The panic attacks have returned. I’d not undergone one in more than a year, and last week they resurfaced with a vengeance. I get them while driving, generally on high-speed freeways, and they positively kill me when I have to go over a long bridge.
Panic attacks are terrifying. They constrict my throat and somehow affect my gut. I have to loosen my belt. My breath comes ragged and my visions blurs. I sweat cold. I know suspension_bridge_4without a doubt that I will somehow cause the car I’m driving to swerve into oncoming traffic or over the guardrail and into the water. I grip the car’s steering wheel so hard my fingers hurt. In fact, I once clutched the wheel so tightly that my fingernails cut into my palms.
The apogee of a bridge is the scariest. I utter foxhole prayers, plead for help, and would possibly trade my soul for safe passage.
I have been told the panic can be caused by losing sight of the horizon, but gephyrophobia—the fear’s official name—can also stem from a bad bridge or tunnel experience. I don’t know where mine comes from, why it lays dormant for years, or why it reappears. Stress has something to do it, I was told, as does depression.
Last week when planning an overnight trip, I realized that I’d have to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to reach my destination. The Bay Bridge is almost seven kilometers long and has earned the nickname of America’s Scariest Bridge. I have never been able to drive it while sober. The last time I crossed it was several years ago when a friend and I were going to the beach. After we’d paid the toll, I pulled off to the side of the road and asked that she take over the driving. She did, and I sat in the passenger seat starring at the floor mats as my heart tried to pound itself out of my chest.
This year, I made a long detour to avoid the Bay Bridge, but on two occasions still found myself terrified as I crossed lesser bridges to get where I needed to go.
Perhaps the worst aspect of panic attacks is that they rewrite the future. For example, after I get where I’m going, during my stay I will obsess over the fact that the return trip will necessitate crossing bridges. This has a tendency to put a damper on the moment at hand. By the time I’m driving home, I will have worked myself into a state of self-feeding panic knowing bridges are forthcoming.
Today as I was driving on Interstate 95, a bridge snuck up on me. I saw it a few hundred yards ahead and had no time to prepare, though truth to tell, there is no preparation I know of that works. The bridge—it was actually a long, curved overpass—soared before me, rising higher and higher until it crested and the horizon was visible again. I realized I’d been holding my breath the entire time, almost a full minute-and-a-half. I didn’t know I could do that.
I have tried several medications to stem the terror. The ones that worked left me feeling groggy for an entire day. I refuse to take any med that is potentially addictive. The best remedy, so far, is to be driving with a passenger who can talk me down, but this is not always an option.
A physician recently told me there are new drugs on the market. One of these is MDMA, also known as ecstasy. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that. Come to think of it, I know that I am not.
Come Monday, I’ll explore other options.

About epiphanettes

Writer, songcrafter, possibly the best French pedal steel guitarist in Virginia.
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