I was halfway over the bridge when I realized my stomach was in a knot. I was gripping the steering wheel so hard that my hands hurt. My palms were sweating. My jaw was clenched. I was in the right lane but found myself leaning left onto the door and driving on the center white line to feel as far away from the edge as possible.
After what felt like an eternity, I made it to the other side.
My first thought: PHEW!
My second thought: I have to get home on Sunday. I’m going to have to do this all over again.
I was crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland on my way to spend the weekend with some friends in Delaware, my first foray out for a non-family get-away in more than a year, and my sudden burst of fear caught me off guard.
Apparently, I’m not the only person who has this response to the Bay Bridge; it is high, long, and narrow, with ridiculously low guardrails. It has earned votes as the “scariest bridge in America,” causing so many to panic that there’s actually a company that drives people over the bridge in their own cars (one way) for the low, low price of $25.
Still, I was surprised and annoyed at my reaction. Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, from day-to-day excessive worrying and catastrophizing to phobic feelings about bridges, tunnels, heights, and doctors. But for the last three years, I have experienced much less anxiety, thanks primarily to meditation.
I actually owe some of the shift to Ellen Degeneres. I happened to be watching her show the day her guest was Bob Roth, a Transcendental Meditation expert who taught Ellen and her wife how to do TM. She said it made a huge difference in lowering her stress level.
Though I thought the name made the practice sound weird (I somehow associated “transcending” with levitating), I knew that science had long supported the positive impact of meditation. I was struggling in my marriage at the time and was desperate to find a way to quiet my mind and make sense of what was going on. I decided to do the TM training and began meditating each morning before starting my day.
Soon after I felt a noticeable drop in my anxiety level. There was nothing magical about it; I just felt I was able to slow my thoughts and function with a greater sense of calm. I eventually found that I was doing things like crossing bridges without really thinking about it. And generally speaking, since I started TM, I have felt less angst when dealing with stressful situations. This is why I was taken aback by my experience last weekend.
I was having a great time with friends — chatting, laughing, drinking beer — but was surprised at how many times my mind kept coming back to the return trip across the Bay Bridge. I knew I was overreacting and unnecessarily expending a ton of mental energy on something that was going to last about five minutes. I just could not shake my sense of dread. It was like having a great time at a party but noticing a man in a trench coat in the back of the room with a grim, knowing stare waiting for you.
I seriously debated dodging the event altogether and taking a longer route home to avoid the bridge. Ultimately, though, I knew I would create a bigger problem for myself if I avoided it and decided against the alternate route.
It was not an easy trip home. Every time I saw a sign for the bridge my stomach sank, and for a good half hour as I approached, I felt the same tightness in my body I had experienced two days earlier. But I jackassed my way over the bridge by talking to myself loudly and making note of my progress. (“I can see the other side now!”) I can only hope that nearby drivers thought I was either singing along with a great song or enthusiastically talking with a friend on speakerphone. It was an ugly win, but a victory nonetheless. I felt a tremendous sense of relief once I made it across, something that almost approached euphoria.
Part of me is embarrassed to write about this. There is such a gap between what I understand intellectually (I’m going to be fine) and what I feel (my last memory will be of this bridge) in certain situations. I know I have an irrational sense of danger about a number of things. I have been driving for 36 years and I’m quite good at driving in a straight line, for example, so I should not feel a sense of terror while on the road. But knowing you’re being irrational and stopping the thought are two different things. I have felt the sting of a dismissive eye roll many times over the years when I have expressed fear, and that doesn’t make anything go away, it just drives it underground.
A lot of this doesn’t make sense to me, including why fear would crop up again so fiercely after a period of marked improvement. Or why people are afraid of some things but not others. Doctors drive me to distraction, but spiders don’t bother me in the slightest (if I come across one in my house, I get it to crawl on a piece of paper and bring it outside). Don’t bring me to the top of a skyscraper to sightsee, but I love going to parties and don’t even mind going by myself. It seems that one person’s nightmare can be another person’s oxygen.
I do know that I am hardwired for anxiety, and I can either continue to work to manage it or become increasingly debilitated by it. Last weekend I was reminded that it is not possible to declare a final victory over something just because there has been improvement. Daily meditation has been tremendously helpful but is clearly not the only step I need to take to deal with this issue, especially since it is not limited to one situation but fans out into many aspects of my life.
Anxiety has made my world smaller over the years. I hope I can reverse this and live more fully by simplifying my goal — to something like “better, not fixed.”