• jess

Tales from Early Recovery

Yet ANOTHER old 2019 post, dug out of the trash. I don't know why I hated this one, except for the formatting.

Did you know that I used to be 1) terrified of driving 2) terrified of humans 3) terrified of leaving the house?

Legit, I used to be agoraphobic. I didn't leave the house unless I had someone with me. And even then, I was a ball of agitated, overstimulated, anxiety. It felt like my head would spin. I couldn't breath. My heart would pound out of my chest.

Even with someone by my side, I never drove. I went from being a driving-lover to paralyzed with fear when I even had the idea of getting behind the wheel.

And then, uh, I started therapy, had some major life changes, got the fuck over my fear, and started living like an adult human again.

Here are some of the things I realized in hindsight, after becoming an "Ugh, I guess we have to take a boring driving" person again, rather than an, "OMG, I'm going to pass out during this 5 minute drive," broken mess.

It's also a good reminder of how shitty my Trauma Life used to be.

Check out these recollections of living under an anxious rock and how I started to get over myself.

Hey ya'll. Jess here. Just checking in with another installation of "look how dysfunctional I was!"

Recently, I was talking to a Motherfucker in my Social Anxiety Hiking Club on our Tuesday Trek up the local mountain when I mentioned my past history of drive-phobia and how I use it as a metaphor that has become a useful anxiety-management tool.

He dug my mindset shifting tool and was surprised to hear that I've gone through a total drive-revolution in the 2 years that I've lived in Atlanta. The change is so drastic that he wanted to know more. It... got my wheels spinning (punsorry).

This month, I'm talking about overcoming driving anxiety and agoraphobia.

Today, I'm starting with the symptoms and suspected root causes.


About 1.5 years ago, my daily life looked like this:

Wake up, immediately feel a flood of anxiety, make coffee, start working maniacally in any random direction, keep going until my eyes can’t focus anymore or someone makes me stop, binge eat, (try to) go to sleep, repeat.

If I was brave, at some point before “rush hour traffic” hit in our sleepy part of town, I would get in my manual Ford Fiesta and drive myself all of 5-7 minutes (for real) to get some exercise at the local state park.

But that recollection of my venture outside is a huge oversimplification.

The truth is, I would spend the entire day working myself up to getting in the car.

First, I had to talk myself into:

1) stopping my frantic, self-slave-driving work

2) venturing into public

3) facing the unending perils of driving.

And, again, I want to repeat that I was not driving in “Atlanta traffic.” (Which, rightfully, is anxiety/agoraphobia -inducing in everyone).

About a year ago, my driving anxiety looked like this:

I was filled with dread long before I started changing into workout gear. I would procrastinate with food distractions and last minute “checks” around the house. I dreamt up every worst case scenario and talked myself out of the idea more often than not. My stomach would feel like a gnawing, vacant pit until the relief of forfeit. If I did force myself out of the house, I would shake from the moment I climbed into the car until I got back out. I was vibrational at every stop light. My legs and hands couldn’t be steadied. I could barely breathe or see straight behind the steering wheel, my body was so hypertensive.

So, living in a “driving city” was probably not originally the best choice. It kept me isolated and feeling helpless long after we had settled here, and contributed to my relationship entrapment. Can’t drive and don’t know anyone? Nowhere to go. No way to get out. No safe place to be.

In hindsight, moving here and dealing with road-psychopaths was one of the best things that could have happened.

An agoraphobic trend.

You see, this didn’t come out of nowhere… I had already been semi-agoraphobic for several years at that point. I used to love driving. I was the designated driver from ages 16-20. I went all over Northern Illinois; country, suburbs, city of Chicago - I didn’t fear a thing. I drove 40 minutes to work every day in high school. I took my friends on the random trips to taco bells in neighboring towns. I carted our asses out to Woodfield mall. I wanted to be the person behind the wheel.

It’s taken me years to understand how over time I lost my confidence and enjoyment in driving in a slow, building universal fear. Here it is!

Starting in my early twenties (21) I began developing a driving-phobia.

When I moved 200 miles for school, I immediately felt alone. My crappy Pontiac Grand Am had gone through a lot already - it was quickly falling apart. The thing had 4 taped up windows, a mirror held on with super glue, many roadkill cosmetic issues, and all sorts of random mechanical failures. The wheels shook, the gas gauge never worked, and it had a penchant for ruining alternators. I feared getting stranded on the side of the road every time I set-butt in my battered vehicle. I started avoiding driving. I walked and took the bus everywhere, already, so cutting out grocery shopping and trips back home helped with reducing my driving.

Shortly thereafter (23) I started losing my basic faculties and driving confidence.

During my years of chronic, stress-induced illness, I had a hell of a time sleeping at night. As my body and brain riled each other up in an endless feedback loop, I got stuck with incurable insomnia. If I wasn’t already becoming drive-fearful, trying to operate a vehicle on months of non-sleep sure didn’t help. I felt out of control. I felt incapable. It did not feel like I had the faculties to take in complex, rapidly changing situations and make sensible adaptations. I found myself in “close calls” more often than I was comfortable with. I started seeing driving as a danger, not only because of uncontrollable circumstances, but because I suddenly doubted my ability to handle myself.

A few years later (24) I had a legitimate problem leaving my apartment.

Big surprise, mental and physical degradation eventually lead to increased isolation. I didn’t trust the world, I didn’t trust other humans, and I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t want to go out anymore; when I did, I counted the moments until I could get back home, binge eat, and lay in bed. I feared everything outside my door. I sought easy comforts, because everything else in my life was so uncomfortable. My health continued to be a problem, even after I identified some of my dietary triggers. I was in pain and discomfort 24/7. I still struggled to sleep at night. In the morning, I didn’t even want to drive 5 minutes to work. I navigated the world by walking and hitching rides with friends. My world became very small, further solidifying my penchant for pre-emptive worrying and catastrophizing. When there’s no counter-evidence of things working out, it continually becomes easier to assume they’ll always be terrible.

By the time I lived with my ex (26 or 27) I relied 100% on him for transportation and rarely left the house on my own.

Yay codependence and white knight syndrome. When I got together with my ex (spoilers: here’s how that went) he was more than happy to step into the role of provider. If I didn’t want to drive ever again - no problem, he would handle it. He took over the brunt of the errands and picked me up whenever he wanted to go somewhere. At the time, this seemed nice. In hindsight, this was unhealthy, controlling, and personally deleterious. When we moved from a smaller-city in Illinois to Atlanta in Fall 2017, he became my only tie to the outside world. I think it suited him. He didn’t try to encourage my conquering this fear of driving, instead he recalled all his tales of near-death on the roads each day. I stayed at home, right where he left me, and I was present whenever he returned at the end of the day.


Getting over the fear.

Flash forward about one and a half years. I’m living on my own. Any time I leave the house, it’s on my own accord. I’m driving myself from one side of the city to the other. Hell, I’m taking 12 hour road trips alone. All the while, I feel complete calm in my brain and body. I’m not shaking, I’m not hypertensive, I’m not running through all the disastrous ways I could be mangled and stranded on the side of the road. I’m not crying and talking myself into staying home. I’m not afraid of the world outside my bedroom. I’m fine.

Today, my life looks more like this:

Wake up, chug some day-old coffee, drive to the park for a long hike, get back home and peacefully work on 2nd job, get ready for work, drive across the city and calmly work at 1st job, drive to significant-something’s house in a bustling area, hang, take a walk, drive across the city back home, sleep, repeat.

And it IS that simple. There aren’t hours spent ruminating and pre-worrying about potential disasters. There aren’t endless conversations in my head about all the ways I might be dooming myself. There aren’t points and counter-points to walking out the door, taking care of myself, going to work, or spending time with people I care about. There aren’t days of shaking behind the wheel or working myself up about parking four hours before it’s a valid concern. I feel calm, in control, and completely capable of getting myself where I need to go. I jump in the car and leave without a pounding heart. Once there, I don’t feel convinced that I’m in danger and need to retreat back home.

It’s literally a different life. Because I’m literally a different person.


Interested in doing something similar?

Still curious? Let's talk!

Tell me about your own driving and agoraphobic anxieties.

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