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.
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.