My Way or the Highway: the Work on the Road

Highway to Hell or Road to Recovery?


Have I mentioned that I am afraid of driving on highways? As in, heart-pounding, adrenaline-rushing, sweaty-handed death grip on the steering wheel afraid.  Controlled-access highways are especially terror-inducing.  Anywhere, for that matter, where it feels as though there is no means to escape, nowhere to safely pull over and breathe. Highways with box barriers and little or no shoulder. Roadways closely-edged  by rising walls of rock or sharp fall-aways to water below.  Bridges are especially brutal.  And those steep uphills where there is no way to see what monster vehicle may be barrelling over the crest of the hill toward me, roaring down the centre of the road, leaving me no time to react and no safe place to turn.

I call this phenomenon “I am Deathly Afraid of Highways”, and I have been repeating the mantra for years, to myself and to anyone who will listen. To my kids I am Mom who is Afraid of Highways. This fear obviously hems me in from time to time. I know that I must work – well, drive – my way through it, one small trip at a time.

To this end, I agreed to make the one-hour drive north to a friend`s cottage, a trip that I would normally bend myself into a pretzel to avoid. The first section is a two-lane highway, a relatively forgiving drive by my standards, albeit there are plenty of Scary Things, including one s-curve in particular that makes my heart drop into my shoes.  The second half of the drive is a winding one lane route through the rocks and pine of Muskoka. A very picturesque drive indeed, if you can make any room for that beauty in a mind seized by terror. 

…there is a massive rockface ahead on the right, no shoulder to speak of, a box beam on the other side of the road, with a steep drop-off to a lake below. My palms sweat, searing adrenalines rips down both arms leaving me icy and shaking in its wake. Panic clenches my chest, tightens my shoulders, pulling me forward until I’m hunched right over the steering wheel. My heart beats so hard and fast I can hear it.

I hadn’t actually gotten out of bed yet when I was gripped by this experience. I saw the highway with absolute clarity, the attendant emotions and physical sensations utterly real. At the time, I was propped on a pillow, trying to read a book, but this movie was playing so huge in my mind that I could not focus on the words.

But I caught it. I caught it and trapped it on paper where I could examine what was going on.

I shouldn’t drive today. I am afraid to drive today. I am not capable of driving today. If I don’t drive I would be able to relax.

I stopped writing and looked at the words. Really? Is that true?

I examined the feelings that went along with the scene.  Panic.  Terror. Tightness in the chest. Tension in the shoulders. Clenching in the gut.  The response is instantaneous, so familiar, like a well-worn glove that I haven’t figured out doesn’t actually fit.

And then this: Who would you be without that thought, this idea that you are  afraid? I sit and sit and sit in this question. I have learned this much, not to let my mind fool me, by allowing the words to come too fast, words like I would feel free, peaceful, easy…. No problem, my mind says, reeling the words off like lithium pills. Meanwhile my body will have none of it, still locked on its precious images, still screaming, No way, Not having it! I am not a fool. I know my truth! You will lure me out on the highway again with all your lies and bravado and then I will just freak out.

No. I have to drive that highway in my mind for several minutes, with that question in the passenger seat. Who would you be without the thought ‘I am afraid’? I have to give this question time enough for my body to believe it,  time enough to take in the scene, the scene where I am still driving but I am not telling myself the Story of Terror, time enough to ease into role of driver, with all of my faculties operating, to roll around in it and let it be real, before the fear will really let go.  The mind is sharp and agile, but the body won’t lie. The body won`t be fooled, and if I give it enough time and space to breathe, really breathe, the thought I am afraid will finally slink away and leave room for something else 

I sit still, allowing the scene to play out, the feelings to wash over me. The tension of a few moments ago lets go like a tightly held fist opening. My shoulders relax. I sit straighter. Then the words come and they are true. Calm. Happy. At peace. Relaxed. Enjoying the scenery. Loose. Confident. That is who I would be without that scary thought.

And the turnarounds follow:

I should drive today. My thinking should not drive today. I am capable of driving today. Driving today will allow me to relax… And with each of these radical new thoughts, there comes a ream of new proofs.

I should drive today because then I won`t be gripping the passenger door in terror when my husband drives too fast. I will be in control and I can control the speed. I should drive today because I have done it in the past and I can do it again. I have already proven myself capable. I should drive today because it is a step in the right direction to build my confidence. It is exactly the right highway, the right weather and traffic conditions. I should drive today, because it is the best arrangement for the family if I do. Because it would just be such a pleasure to drive, for once, with an easy grasp on the wheel and my heart open, because the old way is so exhausting. These are all excellent reasons.  It is not hard to make the next leap. Aren`t you looking forward to enjoying this beautiful drive?  

I look forward to driving today. I am willing to drive on the highway today. Damn, I am excited to drive on the highway today, to meet this test, to show ‘em damn it, that I can do it. Not sure who ‘em are – my husband, my kids, myself above all. My thoughts?

I walk around the block repeating these reasons, sinking back into the scene to restore my new reality any time the words  begin to feel meaningless or feel like blind repetition.  I tell myself over and over: I look forward to driving on the highway today noticing when I mean it or not.

My reaction on the highway is measured. Sure, my palms get a bit sweaty, but there are no adrenaline rushes, no feelings of panic. When I catch my mind wandering ahead to the anticipated scary places, I pull my attention back to the road right in front of me. I am willing to drive on this stretch of highway, right here, right now. And I seal it with a smile. Miraculously, it works. The scary place never comes.

Eventually, I drive myself into relaxation, my mind stops wandering ahead and starts wandering away instead. I even drive with one hand on the wheel a few times. Rock faces. Box barriers. Lakes.  I get drawn into a game of Alphabet with the kids. What I see is the staggering beauty of the Haliburton Highlands, endlessly green, dotted with pristine glacial lakes. Stunning. Imagine!

And the S curve I remembered as being terrifying ? Piece of cake. I even pass two massive dump-trucks with a box beam right beside me. This is no small thing.

Is this the end of it? No. Not a chance. I know that I will have to repeat this exercise time and again. I have bigger highways to conquer, with more traffic. Highway 400 to Toronto. US Interstates. Longer trips.  I may even go backwards sometimes. Who knows? All I know is this: I am willing to drive on the highway.  And, I can either let my thoughts lead me along a road through hell or I can stop, breathe and figure out a better way.  Can’t wait for the next instalment. I`ll keep you posted.

This post is based on the Work of Byron Katie.