W has picked a route home from the whitewater slalom race in Maine on mostly back roads. After we exit the first stretch of interstate he says I should tell him when I’m ready to drive. It occurs to me that I can have a non-stressful ride just taking in the scenery as passenger the whole nine hours. But I already reminded myself on the river this weekend that I can face my fears, and I want to keep my anti-panic momentum going. At some point in New Hampshire, I say it is time.
I realize that it’s kind of un-American, that the most ordinary activity in the United States—driving—should be some big scary obstacle to me now. And I’m not even willing to consider getting on an interstate.
As usual, the first few minutes are a mental battle of Holy shit! We could die! versus This isn’t so bad. I can do this. It helps that there were few cars on the road. For a long time no one in my rearview mirror creeps up, wanting me to go faster. I keep to the speed limit which reduces to 50 or 40 or 25 mph in places, and then I feel genuinely calm. At around 40 mph I actually can enjoy winding around country roads in the sunshine, with a backdrop of mountains still capped in snow. Of course, I’m supposed to be watching the road, W reminds me.
Back up to 55 mph isn’t so comfortable. Neither are precipitous drops of down to the valleys around the White Mountains or a semi barreling towards me on a downgrade, but I keep going. I glance at the clock on the GPS every once in a while to congratulate myself on this feat of daring—over an hour of driving.
What I’ve learned on the river is that my big Thought Enemy is a crisis of confidence. I don’t trust myself to drive, to handle changing road conditions, traffic, to stay awake. There isn’t any reason for it. I remind myself I’m doing just fine. Every once in a while, W reminds me, too.
I think about my old psychiatrist telling me once that if I drove for at least an hour, I could be cured. I’m sure that’s not exactly what he said, but that’s how I remember it. The body can’t maintain a state of panic for that long, he said, so if you keep going you can get past the panic. I think the idea was that if I got to the calm state beyond panic and continued driving, I could retrain myself physiologically to not panic while driving. Of course, I don’t panic the whole time. Usually I cycle through varying shades of anxiety and calm.
Altogether I drive two hours and fifteen minutes straight, longer than I’ve driven in probably years. W tells me to pull off at the next turn-out, as we are about to get onto the interstate. I feel pretty good. Not cured, disappointingly, but hopeful. Someday, I think, I’ll even get onto an interstate again. The prospect is terrifying, but on the other hand, the optimistic and determined part of me seems to be waking from a long, long slumber.