Driving with Bruce and an Uncomfortable Truth

It occurs to me as I approach the Interstate, that I’m about to follow a sign that I’ve been avoiding eye contact with for years. And this time I’m on my own. Well, except for Bruce the psychedelic sea turtle, a stuffed passenger I’ve named after my driving instructor.

With Bruce (the person) I’ve actually made progress with highway driving; sometimes I’ve driven with him over an hour at a time and without a panic attack. A few days ago I drove some 45 minutes on the highway without really feeling anxiety at all.

Today I have a tougher assignment: to get on the highway by myself. I am to go north (the sparsely driven side). I tell myself it’s just like the county routes that I feel comfortable on, only one more lane, 10 mph faster. In fact, even safer than those roads, with no traffic coming toward me and fewer merges. I’ve done this just fine with Bruce a few days ago.

This ought to be easy. But it isn’t. I go one exit and want to head home on the country route paralleling the highway. I have to force myself to get back on the interstate to return. I feel a surge of relief when I see the 1 mile to my exit sign. I wish I could feel this way the whole time I’m on the highway.

Bruce tells me I’d get an “A” for my driving. So it’s not a problem of competence, my long break from highway driving notwithstanding.

My psychiatrist says it’s not a matter of making myself more calm. He says I need to get comfortable with the discomfort of anxiety. For some reason this seems like a revelation. Like when I’m perched on the edge of the pool and I know the water is cold and it will take me laps to warm up. I dislike being cold, but I plunk in anyway, reminding myself that it is a few minutes of discomfort, that is all. No, that doesn’t quite capture it. It’s more like when I’m at a lake and the water is absolutely freezing and I dive in head first. Just go, I tell myself, and I take a deep breath and submerge into the cold.

Anxiety is like a dunk in very cold water. It’s that uncomfortable. If I’m lucky, I warm up to less anxiety, even comfort. But you can’t force anxiety away. Slow belly breathing and relaxing the muscles in my face both help calm me, at times, but I can’t hold the fear at bay for long. Rather than a determination to calm myself down, I must accept the discomfort: the uncomfortable banging heart and unpleasant bodily sensation of irreality that make me afraid I might lose control. Rationally I know they are only feelings: when have I ever lost control due to anxiety? Exactly never.

Eventually, by allowing myself to be uncomfortable, my psychiatrist says, I’ll start to feel less anxious. I might not like driving on the highway, but I will be able to tolerate it.

This reminds me of the mindfulness technique taught by Tara Brach, with the acronym RAIN:  Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Non-Identify. With highly uncomfortable feelings, she teaches that one must first Recognize the feeling (I feel extremely anxious and my heart is beating worrisomely fast). The second step is to fully Allow its presence–rather than fighting it, which would cause it to grow stronger. (I allow this uncomfortable racing heart feeling to be here.) Then one can begin to calmly watch the motions of the mind and emotions as one Investigates feelings as they arise. (I notice I am worrying about the miles ahead). Finally, take a further step back to Non-identify with the feelings. (Instead of “I feel” I might phrase it to myself, “I notice a sensation of…”)

Another morning, for my second solo, Bruce the psychedelic seat turtle is strapped in and ready, a gentle smile on his face. As I approach the on-ramp I feel the symptoms of anxiety rising up inside and keep reminding myself to get comfortable with the discomfort. Over and over again. It is slightly more bearable, though I still only go one exit and back.

Halfway back on my 10 minute round trip I start to think what I will tell my therapist about this success. Suddenly I’m surprised by happiness, realizing I’m relaxed enough to let my mind wander (however slightly) away from the anxiety of driving. I glance at Bruce who is still smiling placidly. I will keep practicing.