Guest post by Devin.
About 40 million adults in the United States are affected by anxiety disorders. I’m one of them. I suffer from depression and anxiety, and personally, I feel my anxiety is more damaging. Anxiety can take many forms, but for me it flares up most when I am over-stimulated or doing something so far outside of my comfort zone that the potential benefits do not outweigh my fear. Usually, my anxiety is triggered the most when I have time to overthink.
If I can dive into something without thinking about it, I am fine. I have a pretty successful auto-pilot and a strong poker face, so I can handle most think-on-your-feet situations. But it drains me. I only have so much battery power. And social interactions and fear-conquering come at a high price for me.
In fact, I am still recharging from a recent battery-draining experience. As I write this, it has been 3 days since I started conquering a new fear.
When I was 11, I was in a pretty serious car accident. I won’t go into too many details, but there were few injuries and I am honestly lucky to still be alive. Since then, I have been terrified of cars. For a long time after the wreck, I would not allow whoever was driving to move the car until every single person had their seat belt on. When 15 came and I was able to get a permit and learn to drive, I avoided the topic like the plague. At 16, when most teens are eager to get in that instructor’s car, show off their skills, get that license, and drive their friends to every drive-thru in a 20 mile radius, I was making up every excuse I could to not get behind the wheel. And at 19, when my Papa offered to teach me one summer in the middle of Wyoming on a deserted highway, I tried. I did, and I almost hit someone.
Now, at 22, I have lots of opportunities to learn. I am sitting in my beautiful car, with my loving wife, Tiffani, at my side, ready to teach me, and a recently acquired permit in my pocket, and I can’t breathe. I feel the weight start to press into my chest before we even get to the empty parking lot of the nearby high school. The AC is blasting but I feel like I’m in a sauna. I am sweating, I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes and I am embarrassed.
We pull into the parking lot and she parks us at one end with nothing in front of me for 200 feet, only lamp posts on either side. I start to cry. The fear gets the better of me and once I’ve started, I can’t stop. I told her it would be like this, but I’m certain she didn’t realize how bad it was about to get.
The driving lesson with my Papa was much easier. I would go down a dirt road, turn around in a big parking lot and then drive back and turn around again on the highway. It was the same road my Nana, Mom, and uncle had all been taught on and I wanted to carry on the tradition. But once I almost slammed the front of his van into another person’s headlights, I decided it just wasn’t for me.
Maybe that experience heightened my fear this time. Because this time was bad.
Still in the passenger seat, I’m crying and starting to hyperventilate. Hyperventilating, for me, is like hiccups. If you catch them early, you can get them to go away. If not, you’re stuck with them until they decide to leave. Luckily I caught it. I regained my breathing and took it slow.
I even got some words out. I told her I know it’s stupid. I know my fear is irrational and there isn’t even anyone to run into here. The only thing I might hit would be the light poles, and they were far enough away that I’d really have to be doing something wrong to make that happen.
I started to breathe normally. I decided it was now or never. Tiffani and I switched sides. I reassured myself that I would just be getting comfortable and adjusting the seat and the mirrors. No need to commit to driving just yet.
I got into the car on the foreign side and immediately felt the pressure on my chest returning. The constricting of my airways and the welling of tears were almost instantaneous. I tried to hold it back as long as I could, putting my seat belt on and adjusting my seat, but as soon as my hand touched the steering wheel, it was over.
I felt the tears go from warm to cold on my cheek. Tiffani reassured me that everything was okay. She told me she would be happy if I even went 3 feet. It eased my mind a tiny bit to know she understood how much this was taking out of me. Again, my lungs betrayed me and I started breathing shallow, panicking and clutching my chest. This cycle of hyperventilating and crying and then deep, mindful breathing and sweet words from my wife went on for about 20 minutes.
Finally, I calmed down enough to ask some questions. I asked how to align the car with the road properly and what I should be seeing in my mirrors. Then I asked if making it across the parking lot would be enough for the day. Tiffani told me “of course” and that she was really proud of me. That gave me enough courage and will to put my foot on the brake, put the car into drive, and inch my way across the parking lot at about 5 miles an hour.
I made it! I hadn’t crashed into any light poles or hit any kids. And I could feel the shift. I know the next time I go to drive, it won’t be so hard. I know everything will be okay, in more than just a logical sense. I feel it.
This is what Tiffani does for me. She makes things calmer. She knows that sometimes I just need to bury myself in bed with her and some reruns of Friends (which is exactly what we did that night). When my symptoms aren’t so obvious; when my anxiety rears its ugly head as a sudden mood swing, she never gets mad. She just lets me be pissed at inanimate objects, and accepts my apology when I realize what is happening. She holds my hand tighter when the grocery store is too full of people and they don’t know how to drive the damn cart. She grounds me.
I have always been a very independent person. I hate gender roles and social expectations of women. I have ambitions and dreams. I open the door for myself. If I didn’t have Tiffany, I’m sure I would find a way to calm myself down. But without her, my anxiety would take over for longer. My world would have sharper corners.
My wife makes things lovelier. She takes my mind away from immediate triggers, and she is so very understanding.
I honestly don’t know how I got so damn lucky.