I was on the Taconic State Parkway in New York heading for Vermont. I was just a few miles away from my favorite rest stop, a diner just off the parkway on Route 295 in Chatham. I made this trip often and always stopped at the diner for a cup of coffee. But on this particular day, just before the exit, I passed out. As I slumped forward, my chest hit the steering wheel, and I came to with a start. I couldn’t have been out for more than a few seconds because I was still driving in my lane and still doing fifty-five miles per hour. I pulled off at the next exit and into the diner’s parking lot. I sat in my car for over an hour having a full-blown panic attack.
My weekend getaway was done, but that was okay. I just wanted to go home and stop feeling so awful inside. I trembled for the entire two-hour drive home.
Just a few months before, I had ended a three-year, abusive relationship. It wasn’t easy walking out the door—my confidence and self-esteem had eroded away to nothing. But when the death threats started, I knew it was time to go. Because I worked for the man I had just left, I was out of a job, home, and money as soon as the door closed behind me. Going back to my parents’ house was my only option.
Within a few short months, I was feeling much stronger, healthier mentally and physically, and determined to put all the abuse behind me and move on. But after the mishap on the highway, something happened that I didn’t expect—driving now terrified me. That ill-fated trip would be the last time I drove anywhere for the next year and a half. I stayed home and eventually became too afraid to leave. My world got smaller and smaller.
But then, the best possible thing happened: I became ill. Becoming ill meant I had to see a doctor. To see a doctor, I had to leave the house. My illness wasn’t easy to diagnose. Over the course of several months, I went to see many doctors and was sent to different hospitals. Leaving the house became easier each time, and soon it was no longer an issue. But I still couldn’t drive. My father drove me everywhere. Eventually, he realized he was only enabling me, and he knew he had to stop. One day, he said, “You need to get in your car and go for a drive. I can’t drive you everywhere anymore.”
Just the thought of driving the car caused me to have a panic attack. I said to my father, “I can’t. I’m not ready.”
“I don’t know how to help you get over this,” he said. “You need to find someone who can help you. The only thing I can do to help is to stop being your chauffeur.”
I would do anything to please my father, so after I sulked for a while, I began looking through the Yellow Pages for help. This was during the early days of the Internet, so doing a Google search on phobia clinics wasn’t possible. It took weeks to contact all the doctors, hospitals and clinics in the area that specialized in the treatment of anxiety and phobias, and to receive and read all the information they sent. I chose the White Plains Hospital because it was the closest, and their treatment program was the most comprehensive. My treatment started with a phone consultation. At the end of it, the doctor said, “We have a self-help group that meets once a week. I think you should start coming to that and then…”
“Whoa!” I said abruptly. “The only way I can get to those meetings is to drive there. I can’t do that. If I could drive to White Plains, I wouldn’t need your help.” I thanked the doctor for his time and hung up.
When I told my father what happened, he stood up, reached into his pocket, and pulled out his keys. “Here,” he said. “Go for a drive.”
“You can. Just go up and down the driveway. And when you can do that, drive to High Street and back.” High Street was only two houses away. I could read the street sign from the living room window. “When you can do that,” he continued, “drive to the end of the road and back. Then drive around the block. After that, go to the library, the corner store, or the post office.” Each location was no more than a three-minute drive from home. But then his plan got a lot scarier. “Each day, drive a little bit farther. When you can get to the grocery store, you can get on the highway. It’s only a five-minute drive to the first exit. Get off there and come home. Then try for the second exit. Keep working at it until you can drive to White Plains.”
With my mouth agape, I looked at my father in horror. I was certain he had gone stark raving mad. But within a few days, to please my father, I was driving up and down the driveway, to High Street and back, and to the end of the road. That was easy, but the rest took time. I drove a little bit farther every day, and it was scary. Four months later, I walked into the self-help group at The Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center at White Plains Hospital. My anxiety level was at a ten—the highest level possible—and it would remain there for many months. But I learned how to cope with the anxiety, and the panic attacks eventually dissipated. As I began to overcome my fear of driving, my world became much bigger, and I was much happier.
One day, I awoke early and decided to go for a drive. Three hours later, I called my father and said, “Guess where I am, Pop? I’m in Vermont!” It was a triumphant moment, but in no way did it mean I was cured.
Driving long distances to places I’ve never been before still causes me anxiety. I still use the coping mechanisms I learned so many years ago. They still work—and I can drive in spite of the anxiety.
From my father, I learned one of the greatest lessons of life: If you think you can’t, you can’t. But when you tell yourself you can, you can do anything you set your mind to.