Agoraphobic Abroad #2: Driving Aversion

When I was 17 years old and a senior in high school, I demolished my “new” car (a mint condition 1984 Thunderbird, painted Thunderbird blue) when I hydroplaned while navigating a curve on a slick road. My car careened into the left lane and towards a minivan. Knowing there would be children in it, I swerved to miss them, over-correcting, hitting a ditch, going airborne and slamming a tree head on. A few feet to the left or right would have landed me in a cow field, probably uninjured. I was not wearing my seat belt. My face smashed the windshield and rear view mirror, splitting my scalp down to the skull. The steering column crushed my chest, breaking my ribs and puncturing/collapsing both lungs. I was incredibly lucky despite catastrophic injuries. The first three people on the scene had medical training and though my neck was broken at the C2 (think Christopher Reeve’s devastating injury) and the trauma staff declared that I would have died within 20 minutes if I hadn’t gotten to the hospital when I did, today I am a walking, breathing medical miracle. (***Side Note: I later learned the minivan did in fact, have a child in it. A toddler who was on her way to Children’s Hospital for Leukemia treatments).

Of course, this is all just bits and pieces I’ve put together from the eye witness accounts and family descriptions from the trauma unit where I was for 9 days following my wreck. While I have no memory of that day after pulling out of my driveway, understandably, I have some issues when it comes to driving. Seeing brake lights in the rain is one of my biggest triggers.

Every morning I get on the interstate just a few feet from my home and travel approximately 30 miles to work. 95% of my drive is on I-40 Eastbound through Knoxville, TN. There are things I love about my morning drive. Virtually no red lights, the way the sunlight filters through the clouds throwing rays of glowing warmth in all directions, time to myself to focus on meditation and gearing up for the day. Mostly though, it just sucks. It’s like riding a long, winding ribbon of collective stress and anger. It buzzes and it pulsates and it feeds on new anxiety each day.

The left lane is the worst. Everyone in a hurry, desperate to get around the creeping cavalcade of cars in front of them. People who designate themselves interstate pace cars because they feel they’re going plenty fast enough and everyone else just needs to suck it up and fall in line. I know it’s not LA, New York or Atlanta traffic, but it’s bad enough that driving is typically the most stressful part of my day. Driving does not equal independence for me. It’s just another aversion.

As an empath, I often feel overwhelmed by the energies of others. I haven’t learned to block it yet. It seeps through my skin and invades my chest first before moving into my stomach and extremities. It eats away at my serenity leaving nothing but a sticky spider web of anxiety, trapping any good energy that could possibly lift me up. It will take it upon itself to set the tone of my day if I allow it.

I turn on meditation music and focus on pranayama breathing. Sometimes I chant Sanskrit mantras or affirmations. I try my best to stay out of the fast lane, depending on how late I am that morning. Connecting with others is painful, even in this limited sense. The side glance of someone who finally got over after going slow for miles. A raised finger or shaking fist at someone who doesn’t appreciate your driving in front of them (“How DARE you be in the LEFT LANE? You don’t belong here! Don’t you know how IMPORTANT and LATE I am???”). The role I play each day depends on how I’m feeling and what is going on around me. Sometimes I’m the angry, entitled speed demon. Some days I’m just one tiny, terrified person trying to get to work in the cesspool, preferably without dying.

On the dashboard of my car lies a wrinkled, heat-shrunken bumper sticker that reads “Tolerance” in various religious symbols. I can’t bring myself to actually put it on my car until I no longer have flashes of road rage. Can you imagine someone riding your bumper and cussing at you, only to whip by and remind you to have the very tolerance they lack? The image makes me laugh.

My own personal road rage comes from a panicked need to get home as fast as possible. Most days, my deepest wish is to hide in the RV with my dog, only emerging when she needs a walk or if I choose to go out and engage with a neighbor. Some days I must invent an excuse to do this instead of venturing out for work or errands. Some days my anxiety takes over my body and I am left immobile and cowering beneath my favorite quilt.

I cannot wait for the days when I no longer have to make these arduous drives five days a week. In three years, when my son is 18 and my husband’s work contract is up, we will set off, travel trailer in tow, in search of beautiful sights and new experiences. First, we plan to travel West, see the Grand Canyon, the Sedona Vortexes, camp in the high desert. I hope to see my family in Montana again and I pray that we all live long enough for us to make the trip. All the while, we’ll be on the lookout for our next home: a 40+ foot long blue water cruising sailboat. Preferably a Westsail 42’. Then the days of driving a car will be over (queue my happy dance!), for a few years at least. I’ll trade my car for a collapsible bicycle with a basket for provisions. Maybe even a bell. And with it, I hope to trade long lines, traffic and unwanted interactions with my fellow human beings for sunshine, white sand beaches and glorious solitude.

I realize that with this major change will come new anxieties and problems but I am ready and willing to take those challenges head on for a chance at living outside the confines of our overly crowded society. This world is too big and there is too much for me to see, my bucket list too long and my heart too full. I’ll get there, or I’ll die trying. And that is something I’m completely at peace with.

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