Image by Jenn Rhubright
If I’d been able to Google it twenty years ago, I would have breathed more easily to know that my malady was real, an identifiable condition. And that I wasn’t alone. Instead, I sheltered my secret in shame, like a drinking problem or a shoplifting mania.
The first episode burst on me like a sudden squall when I was crossing the Coronado Bay Bridge, the span of speed and efficiency that replaced the ferries that used to connect San Diego with Coronado Island. As I drove onto the bridge, I felt a sudden anxiety, growing to panic proportions as I ascended toward the looming mid-point. It was as if there were hands on the steering wheel covering my own, an evil entity who wanted to take the car over the side. I clenched the wheel in a vise-like grip to keep from making a sharp turn to the right, through the restraining wall and into the dark swishing water below. I was sweaty and clammy. Dizzy, hyperventilating. I braked in abrupt jerks. I slowed to about thirty miles an hour; cars veered around me, horns blasting. I couldn’t look beyond my moving cage and its boundaries—the white line on my left, the barrier on my right, the cars directly in front of and behind me.
When I saw the tollgate on the other side, the dam burst inside me; I dissolved into a quivering mass of gasping, shaking, sobbing. I pulled off to the shoulder as soon as I could and turned off the motor. I opened the windows and gulped fresh air until I felt able to continue to the Hotel Del Coronado, where I was attending a conference. The rest of the day was a blur, blotted out by repeating /images of that scary voyage, like a bad dream that haunted me. What happened? Was it a fluke? Was something wrong with me? Would it happen again? How would I get back across the bridge?
It has a name—hodophobia. From the Greek “hodos,” meaning “path,” and “phobos,” fear. The label is applied broadly to fear of travel, including flying, but it more specifically relates to road travel. These panic attacks aren’t restricted to bridges: they can be triggered by driving on highways, turning or changing lanes, in traffic or bad weather, over long distances and at high speeds. Mine were the textbook symptoms of a not very remarkable anxiety disorder, but I didn’t know it at the time.
I couldn’t shake the after-shocks and drove under a menacing cloud. I was able to avoid the bridge, but then on a drive down from Los Angeles with a friend, I seized up on the freeway. The same symptoms, not quite as intense as on the bridge, but with the addition of hazy vision—as if a semi-transparent dirty curtain was hanging across the windshield—and a stale, moldy smell. I still wasn’t ready to tell anyone—I said I was feeling a little woozy, maybe feverish, and my friend took the wheel for the rest of the trip. After that I could drive only in the right-hand lane, embracing the shoulder and inching along at perilously slow speeds. My reflexes were shaky, and I knew I was a hazard on the highway, making the imagined risk real, a self-fulfilling prophecy. I learned to get around the entire city of San Diego on surface streets, but the more I shunned the freeways, the more alarming they became.
I didn’t know which I feared more, a brain tumor or losing my mind. I was convinced there was something gravely wrong with me. My primary physician dismissed the former and referred me for a psychiatric examination; the screening consultant diagnosed an anxiety disorder and sent me to a therapist.
Therapy was illuminating at first. I was able to voice my anxiety about the stress I was under—I was preparing to give up a settled and secure life and satisfying work to live outside the country for the better part of a year, during which time I would be, virtually, in physical, emotional and financial dependence on another person. It was a fantastic opportunity but a threat to my risk-averse comfort zone and my zealous independence. The therapist identified my need to have everything under my control as typical of an ACA—adult child of an alcoholic. Well, I thought, maybe so, but so what, and then what? I was no closer to getting back behind the wheel with confidence, the insurance co-pays for my therapy were running out, and my departure was approaching.
I learned over time that I was in good company with an elite club of fellow-sufferers, writers whose frank admissions, vivid recollections and dramatic descriptions comforted me and validated my experience. In “The White Album,” Joan Didion drives from her home in the Sacramento Valley to see and report on the student revolutions in Berkeley and San Francisco. The Bay Bridge stood in her path, cold menacing steel. She grits her teeth and inches across. Some years later she told an interviewer that she no longer drives across bridges and only when necessary on freeways. Not one to let an experience go to waste, Didion has captured those feelings of terror in her writing, in the way that Virginia Woolf admonishes herself to observe her own despondency: “By that means it becomes serviceable.”
In Home Before Dark, a biography of her father, Susan Cheever tells of John Cheever’s suffocating fear of driving on bridges. He would be so shaken after an incident that he couldn’t raise a glass to his mouth for hours. She tells of being alone in the car with her father as a child when they crossed a bridge. She noticed the car’s jerking, her father’s foot shaking against the gas pedal, the stress on his face and in his breathing. He said, “Talk to me, about anything,” so she chattered about a book she was reading until they reached the end of the bridge. Cheever translated it to a short story, “The Angel of the Bridge,” in which the narrator has to pull off to the side while crossing a bridge to get his breath and nerves under control. A young woman hops into the car, a hitchhiker who thinks he’s stopped to pick her up. She’s a folk musician and sings him across the span while he enjoys a dream-like euphoria and basks in the beauty and durability of the bridge, the tranquil waters of the Hudson River below.
I spent most of my time abroad in a one-church, one-pub village in England’s West Country, where in addition to driving on the wrong side of the road, they careen down narrow country lanes and roar along at whiplash speeds on the motorways. I wasn’t willing to deny myself the second-hand book shops with their dusty finds, like Virginia Woolf first editions, afternoon teas with scones and clotted cream, the sculpted estate gardens and the craggy wildness of the Devon countryside. I would climb into my flimsy little Fiat and drive—nervously, cautiously, slowly—from village to village and around the moors, avoiding the maniacal motorways and the “B” roads, the more treacherous by-ways.
I returned home eight months later with my millstone still tightly shackled to my limbs but with steely determination. I had spent much of my time away planning my future, and there was no room in it for perverse fears that would hinder my mobility. One day I left home for a lunch date in a neighborhood most easily accessed by freeway. I started to take a roundabout route, but with mind over matter as my trusty weapon of choice, I entered the freeway onramp and stepped on the gas. I opened the window and took deep breaths, sucking in as much oxygen as I could and whooshing it out in exaggerated bursts. Breathe, breathe, I said aloud; focus, relax; relax, focus; keep breathing, keep moving—my mantra until I reached my exit. My neck and shoulders ached with tension, my palms and forehead were soaked, but I’d rejoined life as we know it in Southern California—life on the freeway.
Over time it became easier, and a kind of normalcy was restored, though I stayed off bridges. By then I had confided in a few friends, even then downplaying the severity; I tried to put it out of my mind as much as possible, but it still lurked, wraithlike, and would jump out and say “boo” when I wasn’t expecting it. We all live with our ghosts, I figured.
For Ruth Reichl, as for Didion, it was the Bay Bridge looming between her home in Berkeley and engagements in San Francisco. In her memoir she tells how she would resort to public transportation, however inconvenient, or cajole friends into driving her (without divulging her secret). The gravity of her situation reached epic proportions when, as an up-and-coming food writer, she almost passed up an opportunity to meet James Beard because she couldn’t cross the bridge.
In Literacy and Longing in L.A., a quintessential “beach read” by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, we meet Dora, a freelance journalist who has been terrified of driving on Los Angeles freeways since the time she stalled in the fast lane of the Santa Monica freeway. She too learns to negotiate the city without getting on the freeway, willing to spend extra hours doing so, until an out-of-town assignment makes it unavoidable. She takes her place in the twelve lanes of thundering metal on the I-10 but likens her silent hysteria to Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.”
Anne Lamott makes the fear vivid by virtue of its absence, recognizing it as common enough to resonate with readers. The narrator of All New People describes her mother’s bizarre phobias—revolving doors and houseplants—noting that driving across the Golden Gate Bridge was not one of them.
We all know people with phobias—they plague millions of people in the U.S. alone. A mix of heredity, genetics and brain chemistry combined with life experiences, hundreds of different phobias have been identified and classified. In one online listing there are upwards of 40 H’s alone, including my hodophobia, which is not to be confused with hobophobia, fear of bums or beggars, hydrophobia, fear of rabies or water, or homophobia, fear of homosexuality. There is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, a fear of long words, and hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, fear of the number 666. Something for everyone.
Phobias are treated with all sorts of remedies—hypnotherapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, and exposure therapy (“just do it”). Energy psychology includes acupressure, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. Tapping, or Emotional Freedom Technique, is an acupressure method that uses meridian energy points across the body to release past emotional trauma. And there are homeopathic remedies, aromatherapy, vitamins and herbs.
Whether good news or a dubious downside, treating phobias is big business, the entrepreneurial spirit in action. If a condition exists, someone will find or fashion tools and techniques to fix it. I searched the web and found driving-fear.com and drivingfear.com (note the differentiating hyphen), fearlessdriving.com, fearofbridges.com, phobia-fear-release.com. There’s a six-step self-hypnosis program ($6 PDF, $20 book); an NLP program with an 85% cure rate ($37 plus a bonus book); an energy therapy program, marked down from $99.90 to $67; a program with no description but with a money-back guarantee ($67 standard, $87 premium). The do-it-yourself remedies on sites like ehow.com (“how to do just about everything”), include positive thinking, deep breathing, distraction (singing or recitation), talking about it.
I didn’t have much interest or hold out hope for a hyped cure—I was satisfied with my limited success; my condition was manageable. But when I was presented with an opportunity to experience tapping, I was intrigued. Audrey, a colleague, said she was freed from excessive cravings for French fries by this method, and the practitioner, a psychotherapist and yoga instructor who happened to be her mother, said that it worked well with phobias and anxiety. I resolved to put aside my skepticism. We invited Nancy to our office, where she met individually with three of us. Sara was an intermittent smoker who wanted to give up the habit completely; Irene was a compulsive chocoholic and hoped to be able to enjoy chocolate without binging. Both claimed immediate and complete success when they put the method to the test.
I told my story to Nancy, and, with her coaxing, tried to recall and verbalize the panicky feelings evoked during my crises and to rate my fear on a scale of one to ten. Along with tapping on my arms, she instructed me to sing “Jingle Bells” aloud. Jingle Bells? I suppose it could be anything distracting. But I never gave it a chance—I couldn’t tap away my trepidation. This wasn’t something I could do in the comfort of my living room; I had to drive across a bridge.
A few years later I was having lunch one day near the Coronado Bridge. It beckoned from the restaurant window, it taunted me: Come on, are you going to be a coward forever? I said OK, what the hell. I got in the car and aimed for the bridge. As I approached, panic clutched my gut. How do you tap yourself when both hands are in a death grip on the steering wheel? How do you sing or play mental word games when you’re struggling to breathe? I drove past the bridge onramp. I reasoned that it was a beginning, but it was years before I ventured forth again.
I became friends with a woman who lives in Coronado. Our get-togethers on her side of the bridge are typically foursomes with our husbands, so I tolerate the crossings as a passenger, outwardly composed but still a trifle uneasy. When she and I meet, it’s on the San Diego side. I maintained this status quo until we had to have our house tented for termites, and Eva offered their guest room for the two nights we would be homeless. Their home is large and lovely, and they are gracious hosts. We are parsimonious. How could we refuse? But I would have to drive back and forth to work.
The first afternoon, driving from my office to their house, I chickened out. I drove to Imperial Beach, an extra twenty miles south (and an extra hour in rush-hour traffic), where I could access the Strand, a long narrow spit of land that joins the mainland to Coronado. It would be possible to take this route for the next two days, but I wanted to rise to the challenge. I had observed when in passenger mode that the bridge seems less threatening coming back across—the access is more gradual, not as steep or curving. So the next morning, without giving myself time to reflect, I took the plunge, figuratively of course. My panic came with me, a taunting ogre perched on my shoulder, but I was determined. Terrified but determined. Short of breath, shaking, gasping, sweating, my fingers cramped from clenching the wheel, I took charge. I drove across the bridge.
I did it, I did it, I said to myself, my heart racing and pounding in a kind of hysterical euphoria as I continued on to my office, where I was finally able to stop and reflect on my victory. My exhilaration remained with me throughout the day—I wonder if this how it feels like to wake up after surgery and be told you’re out of danger—I thought I was on my way to full recovery. As much of a struggle as it had been, I convinced myself that I had broken the barrier and that it would get continually easier.
My triumph was short-lived. That afternoon I was eager to prove myself again, this time almost cocky with confidence. But as I entered the span, the full trauma struck, and the fear took over. I lurched and swerved my way across like a drunken snail, and I was in tears when I got to the other side. I knew that I hadn’t conquered the beast, that it would always be hovering, laughing at me, grabbing at the wheel, and I didn’t have the energy to fight it. On the last morning, I drove back down the Strand.
Alice Lowe is a freelance writer in San Diego, California. Her creative nonfiction has appeared this year in Hobart, Eclectica, Foliate Oak and Writing It Real, where her entry won first prize in an essay contest. She has published essays and reviews on the life and work of Virginia Woolf, including the 2010 monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction;” Virginia Woolf has a way of popping up in her personal essays as well, including this one.
Read our interview with Alice here.