A tale of anxiety run rampant: such was my lot about 20 years ago; luckily, as this fictionalized account implies, it eventually ran its course entirely. (Okay, almost entirely. I still prefer to avoid scarily high bridges.)
Yes, this was an excellent idea, I say to Melissa for the tenth time. My daughter, the university student, grins her perfect teeth at me. We are driving toward the Collins bridge and four days of freedom: a country bed-and-breakfast an hour away.
I feel so close to her right now. We’re like sisters. No, twins, almost. We’re right out of a textbook: single mothers often develop an extraordinary kinship with their daughters, say the experts. That isn’t the best thing, Melissa keeps telling me. She says she’d rather be treated like a daughter sometimes, not a friend; she’d just as soon be spared my confidences and insecurities. In theory, I agree with her. I even caution against this parenting pitfall in the family-advice booklet I wrote. Hey, I’ve told her, just because I can’t always follow my own suggestions, doesn’t lessen their validity.
Look, we’re already at the bridge. Great not having to pay a toll like in the old days. Thank God I don’t have my bridge phobia anymore. If I did, though, Melissa could have driven us across. I guess I’ll be okay on the highway. I hope I’ll be okay on the highway. I do feel a bit nervous, actually. Look how tight my hands are on the steering wheel. If I freak out, she can take over. Like that time we went up north, to the camp. But I don’t want a repeat of that. Made me feel like such a wimp. A failure in her eyes. Got to be competent. Got to be strong. What’s that? She’s telling me to look at the horses out there. Well, I can’t look right now… I’ll take her word for it.
Turn off at Exit 6, they said. What exit is this, coming up? Forty-four?! This is going to take a lot longer than I thought. Now my stomach’s in a knot. And my shoulders feel so tense. Oh no, not again! I know these feelings. I was hoping I’d gotten over this. The bridge thing was bad enough, but my highway phobia was even worse. A bridge takes only – what, a minute? – to get across. But driving on a freeway can take a lot longer – depending on your destination, of course.
What’s wrong with me? Why should I be so uptight! I’ve studied my anxiety; I’ve learned how it grows. It starts from a spark of nervousness, then escalates through rigid tension, right up there to quivering, raw panic. It’s totally irrational, I know, but still…
What do I have to be nervous about? I’m heading for four days of blissful relaxation in the country, for an unofficial writing retreat with my beloved daughter. Okay: our destination is unfamiliar territory – I might get lost. Our hosts are unknown quantities – I might be disliked. But these fears are absurd. So what if we do get lost? We can always call them from somewhere and “get found.” As for their not liking me – well, both husband and wife sounded very warm and friendly on the phone when I made our reservation. It’s highly improbable that they’ll suddenly decide I’m a bad person. And even if they do, I –
Whoa! What the hell was that! A huge mother of a truck just passed me, WHOOSH! So close. So big. So loud. So fast. My heart, my heart… I… I don’t want to drive anymore. Ask Melissa to drive. That’s all I have to do.
No! She’ll be disappointed in me. I was supposed to have licked this phobia thing. She’ll just tell me I have no reason to be nervous. Of course she’s right. She usually is. A lot like her father that way… She will not be sympathetic if I tell her I’m worried about how I’m going to manage with practically no cigarettes for four days. Okay, slight exaggeration, but really, having to go outside every time I want a – oooh – dizzy… all of a sudden… Wow, I’ve sure got a death grip on this steering wheel. Maybe I’ll try that “paced breathing” and see if it works. One… two… three… four… This is not helping. Look at that. Exit 36. This is going to take forever! Maybe… maybe I’ll just tell her how I feel. Never mind if she’s sympathetic or not; sometimes just talking about my anxiety helps to lessen it.
There! I told her. Of course, she’s giving me the usual blah blah blah everything’s going to be fine nothing to be nervous about et cetera ad nauseam. She actually sounds disgusted with me already! And I haven’t even asked her to drive yet. God, is a little sympathy too much too ask! Well, I’ll say one thing: as long as she keeps talking, I feel a little less clenched, and my breathing eases a tiny bit. This hyperventilation is terrible. I feel like such a nut, panicked about nothing at all, nothing real, that is.
The radio hasn’t helped. The classical music is like aural mush… my racing mind can’t focus on anything. The other stations, forget it – slices of loud rock, moronic commercials… Oh, great, now she’s telling me to talk to her. How the hell can I talk, when I can hardly breathe. My chest feels like a bear’s sitting on it. Okay-y-y, now there’re black specks floating before my eyes, time for Melissa to drive oh yes!
What does she mean, oh no?! Wonderful, she wants to play therapist, says I have to get through this. Hah! I’ll show her “through.” How about “through” that telephone pole over there! Mel, I can’t breathe! Wha… what? Well, true, I guess she’s right, if I created this panic in the first place, I can un-create it. Sounds really good, actually… I half-believe it’s possible.
Look at that idiot in my rear-view mirror. God, I hate aggressive truckers. Go ahead, pass me!
Why don’t you pass me, look, nobody’s com– whoa – there he goes, but so close! There goes my breathing again. Oh-h-h Mel please please you drive I can’t do this Mel I can’t I can’t I can’t Mel it’s only exit 29 and I just can’t drive anymore you have to please please please wha… wha… what? Slow… deep… breaths? Okay… I’ll try…
That’s a bit better. She really thinks I can do this, apparently. So cruel, but maybe so right… I don’t know… I keep looking over at the inviting shoulder of the road up ahead. If only… What? Oh, okay, okay, I’ll talk. Hmm, I guess I’ll just be honest and blurt out what I really think. No no no, I can’t tell her that. I can’t say I’m afraid she must love me less when I’m a wreck like this. She’ll think I’m crazy for sure. I know! I’ll say it as a joke, as in: Well, I guess you don’t love me any less just because I’m screwed up, ha, ha. There. Of course, she says Don’t be silly, Ma.
Oh, for Pete’s sake, where are these tears coming from? Just great, now my nose is going to get all red, and when we get to the bed-and-breakfast they’ll think I’m an alcoholic! No, I’ll tell them to just call me Rudoph.
Hey, what was that sign? Exit 17?! Maybe I’ll make it! I don’t know. I think I’ll be okay once we get off this damn highway. Actually I’m breathing more easily already; knowing that we’re getting closer to the end of this road is helping. Should I tell Melissa I feel better? Why not. Because I don’t want her to think that I’m perfectly all right, that’s why not. What the heck, I’ll tell her.
Great, now she wants to know why I feel better. I’ll have to think on this for a while. Let’s see. Was it the deep breathing? Somewhat. Was it the fact that we passed Exit 17, and then I knew we were a lot closer to – hey! There goes Exit 10 already! We’re almost at the turn-off. This is great – I’m feeling much less uptight now. Why is that, Melissa wants to know. Okay. I think I know. It was something in our conversation. It was when she said that of course she still loves me even though I’m screwed up. Okay, I’ll tell her this.
Now she’s asking, Didn’t I already know that?! Oh brother. Didn’t I already… No! I did not. How could that be, she wonders. She looks over at me, innocent, bewildered. You love me with all my moods, she says. Ah, I say, that’s different. Mothers are supposed to love their daughters. But – nowhere is it written that daughters have to love their mothers. Especially mothers who are so fallible.
Oh, she’s giving me that “look,” as in “oh Ma you crazy ol’ thing you,” and somehow this makes my eyes all leaky again so naturally I don’t see the yellow sign with the blurry number 6 on it until it is almost too late – but I make it! I make it. I make it.