Content note: This post is about a panic attack I recently had on a bridge and it is graphic in detail; graphic content starts after the cut.

It was a sunny Thursday morning, windows down and Lady Gaga on the stereo and I am buzzing along Highway One to Mendocino. I don’t go to Mendo very often these days and I am deeply enjoying the loud music and the moment and the freedom and the driving, sailing along the surface of the road instead of being bound to it.

“Road Work Ahead,” a bright orange sign warned, and I obediently slowed to something resembling the speed limit.

“One Lane Closed to Traffic,” read another, and my foot hovered over the brake while I looked in vain for signs of construction workers.

And then, I rounded the corner.

The bridge is not a very long one, but it is very high up. Underneath it a stream runs through a heavily wooded area on its way to the beach, which you can see from the bridge. Perfect blue sky, not a wisp of cloud, and my mouth has suddenly lost all the moisture it ever had.

Traffic is stopped on the bridge.

There’s no chance to pull over or make a U-turn; I am forced to file obediently onto the bridge with the rest of the drivers and stop.

I have a thing about bridges.

I don’t like them.

If I can stay in one lane all the way across, going the exact same speed, if I can look straight ahead and not to either side or behind me, I am…ok. If there are no loud noises or bright things, I am…ok. My mouth is dry and my heart starts pounding and I feel a little shaky, but it’s…ok. I make it through. Long bridges are hard, but most of the local bridges are short and it’s over almost before I know it, in a wink.

I am stopped in the middle of the bridge.

The windows are still down and I am nauseous and filled with vertigo. I can’t reach four inches to roll them up. I am frozen.

The CD changes and it is Jovi Rockwell. The CalTrans workers are laughing and joking, the sign that says “STOP” is listing carelessly in the hands of the redhead who holds it, waiting for the signal to flip it around. Cars drift past in the other lane. A bird trills.

I feel like I am falling down a well. Everything around me is dark and far away. My mouth is dry and my lips are gummed together. My pulse pounds in my ears. Thunderous. I am being squeezed and compacted and the cars are drifting by and there is a goose overhead and it draws my eye and I look out into the void. The nothingness. That terrible empty space, a low railing lies between me and oblivion.

It is a bright and sunny day and the car is glossy and I am spinning out of orbit.

The sign turns.

My foot stays on the brake.

I am stuck.

I cannot


The cars ahead of me start to go, moving one by one into the other lane, neatly, effortlessly.

“HONK” the car behind me blares. “HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONK.”

I can’t move.

“MOVE,” screams the man leaning out the window.

He gives me the finger and goes around me. Car after car, they go around me while I am frozen on the bridge. The CalTrans worker starts to notice and moves toward me and my face floods hot with shame because I am stuck on the bridge and there’s no good reason I can’t move.

“I’m on a boat,” T-Pain says, and somehow my foot slips to the accelerator and I am in gear again and I am rolling off the bridge and then I am pulling over and taking deep ragged breaths which feel like they are splitting my chest apart and I try not to think about the drive home, when I will have to do it all over again.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

11 thoughts on “Stuck

  1. I sympathize. While I don’t have much opportunity to drive over bridges where I live, ever since I got in a bad car accident last May (wasn’t my fault, a kid with no license pulled out in front of me) I am a very touchy driver. I get people who honk at me and one time I was waiting to make a left turn, and a car behind me went around me to the left and made the left turn I wanted to make, but going around me was illegal. I don’t care how impatient he was, I didn’t feel like I could make it safely and so I didn’t. I hate being scared behind the wheel…

  2. And meanwhile, I just wish I could drive safely. Simply put, my spatial perception is just too screwy to be trusted, and nobody’s ever really suggested any workarounds. Though I guess there really isn’t any way to drive safely without being able to consistently judge how far away things are.

    Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if I was living in a city where transit wasn’t an afterthought, where things were in walking distance rather than sprawled out as far as possible, and where pedestrian right-of-way was even considered in road design…

  3. My sympathies. At this time, my anxiety disorder and driving phobia are so bad that I can’t get behind a wheel at all without shaking uncontrollably. And people like the jackasses who made your panic attack even worse are about 80% of the reason why.

    Hm. Methinks I should type up and submit that guest post about (dis)ableism and driving that I’ve been wanting to write for months…

  4. @Codeman38: I completely sympathize. In Northern Utah, public transportation is often not on time, and drivers are frequently hostile to pedestrians. Plus, we’re a big state so we also have a lot of sprawl, even in Salt Lake City (I often remark to friends from New York City that we could fit about six of their blocks in some of SLC’s, especially in the older areas of the city near the Capitol). I really think that driving and the US’ obsession with (and I would say fetishization of) cars is something that often doesn’t get mentioned in discussions about disability activism, and I’ve always wondered why.

  5. You have my sympathies. Anxiety is the reason why, at 26 and a half, I don’t even have my provisional licence. Being unable to drive is starting to get really inconvenient but there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to drive.

    JoSelle – I would like to read that guest post!

  6. @JoSelle: “I really think that driving and the US’ obsession with (and I would say fetishization of) cars is something that often doesn’t get mentioned in discussions about disability activism, and I’ve always wondered why.”

    I’ve noticed this too, and it really surprises me– particularly because there’s such a wide range of disabilities that are affected! Aside from people with neurological issues that affect perception (like myself), there are people without the physical coordination/ability to manipulate a car’s controls, people with conditions such as epilepsy and narcolepsy, blind people… It’s truly a cross-disability issue, and yet it’s rarely talked about!

  7. @meloukhia i can really empathize with your experience. i’m glad you made it over the bridge. that kind of anxiety is horrible and scary. see below for more on my own experience. but glad you made it over safely. i hope you are feeling better now.

    @JoSelle i would love it if you wrote a post about driving anxiety. i went over a year without driving (i didn’t own a car at the time, but i had daily access to one) because i couldn’t deal with the very idea of driving. i had out-of-control-car dreams a LOT. it was horrible. i’m driving a couple of times a week now, but the anxiety still comes back from time to time and every trip (usually to my therapist) usually has some kind of weird thing that shakes me up.

  8. I’ve been in the car with my (now ex) partner when he’s had anxiety attacks driving over bridges. It was not pretty, and I really empathize and am glad you made it off the bridge okay in the end.

    I, also, would be interested in discussions around disability and driving. I failed my driving test five times as a youth and think some of it was discrimination by DVD employers (not for disability as that wasn’t know yet at that point, but I was a … different … kid in a very conservative area), but some of it was anxiety and likely spatial orientation issues. Today, I couldn’t drive even if I’d gotten my license back then due to 24/7 dizziness, other visual distortions, muscle weakness and occasional spasms, and I can’t even think of everything else on the list but suffice it to say it would be a BAD idea to let me behind the wheel of a car!

    I could say a lot about how this affects my independence and feelings of dependency on other people, as well as so much else but I feel I’m derailing from the topic of the post a bit.

  9. I have a permit that’s going to expire this December. I took the test once and the instructor said I went too slowly, too cautiously. I remember wanting to say, “Of course I’m cautious. I am nervous and not breathing correctly and I can’t think straight. Also, the other cars are too close.”

    These days, on days when my migraine preventatives me want to fall over, or when migraines threaten me, I am really, really grateful that I don’t drive. It’s much easier for me to bike or take the bus, even in areas where public transportation is poorly managed. If I run into a stop sign I thought was five feet to my right on a bike, I give myself new bruises. With a car…I don’t want to imagine that type of destruction.

    You having a panic attack while driving is horrible, especially since no one cared enough to see if you were all right.

  10. That sounds horrible meloukhia!

    At first I felt bad for making fun of my sister (and her friends, and my cousin) for acting similar on bridges, but then I thought no, wait, they were making fun (whether they knew it or not) by acting like the bridge scared them when it didn’t.

    Of course, that was before my sister started driving herself – she is very, um, aggressive? And has only hit a moving car once. So she claims.

    I too hate the fact that cars are such an integral part of American culture. I don’t want to drive. I don’t think I should, even if my medications don’t legally stop me (do they?), I wouldn’t feel right. Plus, yesterday, I was so dazed by pain and heaters while in Subway, and just unsteady, and I thought as I walked out, “Thank GOD I don’t have to drive.” (Mom does. She is not happy about that, and will not do it forever, which I know, I get that, it’s not my fault we moved here and not a DC suburb!)

    I would love to see a post on “car culture” and PWD. Or maybe a series – because some PWD loooooooove driving, even *gasp* people who use wheelchairs. There could be a post on PWvisibleD and driving, and one about PWinvisibleD and driving. And it would be interesting to see perspectives from other countries, like Oz, Canada, the UK – how bad is car culture there?

    I don’t think I could ever drive successfully. Most roads are *not* a car commercial, where you have a tiny winding mountain road (or a big 4-6 lane highway) to yourself. Most driving is done in “rush hour” situations and you have an illusion of control. I’m in my own little pod with my radio, I’m in control! But with technology, you can have the radio while riding the bus/subway/train/tram/streetcar/etc. Plus, you can read or doze, once you know the route well enough. Oh, you can’t stop at McDonalds, I forgot. (I felt so sneaky eating candy while on the bus in Vancouver, Washington. I put the wrappers in my bag of course!)

    I have spoken about this while sitting in the passenger seat on a crowded road as my mom inched forward. Less likely to pontificate when we’re zipping along on an empty road, all car commercial-like. 😉

  11. Oh thank god I found this site! I thought I was the only one who had a “driving issue.” Mines somewhat a little different though. I CAN NOT absolutely under no circumstances be a passenger. It used to be that I could handle the backseat ok, but it’s gotten worse. Can’t do it. Front seat or back. I feel like I am trapped and about ready to jump out of my skin. I have to drive – although that in itself is starting to become a challenge. I can’t do highways/freeways. If it’s late at night and there isnt many people on the highway I can usually well, maybe sometimes I can do it, carefully and not as shakey, but during the day when theres a gazillion people on the road.,,NO. I stay in the right lane till I have to get off at the exit, sometimes I have to get off at the first exit I come to just to keep from freaking out. I am deathly afraid if someone starts to merge on to the highway from the right. Basically I avoid highways as much as possible. I’ve become known as the “Backroads B!tch. Trust me, it’s become a problem when I have to someplace because not only am I the one who has to do the driving, but we’re not taking the highway. I’ve even offered to take seperate vehicles and than I hear about how crazy I am and to just get over it. Wish the hell I could just get over it. I’m 35 now and have been having these issues for most of my life.

    Going over bridges doesn’t seem to bother me…at least so far. It’s under. As in going under a highway over pass. Left turns are another thing. I am deathly afraid to go to much in to it with a dr. or anything because I can’t risk loosing my license. I’d never be able to leave the house if that were to happen.

    I will say this though. I was able to take a bus day trip to NYC. recently – something I never thought I’d ever be able to do. It didn’t bother me and hardly felt like we were moving at all. Planes forget it won’t even think about it.

    I just don’t know what to do or how to make these stop. It’s embarrassing and sad the way I am living my life. . .

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