I clearly remember the first time that I got behind the steering wheel of a car. I felt two kinds of contrasting emotions stirring within me. I felt a sense of power and an incredibly debilitating sense of fear, at the thought of all that power. One wrong move and the car would crash and along with it, all my hopes of healthy living might crash too. Unfortunately, that day, I gave more attention to the second feeling, completely setting aside all other rational thoughts.
From that day on, every time I sat on the driver’s seat of a car, I let that hopeless feeling take control of me. The whole time, I was learning to drive, I would imagine me and my car in all kind of disaster scenarios. It was like watching a movie in my head, except it didn’t seem fictional. I was the hero of the movie and I was also the villain, as I crashed the car into some ditch or a tree or some other car and did nothing but destroy, just like any classic bad guy would do.
The big change
Then, I got married and came down to USA, a land where life threw me in front of my biggest challenge. There was no way out, and I had to drive here, especially if I didn’t want to be stuck in my home for the rest of my life. I had to get behind the wheels again, accompanied by all of my fears, fast-beating heart, panic attacks and so on and so forth.
Every night, I would think about various excuses, to use on my husband, as to why I couldn’t come out for driving practice the next day. I could pretend to be sick. I could just say that I’m extremely tired, from having spent the whole day at home. I could just tell him that I had to feel the urge to drive and I just wasn’t feeling it. The words stayed stuck in my throat. Even I knew that those excuses sounded hollow. Even I knew that I had to act grown up and just get through this challenge. But, I felt helpless in front of the non-stop disastrous thought patterns that my mind kept presenting. It took me ages to understand that what I had been experiencing all these years, right from my childhood had a name attached to it.
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as, ” An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” It sounds very simplistic when you put what you feel in a decided set of words. But words cannot do justice to what you feel, no matter how eloquently they are put together. You want to cry, but tears won’t form. You want to scream, but vocal cords stop working. You want to speak with someone about what you’re going through, but the words seem to kind of freeze in your throat. All you’re left with is this roaring sound in your head and the words, “I can’t do this!”
The days trudged by, and I did manage to somehow get my license to drive. All the days of practice with my husband, many driving school sessions and a couple of driver’s tests later, the miracle happened. I felt victorious when I held that license in my hand. I felt on top of the world, and then I made the mistake of looking down from that height. Reality hit me as I realized that as I was legally allowed to, I was actually expected to drive places, all by myself. And that’s when the panic button hit one more time. My husband tried his very best to motivate me, but the terror of it had paralyzed me …all over again.
A reason to move forward.
It took me two years to move forward, and the reason came in the form of my first bundle of joy, my little daughter and the lady who gave birth to me, my mom. My mom was the one who said, “I’ll take care of your little one, and you make sure that you can take care of her when I have to leave.” In retrospect, I guess that’s all I required to move myself to do something. I had to accept that if I wanted to be able to independently take care of my child here, I had to face my fear, no matter how strong the fear was and how weak I felt.
It started with little baby steps, small trips to the nearest grocery store, and lead to bigger things like handling my baby’s doctor’s appointment, all by myself. Every little step that I took, seemed to push me ahead. Pretty soon, I was able to convince myself pretty quickly that I wasn’t anxious about driving anymore.
And then came the big setback.
It happened, the day I had been dreading all these years arrived. And it came so innocently that it caught me off guard. It was a regular morning and a regular visit to my daughter’s preschool. As I drove out of her school, I misjudged the oncoming traffic, and crashed straight into a car, with my daughter in the back and my mother-in-law sitting next to me. Though all three of us were shaken up by the event, thankfully, none of us were injured, not even the driver of the other car. But my nightmare of crashing my car came true.
Moving on again
If I say that I breezed through the next few days, I would be a big fat liar! It was horrifyingly painful and the image of the broken van is permanently etched in my brain. Not to mention the fact, that once I was in a condition to start driving again, I had to pass the same route every day, twice a day, for five days a week as I dropped and picked up my daughter from her preschool. It did not happen just like that. It took me months, probably years to gain my full confidence back. But, sometimes the only way you can get over something is simply by getting over it. You take one painful step after another, and before you know it, you look back, in awe, of the distance you have managed to travel.
The lessons learned
What I learned is what I’d like to pass on to my children and to anyone else who faces anxiety.
- Do not ignore or suppress your fears. Doing that just increases the size of your anxiety. It definitely does not make it go away.
- When you have decided that you will be facing your fears, do not listen to the negative self-talk that you will often hear. You will not fail at this. You will not look back and doubt yourself. You can do this and more, a lot more.
- Search and find your true motivation for walking past your fear. It can be for your parents or your friends. But it works best when it is for yourself. Your self-esteem and self-confidence are always the best motivators that you can find.
- Always be prepared for setbacks, as they will invariably make an appearance at some point in your life. Just when you think you have conquered this, life will take an about-turn. And when that happens, take a deep breath, begin the process of taking one step after another, and keep moving on.
- Whenever you feel down about how hard this is, try to visualize how it would feel when you look back one day from a place of strength and achievement. That day will come soon, even if things look bleak now.
If I say that my days of breaking into sweat are behind me, that would be another gigantic lie. Today, I drive all over the place, almost like I’m walking, and yet I’m aware that all it takes is one more episode of disaster and I may have to start all over again. And that’s completely alright with me. Real-life doesn’t offer happy-endings-forever. What it does offer, are repeated opportunities to conquer fears and experience those happy endings.