I was nine months pregnant with my first son, and my worst nightmare almost came true. On a quiet Sunday night in December, my husband had gone out to grab some staples from the grocery store. Suddenly, from the wrong direction, a drunk driver nearly slammed into our small Honda, swerved at the last minute, and hit a hedge instead. Then the driver began backing up — straight into Chris, who floored it into reverse just in time. The driver was picked up and arrested. Chris was shaken. Upon hearing the story, I crumpled to the floor and wept.
Because this is the Big Fear. The deep fear, the one that the lives in the gut of most of us with an anxiety disorder.
I’m terrified of cars — and I suspect I know I’m not the only one. Sure, we drive. We let our loved ones drive. But there’s always that moment of wrenching fear, of nightmare we swallow in a strained “be careful” and one more “I love you.” That “I love you” we mouth, thinking it might be the last. We watch our loved ones walk out the door, greedy for a last glimpse.
And if they don’t come home on time, we panic. We begin making calls. If the calls go unanswered, the panic seeps in, drops down, twines through our guts and our brains. We see them dead on the side of the highway. And not just dead, we see specific, horrific images: the monotonous flash of police lights, red and blue, red and blue. The slump over the airbag. I always imagine, if my husband has my children with him, their tiny shoes discarded in the high green grass of a forgotten median.
By the time our loved ones walk in late, harried from traffic and late work meetings, we may be shaking with fear. We may greet them with blissfully deflating relief, or a sudden storm of tears, or inchoate rage.
Because cars are fucking terrifying.
Our hearts know this because our heads know this. You are more likely to die in a car crash than an air crash, than a terrorist attack, than an assault. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports a loss of 32,675 people to car crashes in the United States in 2014 — nearly a third of them related to alcohol. A staggering 2.34 million people were injured in wrecks. In 2012, 2.5 million people went to the emergency room — and then 200,000 were hospitalized — for crash injuries, says the CDC. Those of us with anxiety know these statistics. They terrify us. They flash before us every time we say goodbye to our loved ones, every time we strap our babies into their car seats.
We are the ones that double-check our mirrors, then glance behind us to ensure no one’s next to us before we change lanes. We are the ones who refuse to change the song on Spotify until we hit a red light. High speeds might scare us, especially those of us in states where the posted 70 mph limit is mostly a suggestion. We do not hand things back to our kids, or stretch or bend or rummage through our purses on the interstate. We may be car seat fanatics (just ask me about my rear-facing four-year-old!).
We do all these things because they are things we can control. We can make sure that the kids’ seat straps are not twisted. We can refuse to text while the car is moving. We can refrain from dialing our phones, check three times before we enter the traffic circle, drive slow on the interstate on-ramp. These are talismans against the things we cannot control, which is every fucking other thing.
My friend’s car was slammed by a drunk driver at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Someone almost merged into me on the interstate yesterday. A car almost turned into my husband on his way home from work. It would have barreled into the driver’s side. We cannot control these things. We cannot stop them from happening unless we stop everyone we love from ever getting into a motor vehicle. And it’s that lack of control, in the end, that terrifies us. It’s the feeling that we, or the people we love, could die at any moment and there is nothing we can do about it.
So how do we cope?
First, we have to realize that this is not a fear of cars. This is a fear of losing control. This is a fear that we can’t fix or predict or plan everything in our lives. It’s a fear of unpredictable loss, which is terrifying. Those are the fears we need to work with, not the worries about some shiny metallic thing barreling down the highway. Then we need to work on relinquishing control — perhaps with the help of a good therapist.
Dr. Amy Johnsons recommends that we practice the art of surrender: that we recognize the universe is an inherently friendly place, and that we realize letting go of fear would feel like freedom. Others recommend things like using imagery; writing down what presence (being in the moment) means to you; grounding yourself, because fear means living in the future and doing things like taking a walk or connecting with a friend brings you back to the present; using affirmations; reaching out for support; and realizing you are not alone.
You are not alone. I can only promise you, that when it comes to channeling your anxiety into fear about motor vehicles, you are not alone. And I think all of us, including me, can start there.
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