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What It's Like to Drive in the Winter When You Have Anxiety

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I love winter. It’s easily my favorite season. However, it can also be challenging for several reasons – the shorter days, the colder temperatures, the holidays, etc. For me, though, I think the toughest part of this time of year is having to drive in bad weather. It’s frustrating and unavoidable. I need to go places nearly every day, and if I’m not driving, I’m a passenger in someone else’s car. Being able to look back and appreciate what I’ve been through on the road, though, is definitely a positive. Each scary drive is an opportunity to learn about myself. Each time I reflect, it reminds me I’m still here.

Roughly 13 years ago, I wound up stuck in a standstill traffic jam on a highway in the dead of night, right before Christmas, in rural Kentucky. In four hours of literally being parked on the interstate, 10 inches of snow and 2 inches of ice came down on my car. When the jack-knifed semi that caused the jam was finally cleared away, driving into a white void sleep-deprived and unfamiliar with the area was awful. It would have been bad for anyone, but as someone with an anxiety disorder, it was terrifying. Fortunately, I didn’t get stranded or in an accident, but my mind did – over, and over, and over. I remember my hands, neck, and shoulders aching for days after that ordeal. I can still feel it.

Last month, we had our first deep freeze in Denver. The temperatures fell below zero, and the snow started falling much earlier than anticipated. I found myself alone in my car, again at night, trying to maneuver my way home on roads that hadn’t yet been plowed. I drove clutching the steering wheel while watching cars around me slide out of control in slow motion. I couldn’t see the lines on the highway. Everything was eerily quiet, and the lights glowed in that magical way they do when snow falls. Again, I found myself pointedly attempting to breathe beyond my chest, stretching my fingers and pushing my shoulders away from my ears. I remember how the snow and ice began to freeze on my windshield, praying the section I could still peek through wouldn’t become obstructed. I made it home safely, but I wasn’t able to fall asleep for hours because despite my body being utterly exhausted from all the adrenaline, my mind was still stuck on what could have happened. Once again, even though it didn’t, it could have.

The following night, I had to be on the road again (I know), but this time, I opted to carpool with others. There were five of us in the vehicle; I wasn’t driving. I’d actually told one of my friends I was nervous about the excursion beforehand, and he asked me how he could help, but at the time, I didn’t know. I just told him I might need to talk, or need a hug, or be reminded to breathe. When we were all climbing into the SUV at the end of the night to return home, the anxiety hit me like a bolt of lightning as I was crawling into the backseat. My mind was telling me I needed to speak up, tell my friend I needed him to sit next to me, but my anxiety told me it would be too embarrassing. Sadly, I listened to the anxiety.

While the roads were better on this particular night (compared to the night before), they still weren’t great. There were lit up signs over the highway, warning drivers that roads were icy and to go slowly. Every time we passed under one of those signs, I felt more panicky. Every time a giant pickup truck flew by, my heart raced just a little faster. By the time we reached the halfway point, I had fully succumbed to a panic attack. I cried silently, I dug my fingernails into my palms. I tapped my toes, alternating between my left and right feet, trying to focus on the rhythm. I tried with every ounce of energy in me to remain unnoticed. I was the prey, and the drive had become my predator.

It was then the girl sitting next to me leaned over and took my hand. I wish I could say it took all the fear out of my body, but it didn’t. However, it did let me know I wasn’t alone. It pushed my shame back and reminded me my illness was not an overreaction. I wasn’t making a plea for attention. She knew, and she helped.

When we finally got back to the parking lot where we’d all met, I practically fell out of the vehicle once it stopped. All of my sounds escaped from my mouth. I started sobbing. My breathing quickly became hitched. The apologies started spewing forth. And everyone in the car came together in that moment and took care of me. I was loved and calmed by people – most of whom barely knew me. They waited for me to come down enough so I could actually get in my own car and drive home, and eventually I did. And yes, again, I made it home safely.

I don’t know if these feelings manifested after that first drive back in Kentucky over a decade ago or if it really matters. What is important, though, is I continue to learn that admitting my fears isn’t shameful. Letting people know I have anxiety is a brave act. Asking for help is always OK.

And through all this, I still love the winter, especially during the day, especially when I’m not in the car.

Drive safely!

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Photo by Kat Atwell: Standley Lake in Arvada, Colorado

Originally published: January 31, 2017
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