There was nothing particularly special about that Wednesday. It was a day I would drive my Grandfather’s old powder-blue Honda CR-V along curving country highways leading to a bridge. Then I’d drive over the bridge crossing a body of water. Once on the other side, I’d go to a business meeting, followed by a much anticipated dinner with a dear friend. There was nothing unusual about the minute or so I’d spend up high, suspended over water, moving fast. After all, I’d done it dozens and dozens of times before. There was nothing special about it at all, except it terrified me. The night before I was due to make the drive I couldn’t sleep. I rose early, well before the sun came up.
In retrospect, the details of how I crossed the bridge don’t seem all that important. What’s important is I had to do it, and so, I did. I did it even though my palms were sweating and my heart was racing and my legs were wobbling and felt strangely on fire. I turned up the song on the radio, focused on the exhale and the inhale of my breath, and I thought about how Mount Rainier — standing strong and snow-capped and stunning just out my driver’s side window — felt like an old friend. Before I knew it, I was over the bridge and I steered Grandpa’s car from the highway on to the crush of Interstate-5. I was relieved.
The next day on the way to meet friends for lunch, I followed different winding country highways to Olympia. This is the town where I went to high school, the town where I learned to drive, the town where I first dreamed my biggest dreams and made the plans that sent me to Los Angeles to pursue them. And this time, I felt better — almost normal in fact — because the sun was shining and the water was sparkling and I felt happy. I barely thought about a previous December night, driving those same roads and hurtling through the darkness. Dad rode next to me drifting in and out of consciousness, wind pummeling my mother’s SUV and rain spitting buckets. So much rain the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I gripped the steering wheel with everything I had just to keep us on the road. I kept stealing glances at my father, wondering if he was sleeping or dying. I said a silent prayer with every mile marker we passed because every mile brought us closer to home; even though it wasn’t home anymore. Not since Mom died and since Dad got sick.
I came of age driving Washington State’s rural highways, snaking over waterways and crossing bridges and winding through forests. So how could something so familiar become the thing that frightened me? I suppose that’s the power of post-traumatic-stress, the way it can shake you and alter your consciousness, making you feel like a stranger in your own body, making you doubt everything you thought you knew. I’m not a solider. I’ve never served in the military. But I feel as if I have been to war. And I won — at least I think I have. But on some days, and in some ways, those battles still rage on.
I recently told a friend I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. The remark was off the cuff and meant to be a joke, but in truth, I meant it. My whole life I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know how to name it, or how to talk about it. Instead, I tried to control it, to deny it, to tamp it down. And for a while, I was convinced I had beaten my fears into submission. But then along came a tornado of tragedy. A violent storm of death and loss that quickly and swiftly eviscerated my carefully constructed façade of being brave and strong and having it all together.
The storm taught me nothing in life is certain — a scary prospect for a control-freak like me. But it also taught me the only way out is through. If I don’t want my fears to control me, I have to surrender to them, walk into them, and thank them for being here, for reminding me of what’s important.
Once, I stayed a week at the beach. I was paddling around Case Inlet, soothed by saltwater, utterly tranquil, when not far away, a curious seal popped his head above the water. He stared at me and I stared back at him. Before logic or reason could intervene, I began to swim towards him. Sensing a threat, he dove beneath the surface of the water. I kept on swimming, and as I did, I made my voice a song and cast it out across the sea. “Hello, Mr. Seal,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” And he seemed to understand, because he popped his head above the surface again, and froze there for a minute, just looking at me.
This went on for several minutes, our water dance, the diving and re-emerging, both of us circling each other, watching, considering, keeping a safe distance but drawing ever closer. When we were quite close to each other, he dove under again. As I treaded water looking for him, I suddenly realized something: I was a long way from shore, and I was alone, and in the murky saltwater, clouded up as it was by sand and seaweed, I wouldn’t be able to see the seal coming, wouldn’t know where he’d emerge next, and if he decided to attack me, or bite me, or pull me under the water, I wouldn’t be able to escape.
And there it was, that fear again, pulsing through my veins like a jolt of ice water. I turned toward the shore and I swam as fast as I could, legs pumping, swim fins slicing though the bay. And several moments later I turned back and I saw my seal again, further away now, but still watching me. He cast one last curious glance my way – it seemed to me a sort of sad farewell – and then turned to swim off in the opposite direction. And in that moment, I believed he had not meant to hurt me, just like I had never meant to hurt him.
I’m a realist. I know I’ll never be fully free from the fears that plague my worried mind. On some days, I feel pretty good, like I could do just about anything. And on other days, like the Wednesday when I drove over that bridge, it was all I could do just to get through it. I used to think that soldiering on and suffering in silence was brave. It’s not. It only makes my fear worse. What is brave is being vulnerable enough to talk about the places that scare me, to run the risk that by telling you that sometimes, when I’m driving my car on the freeway I feel like I’m moving so fast I won’t be able to stop and I’ll fly through the windshield and hurtle into space, you’ll think I’m irrational. Maybe you will. But then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll read this and think, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one,” and you’ll realize – as I’m realizing – that none of us are truly alone in this strange and beautiful experiment we call life.
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