What do you do when everything in your life is touched by waves of anxiety, when the simplest thing in your routine provokes debilitating panic attacks? Writer Andrea Tate shares how she’s overcoming her phobias to find a way out of fear.
I was home alone when I thought I saw an intruder in the yard. Grabbing a baseball bat and my cell phone, I was ready for combat, a call to 911 and Facebook status update. Turned out the intruder was only my reflection in the sliding glass door. I decided not to post the incident.
I seem to live in a state of fear 24/7. I know something terrible is right around the corner. Yet I never check the box that asks if I have anxiety or panic attacks — denial.
My most debilitating panic attack happened a few years ago when I was driving home on the 101 Freeway from teaching at Santa Barbara City College. Only 15 minutes from home, a nervous wave started lapping at my feet. The wave continued to rise up my legs, passing through my calves that had somehow grown at least 30 percent bigger due to premenopausal bloat. I couldn’t zipper my boots all the way up. It was like my lower legs had a muffin top. When the panic wave hit my solar plexus I felt like barfing. Next, I felt my heart no longer beating. No, it was beating, but it was so fast that it was more like my phone on vibration mode. Someone answer me! Help! At that point, I realized I had to get off the freeway. My palms and feet were soaked with sweat. If you ask Google why palms and feet sweat during a panic attack, the first thing that comes us is an ad for Degree antiperspirant suggesting you rub it on your feet.
After pulling off the freeway, I saw an In-N-Out, which normally excites me, but instead, my cheeks puffed out trying to use an air cushion to push down the vomit. I called my husband. “I don’t know what is wrong with me. I’m fucking shaking, and I can’t drive.” He asked if I needed to eat, and said that maybe my blood sugar dropped. I said, “It’s not that.” I had been eating handfuls of cashews in the car— nervous eating — should have packed the baby carrots. After a few minutes of questioning, he said, “I think you are having a panic attack.”
After the initial attack, I could no longer drive my once-a-week trip to Santa Barbara. Instead, I had my husband drive me. We’d get up at the crack of dawn and hit the road so he could get back in time for his job. Each week, I arrived at the college a few hours early, which was fine with me. There was no way in hell I was driving. After all, I now had vehophobia — a fear of driving. Or, perhaps I really had tachophobia, the fear of speed, because I’d become more frightened when driving on the freeway over 55 mph.
Every trip my husband asked me the same questions. “It’s only an hour away, and it’s the most beautiful drive in the United States. Why can’t you drive?” I’d take a breath, which was more like that back-of-the-throat sigh that they tell you to do in yoga. Ironically, I think they call it ocean breathing.
He continued, “Seriously, the Pacific Ocean is to the right and there is a mountain range to the left. What’s not to love about this drive?”
I wanted to tell him that in between the two stunning forces of nature there was a woman filled with fear. A woman jolted into fight or flight mode several times a day. A coffee container tipping over instantly caused adrenaline to flow through my body. As a kid, if you spilled or dropped anything in our household it was met with anger and yelling, filled with doom. I can still remember my father standing up from the table screaming, “JESUS CHRIST!” when I knocked over a half a glass of milk near his plate filled with ground steak that looked like it had already been chewed. It was part of his diet therapy for his bleeding ulcers — I guess anxiety is hereditary. My mother had to put his sirloin steak in the blender. I sat there with my head down and my little shoulders curved forward trying to close off my chest as if they could shield my child heart. The slamming of the fist on the table made all the dishes do a tiny jump. They too were scared, for in the past, some of them were slammed to the floor. Innocent, delicate porcelain damaged for no good reason — much like my siblings and me.
Just because you become used to the violence, doesn’t mean you are immune to the ripping thud of drywall being punched, the stinging whack of a wire hairbrush on your backside, or the sight of your sister being dragged down the stairs by her hair because she’d decided the pronoun “she” was easier to say than “Mom.” Surprise noises are something I will never get used to. Even the chime of an ice cream truck can give me a start. Oh no, my siblings are going to beg my parents for change and this sweet pastime is going to turn into some kind of raging argument.
As I have grown older, I have found that nothing in life is untouched by my anxiety. Learning something new, planning an event, or figuring out how to say no to something I don’t have time to do all cause a degree of panic. I’m afraid of the consequences, good or bad.
One morning when my husband was supposed to drive me to Santa Barbara, I came downstairs and saw him frantically making his green smoothie in his underwear. He hadn’t taken a shower yet and his face was flushed from elevated blood pressure. “Are you running behind?” I asked. “YEAH,” he snapped, his face increasing in scarlet color. “Can I do something?” His reply was harsh and pointed, “Ah, yeah, you can get off my back!” I took a deep yoga breath (called “Breathe Instead of Kicking Someone in the Balls Breath”), walked away, packed my bag, grabbed my car keys and headed out the door.
Fuck his fucking bullshit. I don’t need him. I can do this. Fuck him. How dare he speak to me like that. FUCK YOU! I continued swearing to myself and then got into the driver’s seat of my car. Two minutes later, I was on the 101 South, and before I hit the Conejo Grade the swearing turned into a mantra. I can do this, I am doing this, I don’t need anyone. Pandora was playing classical music, but by the time I got through Ventura my palms had started to sweat. Fuck, fuck fuck. I am not going to have a panic attack! I am not! Ten minutes later, I was about to descend upon that area of the 101 that is spectacular. The great blue ocean on one side and the Rincon Mountain Range on the other. My breathing changed. It was buzzing. My posture changed. I was hunched forward. My body was tingling, and not in a good way. I told myself that I was halfway there, and that I had to hang on. I felt like I might die. Somehow I made it to the campus exit. As I approached the parking lot, I realized I didn’t have a parking pass, which made sense because I had never parked there. Oh fuck! Then I thought that maybe it was a good thing. Maybe I’ll get towed and I won’t have to drive back. As I was looking for street parking, I noticed my lips — they were white. I knew I could not make the drive back. I called my friend who was a hypnotherapist, and left a message.
“Lois, it’s Andrea. I had a fucking panic attack driving, and now I’m stuck in Santa Barbara.” She immediately called me back.
“Hey honey, so tell me what’s going on?” I told her the entire story. Husband was being a dick. I impulsively got in the car and drove myself. I felt like a might die halfway through the trip, and I was now sitting in the parking lot hoping someone would blow up my car … after I got out. Her response was beautiful. “Let me call you back. I’m going to see if I can get someone to drive me there so I can help you drive back home.” I hung up and started to cry. I could see the ocean from the parking lot but wasn’t enjoying the view. I just sat there staring straight forward and wondering why I couldn’t be like normal people who like driving along the ocean. Finally, I grabbed my school bag and headed into work.
After class, I walked back to my car. Damn it. My car was still in the same parking spot. Waiting for Lo in my car, I saw her brother pull in. After dropping Lo off, he smiled, waved and drove off. Maybe Lo told him not to engage with me because of my delicate state. Silently I waved back and smiled a tight smile of humiliation. I felt like a fool. Wasn’t I supposed to figure these things out myself? Lo got in the car and asked me the same question she had asked on the phone, “What’s going on?” I started crying again, and recounted the morning blowup at home, followed by the impulsive drive to Santa Barbara. “I knew I had made a mistake once I reached Ventura.” Lo listened calmly and put me through a meditation. She told me I should drive myself and that she’d be right next to me talking me through the experience. I felt like a big baby.
I made it home alive, but with the realization that I had to do something about my anxiety and habitual worrying. I can’t change my childhood. It sucked. I know many have had it worse, but many have had it better too. I decided to call a psychologist friend and asked her if she had recommendations for therapists who specialize in mood disorders. She sprang into action and sent me a detailed list. God, what would I do without my friends? Another friend recommended I try Headspace. That night I downloaded the mediation app on my phone. In bed, with headphones and a glass of wine, I began to relax. I finished the 10-minute series and felt like I could possibly fall asleep. As I took off the headphones, I heard a glass drop in the kitchen. I jumped. Then I heard cursing and banging. My shoulders began to tighten and I thought if only I were deaf and had a chauffeur, all my problems would be solved. I grabbed my phone and headphones and replayed my mediation.
A year later, I still can’t drive to Santa Barbara. In fact, I can’t drive on the freeway at all. I just don’t know how this happened. On the drive home, which was considerable, maybe two hours with traffic, I didn’t feel any anxiety, only frustration that this wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing when I moved to Hollywood. So how did I go from driving into Compton alone to being afraid to drive to vacationland Santa Barbara?
Perhaps it was the Northridge earthquake’s fault. It was about that time that I lost a bit of my fearlessness. In 1994, it hit Hollywood at 4:31 a.m. It felt like the end of the world, like a giant freight train had crashed through my bedroom while the ground underneath was bouncing two feet into the air. After that near-death experience, I didn’t want to be alone. I had my boyfriend to drive me to work. Within about three weeks I started driving again.
I’ve had my share of moderate car accidents throughout my life. There was the time I drove off the side of the road into a ditch when I was 18. I wasn’t paying attention to the road as I tried to change the dial on the radio of my 1972 gold Mercury Montego with the broken front seat that rocked when you drove. I hit my face on the steering wheel. No airbags back then, so I must have really pitched forward. Luckily, I only had two black eyes. Previously that year, my friends and I had hit a patch of ice and went head-on into the side of a hill. I was in the front seat and fell to the floor because I wasn’t wearing a seat belt. We were college students in the ’90s and we thought we were invincible. I remember smashing my knee and all of us laughing really hard like, Oh shit did we just do that? Then there was the time I misjudged pulling out of a parking lot and T-boned into an older couple. No one was hurt, but my nickname then became Crash. Funny, about six years ago the same thing happened to me and my son, but we were the ones T-boned. We were fine, just shaken up. At least I was. My son thought it was cool, and couldn’t wait to get out and look at the damage. He was 9.
I’ve done some research on this freeway-driving phobia, and the first thing I found out was I’m not alone. Plenty of people around the world have this issue.
The disorder falls into the category of anxiety disorders or, more specifically, panic attacks. According to the Fear and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Florida, about 1.7 percent of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54 — approximately 2.4 million Americans — suffers from a panic condition in a given year. Women are twice as likely as men to develop a panic disorder.
I discovered a website called Driving Peace. The creator of the site isn’t a therapist, but instead is someone who went to therapy for his vehophobia.
Another cool website, changedirection.org helps people who are struggling with their mental well-being. It has five categories that help you recognize that you are in emotional pain: Personality Change, Agitated, Withdrawal, Poor Self-care, and Hopelessness. I have the same personality I’ve always had: tough on the outside and scarred on the inside. I’ve always been agitated, especially when people do dumb things. I’ve never withdrawn from anything important, except driving. As far as self-care, I do put my family first, but I realized that’s a sucky plan for a mom. Remember what flight attendants say: We have to put our oxygen masks on first so we can help others. However, I do feel a bit hopeless, like I’ll never drive anywhere farther than my son’s school on city streets.
Maybe my driving anxiety is an age thing. As we get older our nervous systems wear down and we can’t handle the type of stress we could take when we were younger. Or we only have so much nerve energy. I think the real answer is relaxation through yoga because when we are little kids in a constant state of terror and our nerves get slowly shaved down to a nub, we become an adult full of raw fear. The kind of fear that makes you jump when you see your own reflection.
Andrea Tate is an affiliate writing professor at Antioch University Santa Barbara, as well as an online instructor for inspiration2publication.com. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus, The Huffington Post, Role/Reboot, A Daily Dose of Lit, and Bleed. Andrea’s story “You” was published in the anthology Extract(s) in 2014 and is part of a memoir currently in progress. Andrea was a nonfiction editor for the literary journal Lunch Ticket and for the Diana Woods Memorial Prize. Andrea is an award-winning theatre director and an advocate for theatre arts in early education. She teaches drama and nonfiction writing workshops for Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks. Andrea received an MFA in creative nonfiction and a post-MFA Certificate for the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.