I’ve had this in drafts for a few months now, debating whether or not to complete it. Because putting it onto “paper” as it were, makes it real, and that’s sometimes scary, especially given the nature of this piece. But here I am.
“I went to visit one of my most precious friends over the weekend, the lovely, blindingly talented and generally superhuman @alwayscoffee. She lives a whole other country away, but it’s worth the mileage one of those folks who’s irrevocably proven that the internet isn’t just about porn, advertisements and stranger danger, and more tangibly; that the bonds of true friendship can withstand the test of distance, time and maybe even any eventual Trumpian walls (heh). She’s already written a post about my visit, about gestures and friendship, which was frankly far more touching and beautiful than I deserve (don’t hit me). In all honesty, I feel I should return the praise, and I will in a form that properly expresses my gratitude for having such a kickass goddess of a friend… but that’s not entirely why I’ve come back here to write.
I’m writing because on the way back from that visit, something rather extraordinary happened to me, and I don’t use that word lightly. And it all started with a panic attack.
You see, while I was visiting my friend (she doesn’t know this… yet) I’m quite convinced I got food poisoning. (Though I hesitate to blame the disgustingly satisfying roadfood disaster that are McNuggets… I suspect they were the delicious culprits. I am to McDonald’s what most people are to booze after a bad hangover: NEVER AGAIN … until next time.) I’d driven a long way for a short visit, which is something I really don’t mind doing for people that are awesome, but ended up feeling ill for most of it unfortunately. The one night I spent there mainly comprised of me writhing around the adorable room she’d set up for me in a sleepless, sweaty groany mess, after having gone to bed at an embarrassingly early hour. Some girl’s night I ended up providing! (I said don’t hit me, Ali) I eventually got to sleep at some point, but I hadn’t slept much the prior night either (because the gods love cruel jokes) and so, I was in rough shape the next morning.
I was exhausted, discovered the HARD way, that Google maps was completely Picasso about the proportion of distance between our houses (and I mean, off by at least 3 hours), AND my innards were about as cooperative as a rabid africanized hornet’s nest. And my friend’s Dad made what would ordinarily be the most amazing breakfast ever (blueberry pancakes) except for the fact that I found out food was basically killing me from the inside out that day. (I ate them anyway because BLUEBERRY PANCAKES, PEOPLE) Basically, I wanted to get home as soon as possible, as most sick people do. There’s just something a little more comforting, especially to an anxious person, about grumbling in agony in your own bed as opposed to in the helpless faces of well-meaning friends, when the last thing you want is negative attention from lovely, generous people as you bestow pestilence onto their household. But as it was, I was about 10 hours away from my bed, so I hightailed it out of there awkwardly quickly, hoping to escape the nevertheless delightful company before I blew chunks all over it, or worse. (The other end was rearin’ for a turn as well.) So dearest friend, I am sorry; but now you know.
In short, the trip back was a recipe for anxious disaster.
My particular brand of anxiety comes from losing control over my body. I don’t know why, or how it started, but it’s always been that way for me. I’ve always been afraid of throwing up, or passing out, or whatever, in public. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never been drunk: I’m not a religious zealot or higher-than-though sobriety pusher… I just don’t like the idea of losing control over my actions, or being put into situations where very public embarrassment could happen. And no, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s an introvert thing. Maybe it’s too much pride. Maybe it’s my dad running in mortal terror every time we puked as kids (not that I blame him; children are disgusting little creatures, sometimes). But the point is, well, shitting yourself on the New Jersey Turnpike definitely qualifies as public embarrassment.
Though my brain was probably exacerbating the likelihood of that happening, it was nevertheless a very real, and very terrifying possibility that day. Because anxious people like having a way out. We identify exits. We have escape plans. We always make a plan B in all unfamiliar or social situations.
But there is no Plan B on some stretches of highway, where stopping is not allowed and shoulders are absent. You see, the part of the road I was approaching is a very urban, very chaotic stretch, with about a million lanes, no shoulders and LOTS of insane drivers. No escape route. No bathroom. I had already identified it as an “oh shit” zone (in more ways than one, apparently) on my way there, and was already dreading it more than I ought to, never mind the fact that I was now battling gastrointestinal treachery to boot. In short, it took me about three seconds of realizing I’d gotten to that area before the anxiety kicked into high gear and forced me to a dead halt at the nearest (and last) roadside stop before that stretch of just, AWFUL road.
I stayed there about an hour, paralyzed with cramps, fear and dizziness. My loving boyfriend, and my amazing friend whom I’d left just hours earlier talked me down as best they could, as I entered into a pretty much full blown panic attack. It hadn’t happened in years, to that extent. And worse, it had to happen at possibly the noisiest and most populated “rest” stops I’ve ever been in. No escape. No exit strategy. No internet (different country). People everywhere. Red alert, Captain.
I stayed in my car hunched over for about a half hour, terrified and crampy, before I finally decided that I HAD to get out of there. If I could just get to the next town, called Mahwah, just over 20 minutes away… my ordeal would be over. I would be in a new state, on a calmer and most importantly, familiar highway, with shoulders (and bushes) to spare in case of emergency stopping. And yes, I realize I sound completely crazy… but that’s just what anxiety is like.
I drove out of the parking lot in a cold sweat, my insides turning to liquid as I hit the turnpike, to the point where I swear I felt goldfish gallivanting around my guts. I felt myself slipping into full blown panic mode, and at 70 miles an hour, it wasn’t an option. The good/horrible thing about anxiety is that over time, you learn to recognize your symptoms, and gauge what you can and can’t talk yourself out of. Well, I was about 3 microseconds away from full-blown, mind-exiting-your-body sort of panic. That’s when I decided that it couldn’t happen. As a last ditch effort, I turned on the radio (because as luck would have it, the friggin’ MP3 player wasn’t working) hoping to distract myself from imminent descent into sweaty oblivion. I was getting nothing but static on the channel sweep, until finally, I found a functional jazz station.
Now, I can safely say that I have never in my life been inclined to listen to jazz. Not once. Ever. I respect the art-form, studied it in music class, know some basics… but for some reason, it’s one of those styles I never actively seek out, despite it being pleasant enough. But for some reason, the literal instant the song came on, my insides seemed to calm down some. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, as a particularly nasty and stressful part of the Turnpuke stretched out before me, but the music seemed to be soothing me to a degree where I could drive. Crunched into a ball of angst, gripping the wheel for dear life maybe, but drive nonetheless. As I went over my deep yoga breaths (very good coping mechanisms for anxiety, btw), I began to really listen to the music. I couldn’t say who it was, but I knew it was familiar. My thoughts were cut short however, as I approached the final toll booth in the state. My anxiety spiked, because I hadn’t prepared my change, not to mention that I wasn’t prepared to deal with people at that point (neither would you, if you were a glistening, shaking green shell of a person), much less the deal with the evil subhumans they tend to hire for tollbooth work. I rolled down the window and for some reason, this woman was a fucking ray of sunshine. There was no one behind me, so she merrily asked me where I was from, and feeling my insides writhe in digestive rebellion, I hastily mentioned Canada and stupidly, that I appreciated the nice roads here in the States. And for yet some other unknown reason, that made her really happy, and she went on about how nice it was for someone to say that, and wished me a really good day whilst illuminating me with her blinding joy. And ordinarily, I’d be cynical about all that cheese (I honestly was expecting a musical number at any moment), but truth be told, her random kindness really made me feel better. To this day, I wish I could have told her.
That’s when the next song came on.
This time, I was sure I’d heard it, and found myself transported back to innumerable Christmases in my youth, dancing around on a plush, royal blue carpet in front of a tinsel-packed tree, at my grandparents’ house. And it hit me, as I realized whose hand-me-down car I was driving, and whose favourite type of music I was listening to, and whose kind, instant-feel-good words that lady’s reminded me of.
In that moment, as I barrelled towards oblivion on the edge of panic along the Jersey Turnpike, I was certain as the sky was blue, as certain as anyone is reading this, that my grandfather was with me. Right there and then, in that car.
It wasn’t frightening or bewildering or religious as an experience; it was just a fact.
He was there, and I knew it.
You see, my grandfather passed away unexpectedly over half a year ago.
But he was there on that highway, doing all the things that he usually did back when I was a kid, to cheer me up. In that instant, I remembered the countless times he’d picked me up from highschool without hesitation because of a “stomach ache” which he knew back then was anxiety-related. How he’d arrive in his little blue (or red) car, blaring jazz music or CBC radio, and how he always knew what to say, or what not to say, to make me feel better. My grandfather was always there when I needed him, when any of us needed him.
It’s hard for me to say this, but honestly, I burst into tears, then. I said, “Grandad is that you? Thanks…” out loud, no matter how embarrassing it might be for me to admit now. And though I’d laughed to myself at the insane amount of napkins my friend had sent with me (along with her delicious snacks for the road), I marvelled at how perfect it was that I had them right beside me when my nose began to run. Grandad had always had a box of tissues right beside the parking brake, too.
I cried with this strange, sad sort of joy, because I knew he was there to help me, like he’d always been. And I shit you not, as I began to regain control over my emotions, the song gently ebbed away, and the channel turned to fuzz just as the sign for Mahwah appeared ahead, over the crest of a hill.
I could not make this up.
I pulled over as the last of the anxiety washed away, to collect myself a little. I was finally on a stretch of road I knew, surrounded by forests and mountains. I’d made it. I debated calling my mom, but she’d probably have thought then, that I was stroking out in the middle of nowhere and been worried. So I called her the day after. I was hesitant, but felt the strong need to tell her about it, because his loss I think, has affected her deeply (understandably) and continues to to this day. I understand that. My grandfather was an amazing person and to that effect when I told her the story, she merely said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world:
“Yeah, I talk to Granddad all the time. He’s always around”.
I don’t really know what else to say about this, except that I wanted to remember it, and share it. I wanted some sort of reminder and acknowledgement to the powers that be, that I am grateful for that moment, and for all the moments I am lucky enough to have had with my grandfather, and my other loved ones who surround me (including my amazing friend in New Jersey, no matter how much I goddamned hate your highway.) I am, and have always been an anxious, emotional and frail sort of person… but I wanted to recognize those defining and powerful moments that happen in a life, which you can refer back to in moments of failure and weakness. This was definitely one of them.”