The Road to Recovery

9 months ago I couldn’t drive beyond the safe comforting borders of my town without intense anxiety. For many months, just the thought of crossing a bridge to leave St Pete filled me with such paralyzing fear and discomfort that I would lose sleep. But this past Easter weekend I drove 3 hours with my sister to the other coast of Florida to spend some time with our wacky sunstarved family vacationing from up north. And I didn’t bat a lash.

9 months ago I was deep in grief over the passing of my father and simultaneously figuring out how to settle his affairs. I drove over the Sunshine Skyway bridge (one with a fairly steep incline to provide a 180 foot clearance between the bridge and the water below) to a DMV in his town to transfer the title of his car to my name. Driving back, as soon as I began to ascend the bridge, I panicked.

I was suddenly and inexplicably overcome with a sense of fear and trepidation. I felt stuck in the ascent, moving but going nowhere, never reaching the top. Trapped forever in this moment in time, overwhelmed with panic.

I contemplated pulling over, but sensed it was best to power through, that I’d feel at ease once I reached the top. I can’t recall how I passed those one or two unending minutes. I may have tuned into the song on the radio, trying to force a sense of safety and familiarity with the melody and words. If you’ve ever had a panic attack then you may have employed a similar distracting tactic. In any case, I survived, but I was left afraid for many long months.

I believe the panic crossing the bridge represents the trauma of the loss of my father. I travelled over that bridge every day for the last week of his life to visit him in the hospital. They were hard days. I was weak and spent, nauseated for hours every morning for reasons unknown at the time, and it took all my strength to get myself together and make the small trek to visit him. But there seemed to be a bright light at the end of the tunnel, and on the 4th night he was back to his old charismatic self, with everyone around him laughing at his corny and sometimes inappropriate jokes. They released him, and my sister took him home. The next morning I got the call I will never forget, my sister screaming hysterically that he wasn’t breathing. He was gone. As a passenger, I made one last trip over that bridge to his house to say goodbye.

Over the next several months, as I slowly healed and ventured out of the house, I couldn’t shake the memory of the panic on the bridge. I began to fear crossing any bridge, which is tough when you live on a peninsula. I had to cross many bridges throughout my dad’s battle with cancer to take him to his treatments. At that time, I didn’t have space to face the feelings of what was happening. I just had to focus on one thing: being there to get him the care he needed.

Now that he was gone, I started to feel the weight of everything. Subconsciously I didn’t want to relive my travels over the bridges, even if the destination this time was different.

I couldn’t hide for long. My sister lived across those bridges, as do other friends, and the airport where I had visitors to pick up. I employed various techniques to keep my anxiety at bay during these trips, one being gratitude. The bridges allowed me to get to my dad and help him when he needed me most. I would focus on this truth and say thank you as I crossed over. I would force a smile in an attempt to trick my brain into feeling at ease. To distract my brain from spiraling into anxiety mode, I’d play happy feel-good music and sing along. I’d count the numbers on various markers along the bridge. Before my treks, I’d sit in thought and come into my own power, deciding that I wasn’t going to let anxiety run my life. I am in control. I will claim my life back. In retrospect, while this was a powerful technique, it was very premature. I hadn’t given myself the space to receive the true underlying message in my anxiety.

The message, it turns out, was to connect back to love. You see, my father had represented to me the truest form of love. He loved me unconditionally and I knew it and felt it every day. This kind of love is a blessing. With this love also comes safety and comfort. From the day I was born, completely helpless as newborns are, to a now thriving adult, if there was anything I needed, I knew he would find a way to give it to me, whether or not I asked. As his cousin told me after his passing, all he ever wanted was to give to his daughters, even if only a smile. Upon realizing this, it suddenly made sense why I was overcome with fear and panic.

I had lost my strongest form of trust and love and safety. How would I navigate this scary world full of the unknowns without that which I grew to rely on so heavily?

And so began my journey inward.

Understanding the root of my anxiety wasn’t enough. I had to face the questions I was avoiding all along. The questions I thought were pointless and would only lead down a rabbit hole of despair. “Why did this happen? Why did it have to take his life?” After months of caring for myself, I had healed to a point that I was finally ready to open up to these questions. This guidance came to me in a dream, where I was in my parents’ house, asleep in my bed. I awoke in the night, and walked down the hallway to find my dad sitting awake on the couch. We embraced in a warm hug and he said to me, “I love, I love you, I love you.” The next few days I spent a lot of time considering why this happened and why it took his life, and I realized it all boiled down to love. My dad spent much of his later years trying to find a love that matched what he could give. Through his diagnosis, my sister and I were forced to step up in a way we never had before, to care for him as a parent cares for a child, and to return the love he’d always given us. And in that, my dad received his gift of love meeting its match, and his life was complete.

My gift was to recognize that the love I’d received my whole life is available to me all the time, even with my dad’s physical presence removed.

I can still trust and feel safe, because that love is always with me. It’s in his photograph, in the song of a bird as I walk down the street, in the smiles of new friends welcoming me into their hearts.

With accepting my new gift of love, my anxiety has nearly dissolved. My journeys across bridges have become increasingly easier. I keep my original techniques in my back pocket for back up, but I’ve now found myself exactly where I had wanted to be: just cruising, zoning out to the long road before me, and happily chatting away with my sister as we make our way to the family vacation. All without a care in the world.

It was never really about the bridge.

Your Turn: What questions have you been avoiding? What message might your fear or anxiety be sending you?

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