Eight Miles Of Agony: Anxiety and Travel
by Dana Muwwakkil
We are in the car on the highway. The road sign reads eight miles and I sigh with relief. Only eight miles until we reach our exit. Only then, will I be in my safety net, my home. I tell myself that when I am there, I cannot be hurt.
I’m supposed to be calling for a pizza. My husband and I just spent the evening out with our friends and all four of our kids, my two girls and our friends’ two boys. Before we get into the car, my husband and I agree that we should call ahead to our favorite pizza spot, that way it will be ready for pickup by the time we get there.
For the first half hour of the ride I feel stuck in the crippling possession of panic. The attack is becoming less powerful as we become closer to home, proving to myself once again, that this fear is all in my head. I find comfort in the fact that we are now eight miles from our exit, closer to my safe place.
I am calmer now with this information. I can do this, I can call for the pizza. I pick up the phone and the sudden brightness of it gives me a pang of fear. I face it down. I pick it up again and press the call button. It rings. I panic and hang up.
“What happened?” my husband asks.
“I just need a second,” I say.
He knows. He’s been aware of this panic since we began the drive home. My husband knows how I am when my attacks occur. And they mostly occur in the car. I get triggered from travel. I hate being on the highway with cars moving so quickly, and the many different people in their own vehicles. I feel unsafe because there are too many variables. It is as though my life and the lives of my family are not in our control. To make matters worse, the darkness of night heightens my paranoia.
My husband doesn’t know this, but on the way to the bowling alley I had to fight my off anxiety as well. I pulled out my phone and looked through the challenge questions my therapist gave me. These questions are designed to bring logic to my panic attacks. My anxiety thrives when my irrational thoughts take over. Question number one is:
What evidence do you have that something bad will happen?
I have no evidence that I will die in the car, other than the fact that I know car accidents kill a lot of people in my age group each year. But I take comfort in the fact that my husband is an excellent, confident driver.
The second question:
What would you tell a friend who was having the same problem? The answer, usually, is that I would tell my friend, ”Don’t worry about that, you will be fine.”
Now, on our way home, I assume I’ll be okay. I’m not sure why the drive back is better for me, it is no more or less safe than the drive to, but I find comfort because I am headed back to my home.
My husband and I have a sudden argument about money as we enter the highway ramp and it sends me into a rage, which triggers my irrational thoughts and, eventually, my anxiety. I become twitchy and start gripping the seat. My irrational mind begins to take over. What if I die in this car? What if we get into a terrible accident? I suffer in silence for many minutes. My husband notices my erratic movements. “Are you okay?” he asks me. I answer honestly, although I don’t want him to know what was happening.
The tears now begin to come, along with the shame of it all. I know my husband is disappointed in me. This is my first attack since I started my medication. I was hopeful that the medicine would be a magic pill that cured me of all my anxious problems. In the car, I know my husband is wondering to himself, “Will it ever stop?” I wonder the same thing.
My anxiety is not new. It’s something I’ve been dealing with off and on for over ten years. Previously, it was only something that plagued me every so often. In the past two years, my attacks happen regularly and are now crippling.
My anxiety greatly increased in frequency after the birth of our second daughter. It started the night that I came home from the hospital after giving birth to her. That night I was holding my newborn and a shooting pain came stabbing down my leg. It was so intense, unlike anything I ever felt. I could hear the nurses in my head telling me how serious postpartum complications could be and I was worried that this was one of them. I immediately alerted my husband and we went back to the hospital. On the way there the painful tremors passed through my leg twice more. They checked for a blood clot in my leg but I was told that I was fine and could go home.
When my daughter was three months, I ended up at the hospital again due to repeated headache pains occurring on the left side of my head. The pains were accompanied by tingling on the same side of my body, in my arm and leg. I was worried I would have a stroke or aneurysm at any second. I was given a CAT scan and was told again that nothing was wrong with me. I was given a referral to the neurologist.
In therapy, I realized that there were a lot of stressful situations happening in my personal life made my attacks worsen. During this time my mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The night she confirmed her diagnosis, I experienced the first major panic attack I’d had in years. Although my mom’s cancer was curable, my obsession with my own death intensified.
I became a full time stay-at-home mom The adjustment was hard, my husband works long hours and I found myself feeling isolated, lonely and freaked out that something would happen to me while I was home alone with my babies. My anxiety had taken new form. Before travel had been my only trigger. Now my panic attacks were out of my control. My headaches continued and any twinge of pressure in my head caused great worry.
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As my daily headaches stopped and the tingling sensations dwindled, my heart started giving me trouble. Nothing alarming enough to go to the ER, this time, but I did make a trip to see my family doctor. After my EKG came back clear, I decided it was my anxiety and asked for a referral to get myself some mental help.
My very first panic attack happened in the car with my mom when I was eighteen years old. I was very sleepy and slumped over in the passenger seat. As I rested my eyes, a surge of panic ran through my body. Suddenly my eyes flew open with the fear that we would crash while I was asleep, that I would go to sleep and never wake up. Ever since that day, I often find myself in a panic whenever I am on the highway.
My husband has always been supportive. I know my illness can be wearing on him, especially when it affects our travel. My anxiety recently impacted my relationship on our wedding anniversary. We went on a beautiful river cruise ride in New York City. We were both so excited for this day because we don’t get out much without our children. We took a train into the city and walked to the pier. It was a gorgeous day and we were having so much fun as we strolled. As the first in line for the cruise, we felt excited. Everyone wished us a Happy Anniversary.
As we entered the boat, we ordered our drinks and chatted. I was fine until I looked out my window seat, I began to panic as I saw the boat leaving the dock. That was it; I essentially ruined our three hour cruise. I was practically hysterical the entire time, my palms were instantly wet with sweat and my heart began to pound. My breath became unsteady. I didn’t know at the time but I caused a lot of unwanted attention. It didn’t matter to me at the time because I was only concerned with whether or not I would get off the boat alive.
When we docked and I was calm, but filled with shame. I apologized to my husband profusely. He was understanding, but upset. My therapist, who I started seeing a few months prior, was also shocked. I cried in her office as I recounted the story to her. She reassured me that this was just the beginning of my treatment.
My mother had a different take on my anxiety and her truth scared me. She told me that yes, my anxiety is a stress in our marriage but each spouse brings drama in some fashion to the relationship. My anxiety is something my husband has to deal with. She assured me that I didn’t have to do things that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t have to travel if I didn’t want to. I nodded but I didn’t say what I was thinking. My husband wants to travel. He’s never really been anywhere. He wants to travel and experience different cultures and explore new places. I want to go too; I want to experience these amazing trips with my husband but my irrational thoughts hold me prisoner. How can my marriage survive such distance with my anxiety pushing a wedge between us?
I began doing much better after the boat ride. I had been on medication for several months at this point and attend appointments with a psychiatrist and therapist. My therapist helps me recognize my triggers. She gives me tools, like my challenge questions to help me cope. My psychiatrist and I don’t do too much talking but the anxiety medication she prescribed makes me feel a lot better. My panic attacks began to lessen. I started listening to meditation videos at night to calm my mind and even tried yoga. I was doing better. So why was I now sitting in the passenger seat of my car silently crying and thinking I might have a seizure or heart attack?
I try to answer this question for myself. I put the phone down and grip my husband’s hand. We finally reach our exit. The eight miles feels like eight hours. Now, I can let go. I wipe my damp hands on my pants. My breathing regulates. I pick up the phone and clear my throat. I press call on the phone for the pizza, someone picks up. I ask if there are any specials.
I order pizza like any other person would for their family. My husband apologizes, for our fight. I apologize, but I’m apologizing for everything. For all the drama my illness has caused. When we get to the restaurant, he goes inside for the pizza. I continue to cry silently. I cry because I’m exhausted. I cry because I feel hopeless. I cry because I don’t think the panic will ever stop. I have to fight. I cry because I don’t feel strong enough to win.
Suddenly, my friend calls my cell, I smile when I see her contact info pop up on my phone. I dry my tears, take a deep breath and pick up. She asks if I want to meet for breakfast tomorrow while the kids are in school. I agree. We laugh and chat for a few minutes, and agree to catch up tomorrow. I am suddenly a different person, the person I one day hope to be. I do not cry for the rest of the night.
It’s been a year since this incident, in the car. I think this particular attack was so brutal because I thought I was better. I still find myself feeling anxious at times and even having attacks. My medication helps a lot but sometimes I have to approach situations the way my therapist has showed me. Sometimes I have to convince myself that I am okay and that nothing bad is going to happen. It helps when I tell myself that I have felt this way before and nothing bad has ever happened, so why would something bad happen now?
Living with this mental illness has not been easy but I’m blessed to have a great support system in my husband, my best friend and my family. I’m proud of myself for continuing to fight through my anxiety and that I stopped suffering in silence. I don’t know if I will ever be free of the panic attacks but I have hope that I will know how to cope. As of right now, I am taking things one day at a time, living my life and sharing my story so that others know that they are not alone.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Gabriel Nathan | EDITOR: Laura Farrell | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | PUBLISHER: Bud Clayman
See Related Recovery Stories: Anxiety, BIPOC Mental Health Recovery Stories, Depression, Mental Health First Person Essays