I was almost to my San Diego destination on that day in January. A glorious day. Warm and sunny. Clear. I felt lucky to be there under the baby blue sky and was looking forward to spending time with my friend Kathi.
As I watched for the exit ramp I needed to take, the car in front of me moved to the next lane. Time did something funny, slowing and speeding at once. There, about six car lengths ahead of me, traffic was stopped. I slammed on the brakes, bracing both arms on the steering wheel, backpack and clipboard flew off the seat next to me....
The impact shocked me. My heart raced and I could feel my hands shaking before my natural equanimity set in and I began to quickly assess the situation.
With some difficulty, I peered over the now-bent yellow hood of my car. I had never hit another car in all the years I had been driving. Rules for this situation popped into my mind. Which ones applied?
As I was deciding how I might maneuver my car to the shoulder, an officer appeared, telling me to shut off my engine and remain in the car. I have friends who don’t like to drive the freeway. I have always loved driving and will usually volunteer, especially for distance trips.
Still, though no one was badly injured and cars are being repaired, I have struggled to shake this accident. The moments of the crash are in my dreams at night and the tremble in my hand and voice when interviewed by my insurance agent gave the first clues that my equanimity might not be working for me this time.
While I have been driving a rental car—a sturdy one—on both street and freeway since the accident, I had not gone a great distance nor encountered heavy traffic until this week when I drove to visit my mother in the desert. Starting out, I had no idea what was in store for me....
After running a few errands in and out of town, I pulled onto the 55 freeway to begin my trip. As I moved into lanes, I was suddenly aware that there was a lump in my throat and my heart was beating too fast. What was this? I breathed, but the tension built, and unnamed anxiety set in. Was this intuition or just plain fear?
For a moment I thought to simply turn around and head home. No. The words “feel the fear and do it anyway” flashed across my mind. I decided to break the trip into chunks. I’d go to the 405. I could still turn off there. The 91 was my next goal. Breathe. Just breathe. How did my tremendous gratitude in regard to the accident turn into this horrible anxious state?
Bit by bit. Once past Cabazon, I at last relaxed and enjoyed the drive and the day. The sky was charcoal as clouds backed up against the mountains, but ahead was blue sky and sunshine. All was well.
My mother and I had a good visit and I waited until after peak traffic time before giving her a hug and a kiss and getting back into the car for the now easy drive home. Ha! That ubiquitous snare of fear was still out there. One more test.
As I drove up the grade against wind at Whitewater, the dark night sky suddenly let loose with pelting sheets of rain. Lightning turned everything white. Red brake lights suddenly filled the horizon and my shoulders tensed as my heart pounded in my chest once again.
Slowing and staying a distance from a pair of red lights ahead, I simply followed. The windshield was fogging and, unfamiliar with the controls, I could not find the defroster. Finally, I opened the windows and just let the rain stream in.
Luckily, the other cars were moving with care and encountering the same poor visibility I was experiencing, so we moved as a mass forward through this strange storm. I was relieved to be part of this mass, almost as if there was now safety in numbers. At last, passing through Redlands, the storm stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The streets were dry. Traffic picked up its pace.
Happily, the remainder of the trip home was uneventful and as I tumbled out of the car at home, I was greeted by the hoot of a nearby owl. Wisdom.
Yes. I can learn from all of this experience. Sometimes fear and anxiety are just there. Facing them makes us stronger.
I may now return—at least for the moment—to gratitude and give thanks to Kathi for the champagne, Catharine for the solace of time, and Mike for taking care of the details.