The Road Trip With My Therapist That Changed My Life


My therapist changed my life. Actually, my therapist helped me change my life. What I couldn’t do and avoided for 30 years was drive on the highway. It may seem like such a simple thing, but it was a huge barrier in living my life. It was like having a self-imposed prison ankle bracelet, with the travel radius defined by my anxiety.

I couldn’t take jobs, go to classes, seminars, doctor’s offices, parties, weddings, funerals, meetings, shopping malls or travel in and out of the state. The list is endless of what I had to say no to. It not only affected my confidence, but my self-esteem.

For most of my adult life, I would have so much anxiety surrounding highways. I would have to keep my eyes closed just riding as a passenger in a car. If I didn’t close my eyes, I would look at the floor or at a book. Anything to avoid what was terrifying around me, being in a car on the highway. I would avoid side streets if they had a sign for the highway, just in case the road only led to a highway on ramp. I would drive hours out of the way on side streets, often driving in bad parts of town just so I wouldn’t have to go on the highway.

Mostly, I just didn’t get to live the life I wanted. I made excuses why I couldn’t go places. I declined countless invitations to do things. I frustrated my children because everyone else’s mom could drive places and I couldn’t. Occasionally, I would admit my fear to understanding friends, and they would let me ride with them. If we went as a group, then I was always eager to sit in the backseat. It is a little less terrifying back there, and it is easier to hide my fear.

My heart would race. My stomach would have butterflies. My hands would sweat. Heck, my whole body would sweat, but mostly, I would be so scared I wanted to cry.

Then, one day I was faced with a problem with no way out. I had to get to Providence, Rhode Island, and there was no way around me not driving there. I looked into the train and the bus, but the schedules wouldn’t work. I had no one else I could ask to drive me. I looked for every way out I could find, but there was none. I had to get over this fear.

MIGHTY PARTNER RESOURCES

I manned up to my problem, and I asked my therapist, Dan, if he could help me with my anxiety. I had four months until I had to drive to Providence, and I needed a miracle. I told him about my fears.

It started as a simple list. On ramps, trucks, big trucks, changing lanes, feeling trapped, driving fast and “not knowing where I am.” Also, did I mention being on ramps and merging onto the highway? Ramps felt like walking to a firing squad. There was no turning back.

The plan was exposure therapy. Exposure therapy involves the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety. If I knew he was going to make me actually drive on the highway with him in the car, then I never would have signed up for this. I had, in some fantasy, thought I could solve my fear sitting safely and comfortably on the couch in his office. I was in too deep now, as much as I wanted to chicken out, I had to persevere.

Dan first taught me to breathe. Who knew I was doing that wrong? Then, he taught me how to challenge my anxious thoughts. Then, we hit the open road. First, just getting on the highway and getting off the next exit. Eventually, we were driving farther and on different highways. He knew just how hard to push me and when I had enough. He became my biggest cheerleader, encouraging and believing in me even when I doubted myself.

Dan gave me homework. I have always hated homework, but who wants to get an F in their own therapy? So I diligently practiced driving between appointments. I would write my thought challenges and anxiety down in the journal he had given me. The hardest part was remembering to breathe when I felt anxious. I would bring my dog with me when I practiced sometimes, hoping she would help keep me calm. Mostly, she just drooled on the window, but at least I wasn’t alone.

I would conquer one aspect of driving, slowly pulling off that layer only to expose another fear. I had once thought being on ramps was the biggest obstacle but “not knowing where I am” ultimately proved to be the greatest hurdle.

As the date to drive to Providence approached, I still wasn’t sure I could do it. It was the overwhelming fear of “not knowing where I am” I was struggling with. My therapist and I decided to do the drive together the day before I had to do it myself. He understood there was no way to simulate going to Providence. I had to go there to see that I could do it. He blocked out four hours in his day, as it should take us a little more than three hours round trip.

We drove. I crossed state lines into Rhode Island with little fanfare. There was no marching band and confetti waiting for me at the border, but the significance of crossing into another state was monumental for me.

As we approached our destination, I had a panic attack. Dan helped me get through the panic attack. We got lost. I made us go back to the place we left from before we got lost to do it right. If I was going to do it on my own the next day, then I needed to know how to do it without getting lost.

We made it back to his office, and I was exhausted. The trip had been draining, but also empowering. I accomplished a goal I hadn’t been able to reach my entire life. I drove to the state of Rhode Island!

My trip was never going to make the evening news. I hadn’t scaled Mount Everest. I had not completed the Iditarod dog sled race or flown solo around the world. I did what millions of people do every day and never think twice about. I just drove on the highway, but it changed my life. For that was the beginning of me living the life I had wanted, where anxiety didn’t have to win.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock.

TOPICS
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Related to Anxiety

Illustration of three girls walking together

To the Friends Who've Helped Me Through My Worst Moments With Anxiety

My dear friends, Before I began sharing about my anxiety, I was terrified to open up to you. I worried that disclosing my anxiety would darken the light, cheery nature of our friendships. I wondered if “anxious” would gradually become my sole identity, overshadowing the many traits that comprise who I am. My greatest hope was [...]
close up of older woman taking a deep breath

5 Tips for Coping With Post-Election Anxiety

There are probably a lot of different emotions occurring, given the results of the U.S. presidential election and other smaller elections that have taken place. One of those feelings may be anxiety (worry/fear). Before that and other emotions overtake you completely, here are some things I, as a licensed therapist, suggest you try — especially if [...]
American Flag

A Few Self-Care Reminders for Anyone Having a Difficult Time After the Election

I am at a loss of words. Not because this result is entirely unexpected, but because deep down I have always known this was the reality of the world we live in. I don’t mean that in a pessimistic way, but as an individuals with both general and social anxiety, I see the extremes of [...]
A woman laying on a couch, with her head in her hands, surrounded by toys on the floor

What I Miss Out On as a Parent With Anxiety

I tucked my 2-and-a-half-year-old into bed last night. I softly sung the words of “Rock-a-bye Baby” while cuddled up to him so tight. I rubbed his hair. I kissed his rosy cheeks. After some pillow talk, he fell asleep. I held him closer. I looked at him, so innocent, so sweet. Listening to him breathe [...]