I never used to be afraid of heights, but as I got to around 30, I started feeling disoriented when up high. Not spinning dizzy like true vertigo, but unstable and with the overwhelming certainty that I would fall. For a person who used to crawl around amongst the lights high above the theater stage, and shoot video from ladders and often-rickety press boxes, this was disturbing.
Nowhere else in my daily life does this impact me more than when I have to drive across a bridge. Most bridges terrify me. I am not talking about butterflies in the stomach. I am talking about my heart pounding so hard I can hear the blood in my ears, my throat so constricted I can’t swallow while feeling like I’m going to throw up, hyperventilating or forgetting to breathe at all, and my thighs shaking like I’m freezing while my face is burning red hot—all at the same time. The anxiety over crossing the bridge is amplified by my body’s out-of-control betrayal.
So, yeah, it’s a problem.
The disorientation is worst at night. When I am out on the bridge, I simply get lost in space. Although my logic knows that if I keep straight in the lane, I will safely cross the bridge, I get a physical sensation as if something is pulling me toward the edge. I irrationally fear that someday my brain will “give in” to this imagined pull and I will allow myself to steer over the edge. Again, my logic knows I will not (since I am fully aware of what is happening), but this irrationality is part of the panic response.
The other day I had to come home from Delaware at night, and I had to cross a bridge. I knew the fear was getting the better of me when I actually considered driving an hour out of my way to take a route that would cross a bridge that did not scare me. I convinced myself that 5 minutes of terror was smarter than an extra hour of driving. So I crossed that bridge when I came to it.
I have several methods of forcing myself across a bridge. If the fear isn’t too bad, I sing. The music is relaxing, and it forces me to regulate my breath, thus avoiding hyperventilation. When the panic is at its height, my brain goes deathly silent and I cannot bring any songs to mind. Then I talk my way over the bridge. Another mechanism is putting the sun visor down (even at night) because cutting off parts of my peripheral vision seems to lessen the disorientation. A third coping skill is “hooking,” where I “hook” the tires closest to the center of the bridge over the dotted white line. Yes, this does put me a little in the other lane, but it somehow decreases that physical feeling of being pulled toward the outer edge of the bridge. I only do it when I think it will not impede traffic—or when the panic is so bad I have to use everything.
This night I couldn’t find any music in my head (“Danny Boy” had gotten me across going down to Delaware earlier). I put down the sun visor, white-knuckled the steering wheel, managed to find a tar strip down the center of the lane closest to the middle of the bridge to “hook”, and talked myself across: “You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.” Over and over.
And then I was across.
The reason for this long tale? Because we all have bridges to cross in life, and many times it’s scary. Even when what’s on the other side is a goal we have worked toward, a life we have dreamed of, or a person we love, crossing that bridge can seem a terrifying task. We fear the disorientation, the possibility of crashing off the edge before we reach the other side. But if we really want what’s waiting for us on the other side, we have to find a way to cross.
Today, on Thanksgiving, I want to thank all the people in my life—colleagues, friends, and family—who have helped me cross myriad bridges, both real and metaphorical. I would not be where I am without each and every one of you, and I am grateful.
If you’re facing a bridge you’re afraid to cross, remember: What’s on the other side is worth the fear. You can do it.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.