Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Biggest Fear that Ever Was

All day long, I drive around in my car from home to home, sometimes more than an hour from where I live. It's the nature of working for a hospice. Most people want to die at home, so that's where you go. My car is my office. My trunk holds what I cannot carry. And as I drive, I often say to myself: "This is amazing."

I don't say that because of the people I meet, though they are amazing. I don't say it because the work I do is rewarding, even though it is. I don't say it because I get to see the sun all day long, listen to my own music, and pass seasonal scenery, even though all of those things are great.

I say, "This is amazing," because once upon a time, I was afraid of driving.

It's a fact.

Rewind to 12 years ago. I was 19. I drove to Ithaca, NY to visit my then boyfriend at Cornell University. It was 4 hours away and my first time making a trip alone. In the days when most people had no GPS and cell phones were not equipped with maps, I relied on my trusty Mapquest directions printed from the internet to get me there.  At a toll booth a couple hours into my travels, I couldn't reach the bin to throw in my money, so I had to open my car door and undo my seatbelt in order to make the deposit. Only after driving away and continuing down the the highway did I realize my directions had fallen from my lap and out of the car. They were gone. I had no idea how to proceed.


My problem solving skills at 19 were very different than they are at 31. In a panic, I did what I thought I remembered of the journey and succeeded in getting lost. As I pulled into a restaurant parking lot in middle-of-nowhere New York, I began to cry. This is back when cell phones were little flip phones with tiny screens and most people had a delegated number of minutes and no texting plans. Staying on my cell phone with someone while driving would have seemed unsafe (ha! those were the days!) and having a conversation longer than 10 minutes would have been just a little too long. Even so, what I was most worried about was my then boyfriend thinking I was stupid for a) losing the directions at a toll booth, b) being late to arrive, and c) not being able to figure out how to get there on my own.

So there I sat in a strange parking lot, an insecure teenager crying her eyes out. That was when a car pulled into the spot next to me. An elderly woman and her husband got out, on their way to an early dinner at the restaurant behind me, both immediately noticing me in the car crying. They asked if I was all right. I tried to tell them I was, but through my long hair and tears all I managed to say was, "I'm lost!" Taking note of my Pennsylvania license plate and childlike appearance, they asked where I was headed. When I told them "Cornell University," the look they exchanged with each other told me I was nowhere near my destination.

The older gentleman began to tell me how to get there, pointing at the road and citing highway routes and exits. Having no concept of where I was and a very poor sense of direction, his attempt to help only panicked me more and I started to cry a little harder. Nothing like losing control in front of perfect strangers in a strange place, all alone.

During that moment, his wife nudged him gently and said, "Help her, honey." She looked at me and explained that they were going to have me follow them to a particular highway, to a particular exit, and that once I got off that exit, I would be able to look for signs for Cornell University and follow them to my destination. Then, instead of going to dinner, they got back in their car and I followed this kind couple for about 15 or 20 minutes to the aforementioned exit, where I waved them a tearful and thankful good bye from my car window as I continued on my way.

On a new highway, I saw the promised Cornell signs. I followed them. I arrived.

But I never felt secure driving alone ever again...and several weeks after that incident, driving home from Cornell in the early hours of the morning alone, I slid in oil or rain on a highway near Scranton, PA and totaled my car when I slammed head first into a guard rail. More kindness of strangers ensued, I was relatively uninjured, and I made it safely to an unfamiliar hospital via ambulance. But my driving insecurity grew.


I wasn't afraid of getting hurt...I wasn't afraid of getting in an accident...I was afraid of looking stupid in the eyes of others.

Eventually, I got another car. I drove. Locally. Far away. But every time I did, unless my destination was very close and very well known to me, I panicked. Anxiety consumed me. I had sweats, trouble breathing, upset stomach, became overheated, and my legs and arms would shake involuntarily. I gave myself pep talks as I'd embark on journeys alone to Connecticut, Philadelphia, Delaware, New Jersey...anywhere I had friends to visit. I didn't let my fear of driving hold me back from living, but I dreaded it. I dreaded it completely.

Though I was good at logically explaining to myself why my fear of driving was irrational, I couldn't shake it. Though I was good at walking myself through the worst that could happen (which was really nothing so terrible), I couldn't get rid of my fear. I often considered making up excuses not to drive somewhere, especially somewhere far from home, just because the anxiety symptoms were so intense. I never acted on the excuses I came up with, but I'd get sick before leaving my house, talk to God in the car on my way to wherever I was going, and breathe the breath of having survived a war every time I arrived safely and without getting lost.

This went on for years. GPS became a way of life, but never allayed my fear a bit. If you had told me by 2015 I'd have a job that consisted of spending every day in a car, driving all around the Lehigh Valley and beyond, using a GPS to to navigate my way to unknown destinations, I'd have laughed at you.

When I drove to job interviews or meetings, I'd give myself an extra hour, both to make sure I'd still be on time if I got lost (lack of confidence) and to pull myself together after arriving with hives, labored breathing, and the shakes. If a road I normally took was closed and I had to re-route, I'd call Rick or my my parents (even as an adult) panicked and nervous, even with a GPS in front of me.

In 2012, frustrated with the driving fear that just didn't fit with the rest of my take-charge life, I started immersion therapy with a psychologist in Allentown. He actually got in my car with me and made me drive on the highway, facing my fear of making the wrong choices, facing my fear of getting lost, facing my fear of looking stupid. It helped, he was awesome, and my fear of driving lessened.

I could do it at last, but I still hated it. In other words, I did it without panic attacks...I tolerated it...but I didn't like it.

After Rick died in May of 2014, widowhood changed me as it changes many women. At the core, I'm still the same, but I noticed little elements of my personality were being altered...preferences that changed and presented themselves. I slept with my phone in bed with me, something I never used to do. I became a morning person, whereas before I had aways been a night owl. And most surprisingly, I began to enjoy driving.


Quite frankly, after going through something as horrific and tragic as the suicide of your husband, fear of driving seems like no big deal. In a nutshell, if I could get through that, I could certainly survive driving. On the unfamiliar roads of grief, both figuratively and literally, I was making my way without a personalized map.

Fast forward to 2015. I drove to a friend's wedding in Virginia Beach alone, without a single shred of anxiety. It was so out of character from the last decade of my life that it was shocking. And in July of 2015, ready for change and opportunity, I took a job as a Hospice Social Worker, putting hundreds of miles on my car in a week's time without batting an eye. The biggest fear that ever was is no more than a piece of history.

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