Monday, February 08, 2010

I Can't Fight this Feeling

Traffic this morning was not fun. Lately, it’s been my “alone” time. Stolen moments to myself when I can crank up the radio and sing as loud as I want or talk to a friend on my Bluetooth without little ears to overhear and big mouths to interrupt. Today, the sign above the highway indicated my normal nine-minute-drive would take twenty-five. In reality, it took more than forty-five minutes, hindered by snow, poorly plowed roads, and busses moving on and off the shoulder.

The bridge over the river is an obstacle I endure daily. Since the 35W bridge collapse in 2007, I approach it wearily on most days, but I’m more apprehensive if traffic is backed up and I can see brake lights. My anxiety is worse yet if there is snow on the road. In my mind, the extra weight of the snow, combined with hundreds of vehicles idling while waiting to cross the bridge is the recipe for a disastrous repeat. On days I feel the trepidation rising, I try to distract myself with a phone call to my mom, a blast from the radio, a loud, off-key show tune…anything to get my mind off the stretch of bridge ahead of me. Other days, the uneasiness I feel turns into a full-blown panic attack.

Today was not a good day.

I was concentrating on the snowfall and keeping my windshield clear. The car behind me was intermittently flashing his brights at people who dared to come between us as he attempted to keep five or six car lengths between himself and the car in front of him. A bus on the shoulder was impeding traffic trying to merge onto the highway. I was listening to songs from Glee, wondering how in the world I’m going to make it until the show comes back on the air in April. My subconscious, though, knew the bridge was looming ahead.

My hands gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white and I suddenly found myself unable to breathe. My chest tightened as I forced air in and out of my lungs, cursing when I discovered I had already passed the last exit before the bridge. I have a friend that lives nearby and I knew she would understand and let me hang out for a little while if I showed up on her doorstep, too afraid to cross the bridge.

The tears came then, stinging my eyes and choking me as my breath came in short bursts, accompanied by frantic sobs that sounded foreign to my ears. I wanted to turn up the radio to drown out my hysteria, but that would mean letting go of the steering wheel, which I held in a vice grip. In the center lane, I concentrated on the car in front of me. A cement truck pulled up along side my small sedan. Too heavy! That truck is too heavy! Get off the bridge! My mind screamed. I squeezed my eyes closed for a second, forcing myself to open them again and focus on the road directly ahead.

Images and thoughts filled my head and I wondered, for the millionth time, why I hadn’t invested in one of those tools that can slash though a seatbelt and break the car window in the event of an emergency. I had a plan, though. I’ve had it in the back of my mind for the last two and a half years. If the bridge started to crumble, I would throw on my emergency brake and open my power windows before the car started to fall so I could climb out before I hit the water below. I ignored the voice in my head telling me it was too cold…the river was mostly ice…there’s no way I would make it.

I stared out my windshield at the sea of brake lights creeping over the pavement, silently willing the cars blocking my escape to move out of the way. Okay, my pleas were not so silent. In reality, I screamed at them, my sobs making the appeals almost unrecognizable. GO!

After several minutes a few hours an eternity, I finally made it to the other side of the bridge. I contemplated taking the first exit to sit in the parking lot of a deserted gas station and cry for a while, but I was already flirting with being late to work. Instead, I loosened my grip on the steering wheel, and rolled my shoulders a couple of times. My entire body ached with tension. The crying continued sporadically until I reached my office building. In the parking lot, a woman I didn’t know grinned and greeted me with a comment about our everlasting winter. I offered her a weak smile, but couldn’t come up with a response. Shaking legs carried me into the building, where I stared at my reflection in the mirrored wall of the elevator. I looked tired. A little pale, but the image starting back at me certainly didn’t echo the anguish I’d endured this morning.

Crossing the bridge brings me a panic attack a couple of times a month. I never know when they’ll strike. While they’re more likely to happen when the weather (and therefore traffic) is bad, they can hit on a clear day when traffic is moving quickly, too. In May, I’m starting a new position at one of our locations less than four miles from my house. No highway. No river. No bridge.

Only seventy days left. And one hundred and forty more chances for absolute, uncontrollable panic.

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