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The Road Trip With My Therapist That Changed My Life

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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.

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.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 9, 2016
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