My life has been affected by anxiety for as long as I can remember. Not mine, but my mother’s. I remember being a little girl and there being a lot of drama surrounding getting to cheer practice on particular days or to meet friends at certain places that required a trip on the highway. I was not always so sensitive to my mother’s fear of driving because I simply didn’t understand. I remember instead feeling annoyed, frustrated, critical…in the way that a self-centered adolescent who hasn’t yet grasped the immensity of other people’s struggles sometimes does. A decade later and I’ve realized I’m becoming my mother, which for the most part is a very good thing.
One night in July of 2012 I was driving back to college on Rt. 64 and had to stop for a back-up caused by an accident a mile or so ahead of me. After that I remember a flash of light and then nothing until waking up in the back of an ambulance disoriented and asking for my mother and if I was okay. The EMTs and the police officers told me that after I’d stopped for traffic a truck rear-ended me going the 70 mph speed limit+ sending my black Jeep Grand Cherokee spinning into a couple of other cars and finally into a tree on the median. The driver had supposedly been drinking.
I’d kept a safe following distance, all my lights were on, I’d driven within the speed limit, I’d stopped in plenty of time for the person behind me to stop too. Why wasn’t this enough? The fact that I’d done everything I could to keep myself safe and I’d ended up in the back of an ambulance with a totaled car was enough to send my control-freak brain spinning. I’d made a life out of controlling every single detail of my existence and yet this most important thing—my life, and when it would end—I realized for the first time was not under my control. The accident brought me face to face with the fragility of life and the finality and unpredictable nature of death.
Ever since my accident, I can’t merge onto a highway without feeling butterflies in my stomach and when a car stops suddenly in front of me, my eyes immediately dart to my rear-view mirror and I wonder if this is the time I won’t be so lucky.
Everyone deals with fear differently—some people chose to avoid situations that elicit fear while others chose to confront their fears head on. Neither is any more or less correct than the other. I am a person that is afraid of dying and of losing control who jumps out of airplanes at 12,000 feet and has chosen to pursue a career as an Emergency Medicine physician where I will be surrounded by death and dying more days than not. In psychiatry they call this “flooding”—a behavioral technique involving direct exposure to a maximum intensity real or imagined anxiety-producing stimulus as a means of unlearning the fear. For some people this would make things infinitely worse, exacerbating the underlying anxiety itself and making life unbearable—but for me, it heals.
So I drive white-knuckled past the Camp Perry exit on Rt. 64, but I drive. I refuse to be paralyzed by my fears. Now that my black jeep is gone, I drive a white jeep—symbolic? I hope so.
Counterintuitively, I think my own experience with fear will help me in the ER, and as a physician in general, in the way that all of life’s difficulties somehow unknowingly prepare us for what lies ahead. Maybe I will be more empathetic to the fear surrounding the real and perceived death of patients and their families than I would have been able to be otherwise. Fear isn’t all bad—it has a way of showing us what’s most important and where there’s work to be done. In some way, I’m grateful.
How does fear/anxiety rear it’s head in your life? How do you deal with it?