Oh me, oh my, there is nothing that inspires penetrating anxiety like the fear of a panic attack. How ironic, since, after all, a panic attack is really just extreme anxiety.
It was about a year after my husband died that I had my first panic attack, on the road at night, driving back from a conference, my two babies in the backseat of my car. I thought that was the end of the road, pun intended. I recognized what was happening, but was powerless to stop it. Needless to say, I survived, but that led to a real mitigation of my driving abilities. I did everything I could to avoid driving at night and even on highways as much as possible.
Over time I was forced out of that avoidance behavior out of necessity enough to move past it for the most part, but the fear of having a panic attack while driving never left me.
Then a few years after that first panic attack, I was driving through the mountains of North Carolina and had another one. Gosh, even saying that makes it sound much different than it was; limited and controlled. In reality, it was pervasive and drawn out painfully almost the whole way. My panic was so incapacitating as I wound around the curvy highway that I had to stop on the side of the road multiple times. I considered calling for an ambulance because I literally had no other way to get from point A (Highway 40 East) to home (where my kids were waiting for me with a babysitter who was ready to be off the clock).
I have a master’s degree in psychology. I have taken a certification class in mindfulness-based stress reduction and I was arguably by that many years in, an expert at grief-induced PTSD (from personal experience). Yet there I was on the highway, powerless, alone and afraid. All my education and years of surviving traumatic loss were of no help. I tried deep breathing. I tried everything.
Ultimately, knowing the benefits of physical exercise on reducing anxiety, I created an unconventional emergency response. I actually pulled into a gas station, went in the grassy area behind it (between it and a grocery store) and started jogging laps. Some people getting gas noticed and stared, but it was all I knew how to do. I ran. I ran and ran until I could breathe again. And that day, albeit a few hours later than intended, I made it safely home.
That day on Highway 40 was two years ago. Why am I telling you this now? Well, this weekend, in the gorgeous North Carolina fall, I got the idea in my head that I just had to take my kids to the mountains. It is such a beautiful time of year. The problem is, I have not driven to the mountains since that awful day two years ago, and I did not think I ever would again. That day I thanked God I survived the drive home and I thought I would only return if I was with someone else behind the wheel. Yet here I was this weekend, wanting to go and no one to drive us. My avoidance method left me at a standstill.
I hate that feeling of being stuck though: powerless. I refused to let my kids miss seeing the mountains at this time of year because of my self-imposed limitations. So I decided to take them yesterday and we did it. It was not easy. I barely slept the night before, full of the fear of a panic attack coming on with them in the car again, but I went anyway. It might have seemed like no big deal to anyone from the outside. On the inside though, it was a monumental win. Did I have anxiety? Yes. Did I have a panic attack? No. Did I feel a little bit like I took my power back? Heck yeah.
Never giving up,