When a year trundles to a close, most of us tend to measure our progress by the number of milestones that we reached during the year. In my case, I’ve been forced to measure my progress by the number of bridges–literally and figuratively–that I’ve crossed in the last twelve months.
In 2010, I faced, head-on, my greatest fear of the last several years. Over one year, I forced myself to conquer an anxiety that snaked into my life earlier in the decade–an inexplicable fear of crossing a long span of a bridge that, my doctor explained, may have been triggered by taking to the road a few times after ingesting a combination of allergy medication and caffeine.
In 2003, I started having panic attacks as I entered highways or ramps leading from highways that connected to other highways. I would break into a sweat. I’d feel as if I’d lost control of the wheel. I would find myself braking hard at inopportune moments. Following that incident and several more during which I was gripped by terror, I would find myself hunting for alternate routes simply to avoid certain challenging sections of highways. I would stall and not go somewhere because I was consumed by the feeling that I would not be able to handle the drive. I put aside work on an exciting writing project because I could not fathom crossing a one-mile span over water. I lacked the mental courage to navigate the bridge I would have to cross to reach Yuba City from the Bay Area.
Last January, however, my passion for writing egged me on even as I confronted another shift in my career. Now I found myself veering over to the other side on overdrive. I began finding that while the drive up the Golden Gate bridge would make me queasy, the return would be a snap. Whether I liked it or not, I found myself signing up for activities in Marin County that put me over the Golden Gate at least twice a week. I was at Left Coast Writers salon at Corte Madera once a every month. I found myself driving up to Sausalito monthly to attend a reading at Why There Are Words, a literary salon where, for two hours, I would steep in the voices of established and emerging writers. I challenged myself by going to places I hadn’t gone before and gnashed my teeth trying to find parking. Then I was at a writing workshop near the AT&T Baseball Park fighting gnarly traffic every Monday, hovering over ugly concrete ramps and bridges and attending the workshop for several months in spring and summer. As if all this driving were not enough to unhinge my delicate self, I sought yet another writing group in San Francisco’s Russian Hill where I could not even see the tail of my van in the mirror as I drove up at a fifty degree incline and spluttered to a stop at a stop sign right at the peak. I found myself going places, not caring about which highways I would ultimately have to roar down; fortunately, one such irrational moment recently found me coursing through a six-mile span of the Richmond bridge on a dismal rainy afternoon. I was not comfortable doing it. I heard my heart in my ears. But I hung on, taking many deep breaths along the way and looking around me at the waters as I pressed on.
“The more you face your fears, the faster you will overcome them,” said Dr. Denise Beckfield, a clinical psychologist and the author of the book, Master Your Panic and Take Back Your Life (Impact Publishers, 2004). While attending a writing workshop in Iowa City in July, Denise and I hit it off. Talking to her about my situation was a reaffirmation that I was doing all the right things.
I crossed other bridges too. I’ve forced myself to enter writing groups where I would put my work out to be critiqued by a group of writers whom I had not met before. In the process, I’ve met many aspiring and established writers of fiction and non-fiction, men and women who have reassured me about my strengths and riddled me with bullets while pinpointing my weaknesses. I’ve gone out of my way to make supportive connections. I’ve sought people with alien ideas. I’ve enjoyed watching talented writers hone their craft in stages as we all hunched over the table exchanging what worked in our stories, what did not and why. This would be the twelve-month period during which I learned that my Indian background was an asset and not a burden as I had originally assumed. This would also be the year in which I learned that every experience, while unique to the person caught in it, is universal to the human condition.
I learned to let go not just my fears for myself. I learned to let go at home too. I watched my younger child take his driver’s license test. In the weeks following his test, I watched him roll out of our driveway to brave the world outside. Then I cheered him on in his first baby step in the world of realationships. He invited a girl to his school’s annual winter ball–a small step for a boy trying to wean himself off of the trappings of adolescence, yet, a giant step for a mother who wished to weave him back into the folds of her cocoon.
It was a year when I stood on the edge, contemplating also the next big decade of my life, realizing that only after crossing over to the other side I’d be able to look back and appreciate my newborn courage to drive myself farther.