus their clothing. Horse and buggy works just fine for me! I'll take a slow boat any day!

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  12. I am scared of certain specific situations: highways especially at night: the headlights make me feel as if the cars are coming "at me".
    I also don't like being in any lane other than the right hand lane: because in the right lane I can pull over and 'escape' if I need to. That's why I hate driving an unfamiliar highway: I might suddenly find myself on the left hand lane without warning. This once happened to me going to SAn Diego on wht I thought was a surface-street coast highway: which suddenly became a freeway.
    I think this was triggered by an accident: in which I was NOT at fault. The strange thing thoug: is that the accident was when I was parked, reading a book, in a residential n eighborhood NOT a highway, so I can't explain the link to highways. I am fine on surface streets, even in the city. I think because you can "escape" better as there are always cross streets, and you are allowed to slow down or even stop. I would like to bring myself to the point of asking for help, even with a fifty dollar copay per session. But keep putting it off. But it is now interfering more and more because there are opportunities to have experiences (take weekend classes, etc.) that I can only get to via a highway. I never used to be like this: in fact, I once contemplated driving cross country, alone, when in my 20's. I want my old, fearless life back. I think part of it is being older and wiser I have more of a feeling of vulnerability. And though it doesn't seem related, it started around the time of 911, although I don't see how it could be related. Maybe the vulnerability thing?
    Does anyone know of any counselors who will work on this webbased or email based?

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  13. For you, Ms Anonymous: You sound as if you've reached a point where you're ready to get started. That's a giant first step. The way I understand it, the origin of the phobia doesn't matter very much. It would be hard to pinpoint the source, in any event. Behavior modification (a deconditioning and reconditioning process)is what moves you forward, literally and figuratively. So, pay a visit to http://www.adaa.org/finding-help/treatment. The ADAA is an association dedicated to treating folks with all kinds of anxiety and phobias. It's located in Maryland, but should have contact info for therapists in your area. Good luck!








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  14. Here's my problems.I have no sense of direction and fear of getting lost.the fear is so intense I feel like I'll get hopelessly lost & you'll never see me again,silly I know but I can't get over it.Where can I go for help.I'm a middle aged man and its truely embarrassing.Driving school ?

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  15. I am a former New Yorker myself born and raised.. I only got my license few weeks before I got married in 2002.. At first it was a general fear of
    Driving.. Got over that.. But have been struggling with my fear of highways since then.. I hate it ! Hate that I feel weak .. Tried goin on the interstates few months ago panicked after 10 miles.. I don't want to live like this.. I want to be able to go on the interstate by myself.. And have a feeling that I'm capable Just like anyone else

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