Confronting fear

Nicoleandmaggie over at Grumpy Rumblings had a post yesterday titled Do something every day that scares you. It was very timely for me because I’ve been meaning to write about how my recent move to the Bay area puts me in that position frequently, although not every day.

For years I’ve had intense anxiety around driving over high bridges and along twisty roads with steep drop offs. I also get anxious walking over high bridges and hiking along trails that take me along steep ridges. There are lots of big bridges in this area, and many roads that twist and turn through the hills and mountains. Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, and Highway 1 are probably the ones that most people can identify but there are more.

I’m fine inside skyscrapers while behind sturdy glass, in elevators, or in airplanes. But while driving I have this fear that I will somehow lose control of the vehicle (by sneezing or something) at just the wrong moment and go plunging off to my death. While hiking I fear a misstep will tumble me down the cliff to my death. It doesn’t help my hiking confidence that I’ve injured myself more than once simply walking along a minor slope, either.

Growing up in the “flatlands” of the Midwest I had little exposure to navigating hilly territory by foot or car. We took road trips through eastern mountains when I was a kid (Ozarks and Blue Ridge mountains), but I wasn’t driving back then.

My first exposure to real mountains as a driver was during a road trip with a friend between Chicago and the Grand Canyon. We took interstate expressways all the way there, but on the way back we had a bit more time and decided to take a more scenic route through Colorado. As we set off from Durango and picked up the “Million Dollar Highway” towards Ouray, I found my palms sweating and my heart racing as I drove up and up and up along the switchbacks. Once we came to a wide shoulder/observation point I pulled over and told my friend she absolutely had to take over driving, despite her discomfort driving a manual transmission. I found the entire route terrifying, even as a passenger. As she exclaimed over the views, I squeezed my eyes shut and clutched the armrest.

That was probably my most extreme reaction, but I’ve had lesser (although no less debilitating) ones on the narrow bridge over the Mississippi between Cairo, IL and Missouri (I missed a turn and wasn’t supposed to drive over that bridge), my first time driving the Chicago Skyway, and along Highway 1 between Monterey and Big Sur.

I knew that moving to an area surrounded by mountains and with many long, high bridges was going to challenge me. But I also knew that it was one of those “price of admission” things I would have to learn to deal with. So I am.

Arriving in the Bay area that first day, I had to negotiate the Altamont Pass on I-580 through Livermore in a heavy fog. The fog likely helped as it hid visual cues of our height from me. (Also, the fact that the route had four or five lanes, so I could drive in a middle one helped, too). Sister drove the I-680 bridge across the Carquinez Strait to get us to our final destination, but once she left town I was on my own.

I managed a trip across the I-680 bridge both ways just a couple of weeks later without a lot of anxiety. I carefully trained my gaze to the road in front of me in each direction and sang to myself as a I returned across, just to make myself a little more at ease. (Something along the lines of “I’m crossing the bridge, I’m crossing the bridge. Look how well I’m doing!” in a chipper voice.)

My first trip across the Bay Bridge was as a passenger in a casual carpool. This is one of the reasons I was so excited to learn about the casual carpools, in fact. They allow me to build familiarity with the surroundings in a lower risk way since I’m not the driver. Being in a car with others who find the trip uneventful and routine is great. I’ve now taken five carpool rides across the Bay Bridge: four outbound from San Francisco, and one inbound to San Francisco. Now thinking about crossing the Bay Bridge as a driver gives me almost no anxiety.

Last weekend I drove with guests both ways on the Carquinez bridge as we went to and from Oakland. I had a momentary blip of anxiety as I saw the bridge risers, but was able to quickly shove it aside.

Seeing the bridges as a passenger on the ferry is also helping me become familiar with them, and reducing my anxieties. Every ferry ride brings me under the massive Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and gives me a clear view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in a car as a passenger a few years ago, and made it partly across on foot back when I was married. (It took a LOT of convincing from the ex to get me to walk to the first upright from the San Francisco side. I emphatically refused to walk or stand anywhere near the railing, though, despite his desire to take a photo of me with the Bay in the background.)

Before I left Chicago a therapist recommended that I get a book called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. I’ve only read a bit of it, but it seems that this desensitizing that I’m doing is right on track with the professional advice. Next weekend I’m considering going on a hike that includes a small amount of “ledge walking.” I’m trying to decide if I’m ready for that yet and have some time to figure that out.

So that’s my answer to their question: Do you do things that scare you? What’s yours?

Rethinking the approach

So, I was hopeful that I could try to maintain a somewhat “normal” life by returning to my house on my typical telecommute days and using my sister’s house mainly as a crash pad at night.

But it seems we may be in for long-haul on this, and looking at my home as, well, my home is not healthy for me. It’s not my home anymore. It is a house occupied by someone else that I will eventually get to reclaim as my home.

Instead of visiting my dogs and chickens 2-3 times per week and trying to carry out a productive business day, I will only drop by the house maybe once a week to pick up mail and more clothing. Other than that, I will stay away.

I’ve had to come to this difficult conclusion when I found myself having another panic attack in my therapist’s office. I’ve been working with Dr. L for a long time and I’ve been alarming her greatly in my level of upset around the situation I’m in. She set up a appointment yesterday with a psychiatrist who can prescribe, and now I’ve joined the millions of others in the US who find ourselves medicating our way through the day.

I hate, hate, hate, having to take mind altering drugs like this. I belive that if the situation is so bleeped up that drugs must be taken to get through the day, then it’s time to attend to the situation. Move. Get a new job. Leave the girlfriend making you crazy. Or step back and figure out what YOU are doing to make yourself crazy and change that.

Unfortunately, I can’t attend to this situation myself other than using medication to alter/mask whatever it is in my brain chemistry that triggers the anxiety/panic attacks when confronted with a situation like the one I find myself in. Actually, I’d really like to try that “move” option by getting out of town until this is over. Or going into a hospital and living in an induced coma until this is over. But by then I’d lose my job and be in yet another kind of big trouble when I returned or woke up.

So, I’m now taking my old, old friend klonopin.  I first took klonopin about 12 years when I started having panic attacks. Coincidentally, the panic attacks happened right after I agreed to marry Mark. Hmmm….At that time the klonopin was paired with Paxil, too. But I told the psychiatrist that I am dead set against an SSRI (usually referred to as anti-depressants in the vernacular) becuase of their evil side effects.

When taking an SSRI one basically has to choose between one that is “weight positive” (in other words, makes you fat) or has “sexual side effects” (a euphemism for not being able to um…reach fulfillment, if you know what I mean.) I’ve already been battling back the pounds added due to my thyroid issues, and do not want to mess up my progress. Nor do I want to be dead below the waist for next 6 months, minimum.

Klonopin has none of these side effects and can be tapered off much more quickly. The only problems with it is that it makes me sort of sleepy and clumsy. I’m drinking lots of coffee to counteract the doziness, and just being careful to counteract the clumsiness. The good news is that I don’t feel keyed up all the time about the situation. I’m ready to move the rest of my clothing over to my sister’s house this weekend when Mark is out of the house, and continue converting her basement into my boudoir.

Then, it’s just back to waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting, etc.

At least I don’t feel like my head will explode.