Overcoming My Fear of Bridges
Even on a Beautiful Day...
Over the next few months and years following the initial attack, I had several opportunities to observe the progress of my phobia, opportunities when I could observe the details of the problem and the success (or lack of it) of everything I did in overcoming anxiety.
The problem that had arisen so suddenly one evening in late February was a fear or panic associated with driving across a large bridge – or better expressed, a bridge across a large body of water. It was similar to a phobia that had possessed one of my aunts, and I had heard about her problem only through my mother. I had never had the opportunity to speak with her about it myself; I had never been able to probe into the details of her feelings and reactions.
Almost immediately after I finished driving across the bridge the first time I experienced the panic, I wondered whether my reaction was the sort of thing she had encountered and whether perhaps there was some genetic component to it. If there was, did that mean I was doomed to a lifetime of staying on only one side of a river?
My problem turned out to have some very specific limits to it, as I discovered in the next few months. I only experienced the panicky feelings when I was driving and when I was alone; and the feelings were strongest with the very same bridge where the first episode had occurred – the southbound bridge across the Ohio River from Evansville, Indiana to Henderson, Kentucky.
Bridge-Crossing Phobia, a Shared Problem
On that first occasion, I had made the choice to return from Kentucky by a different route, so that I would not drive across the same bridge. That shifted my route to Owensboro, to a bridge that I preferred and was able to tolerate, but which had problems of its own. As I spoke with friends about what had happened, I heard that a new bridge was under construction near Owensboro, and I anticipated its opening with hope and joy. Perhaps it would help me to overcome the problem.
I developed a few little techniques to help me in the meantime. One was the use of Head Math as an anchor to reality and as a distraction. I did not know the exact distance across the river, but I figured it was definitely under a mile. That meant that at the rate of 55 mph, I would be across the river in about a minute or less. Surely I could manage to keep myself “together” for one minute, in order to be safe!
Another technique was to use the radio as a friend and distraction. I would turn it on and listen for a few brief moments to help me forget about my problem, but if I felt that my attention was wandering too far away from being able to focus on good driving, then I would turn it off immediately. On – off – on – off, only a few seconds in each state.
But the best help, by far, was to “buddy up” with another vehicle. If I could stay close to another car or truck – either directly in front of, to the side of (and on the inside, away from the water), or behind it – I felt much more secure and able to keep control. I felt as though I had some form of obligation to the other vehicle, and that kept me better focused on the actual driving, rather than on my feelings.
Even though I preferred the Owensboro bridge, I wasn’t altogether happy with the rest of the drive it entailed. I truly wanted to be able to return to the mental state I had had prior to my first anxiety, both because of its impact on my self-concept and for the pragmatic reason of being able to enjoy my preferred drive. Each little victory of driving across the river, using whatever helps and techniques I needed, made me feel stronger and more capable for the next time. After many, many months I finally felt strong enough to attempt the Evansville bridge again.
One Method of Help with Anxiety
Some people who suffer from phobias may be helped by Hypno-Psychotherapy, as recommended by the Hubber Spirit Whisperer. For information about that form of help with anxiety, visit his profile and website. If you choose to look into this for yourself or a loved one, please be very conscientious about checking the credentials of any therapist, and commit to working only with someone who is well-trained, qualified, and experienced.
Ready for the Test
I felt so confident that I honestly barely thought about the bridge and the drive across the river at all. Mentally I simply felt ready to return to the route I preferred, and that was the one I chose one day as I was setting out again for western Kentucky. As I came within a few miles of the river, I noticed what a gorgeous day it was. Hardly a better day could exist. The sky was the most perfect vivid blue – not too garish, but still quite intense. Fluffy white clouds punctuated the blue, and the air felt comfortably warm – nearly hot, but not too humid. It felt heavenly.
I began singing along with the radio, enjoying myself immensely. But the mind is a curious thing. Those thoughts that we wish to avoid are usually hidden back there somewhere, floating around, seeking a toehold or a soapbox of some kind. The beautiful day drew my attention to my surroundings, and I realized I could see far across the open countryside, and I could see The Bridge. My confidence didn’t disappear immediately, but I did begin to experience some niggling self-doubts. Would the beautiful day help me to get across okay? Would my positive experiences since the first bad one be enough to give me strength?
It didn’t help a bit that my first glimpse of the bridge actually was many miles from it. I would probably have been relatively fine, if the bridge had been closer to the place where I was first able to see it, but it wasn’t. There was too much time and space between my first sight of the bridge and the actual approach to it. There was enough time for me to feel some doubts and to try to scold myself out of them. That didn’t help. I tried various mental techniques, from coddling and sympathizing with myself to avoidance to creating what seemed to be a “plan.” But all the while, in the back of my mind there was this question: Can I do it?
I reached the foot of the bridge with a knowledge that there would be No Turning Back from this point. I started trying the various techniques that had been successful over the past few months. The other drivers wanted to go faster than I did, so the Buddy System didn’t help. The radio was just a distraction, and I couldn’t get a grip on trying mental math. I was feeling light-headed, and it was difficult to focus and concentrate. My head and my thinking ability were undergoing some process that was unfamiliar to me.
I felt myself slipping, and it seemed as if I were slipping so badly that I might have an Out-of-Body experience – absolutely not what I wanted to have at the top of a bridge while driving fast and alone across a major river! It really seemed that I was struggling to keep body and soul together, in a manner that I had never experienced before in my life. I was praying as hard as I could, watching the road, wiping my hands on my jeans one at a time, trying to think like a safe driver, but all too aware of my fragile consciousness.
Miraculously (at least, it felt like a miracle to me), I made it across the bridge without going unconscious and without having a wreck. Immediately, much more quickly than with my first episode of the phobia, I found a parking lot where I could pull off the highway and turn off the car, and I sat and shook and sobbed aloud for about ten minutes.
I was grateful to be alive and safe, but distraught that I had a problem that I didn’t know how to overcome and that was actually unsafe for myself and for the people around me. I needed to be realistic. I was not happy with this problem, obviously, but if I didn’t recognize it for what it was, I could endanger others, including my beloved family, if I experienced the same thing while driving them. I resolved never to drive across that bridge again, until and unless I were sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that I could do so safely. That might never happen. And if it turned out to be something that I could achieve, it might take a very long time.
But in the meantime, it was crucial that I take a different route when driving alone.