It’s been ten months tomorrow since this little squish came into our lives.

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I’ve posted a lot of pictures since that day, most of them featuring him and his big sister, who are truly the delight of my life. Some of the pictures even include me, and in them I’m almost always smiling, except when I’ve been pooped, peed, puked or otherwise spilled on, if that’s the case then I’m not smiling. Okay, so maybe I’m smiling in about 15% of these pictures. Still, I’m happy. Incredibly happy.

Until I have to drive my children on the highway.

What I haven’t posted pictures of is what my face looks like when I’m halfway down an on-ramp. Partly because texting and driving is high on my list of no-no’s, right up there with dinner without wine ….  But also partly because no one would want to see what that kind of anxiety looks like.

I wasn’t going to write about this, but since I make fun of myself for everything else, why not? More importantly, it’s really been a dark cloud over what should have been some of the happiest months of my life, and I got to thinking that one of my 3 readers might have gone through this once too and be able to share some coping mechanisms with me, or offer to do all my driving for me for the rest of my life. Either or.

I’ve been anxious as long as I can remember … but the irrationally anxious part I can trace back to my third birthday party, when we visited a local jail. That’s right. Happy birthday, little girl, watch us lock up your party guests. Now to be fair, it’s not like we went to a federal prison, but I still left with an undeniable fear of being arrested. To this day, being framed and imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit remains one of my top ten fears. I maintain that I wouldn’t do well in prison. Orange may be the new black but it’s definitely not my color.

This little field trip set off a whole string of before-bed incessant questioning.

“Mom? Am I going to get arrested tonight?” I’d ask as I thought about the pencil I’d accidentally taken home with me that in fact belonged to the teacher. I pictured Mrs. Wolfgram banging on the door at 2 a.m. with a cop behind her, yelling “seize her!”.

But my worry didn’t stop at petty crimes. “Did you lock all the windows? And the doors too? Do you think we’ll be burgled? Do you think there will be a fire? Do you think I’ll have a bad dream? Are there tarantulas in Wisconsin? Is Michael Bolton’s hair really that long?”

These questions were met with an equally long string of patient “No’s”, while my Mom signaled to my Dad to get out the paperwork for the closest asylum for obsessive compulsive children.

Michael Bolton has since cut his hair, but I’ve retained a lot of annoying traits from my early years (like my penchant for his music). Of all these traits, if there’s one that Eric ever leaves me for it will probably be this one. Every night my poor husband climbs into bed bone tired, only to have me sit up and say, “Did I turn the stove off? (Even though we ordered takeout) and “Did you set the alarm?” (Even though I’m 99% sure I heard it beep as he did.) “Do you think Alex is breathing in there? Evelyn was playing with a shoelace earlier, do you think it somehow ended up in her crib? Should I go make sure it didn’t?”

What can I say, I’m a worrier, and if I let myself, I can be REALLY good at it. The Christmas I was 9 I realized I wasn’t as excited about my favorite holiday as usual, and I worried so much that I wasn’t going to enjoy Christmas that year that I quite literally worried myself sick, and spent Christmas with the flu.

I’m such a freak about choking that I cut even my own grapes in half and won’t eat steak alone.

Still, I like to think I’ve mostly got this under control. I’ve spent the majority of my time over the last decade taking care of children — first other people’s and now my own, so I’m used to the typical worry that comes with being in charge of babies and toddlers, and what to do about it. I know how to cut their food just right, what to keep them away from, how to instill a healthy dose of stranger-danger without scaring them completely … how to danger-proof their little lives in every possible way.

So when Alex arrived, I was a pro. Plus I already had a kid, I knew what to expect.

Then when he was around 3 months, I was driving them to a water park in Manitowoc for the day when out of nowhere, the road started swimming before me. I was immediately so dizzy that I was seeing spots, seconds from passing out, (or so I felt) all while traveling 70 mph and driving next to a tractor trailer, with the two most precious passengers asleep in the back seat.

Lucky for me I was also passing an exit, so I quickly turned for it and hung my head out the window so I could breathe again. After recouping at a gas station for a few minutes and getting some air, I headed back for the highway, where it happened two more times before I reached my destination. By the time I got there, I was so scared to get back on the highway, you couldn’t have paid me to do it. But the thing was, I had to do it. I was in Manitowoc and eventually I’d have to get my kids back to Milwaukee.

Turns out I’d experienced my first real panic attacks. Being an anxious person, I thought I’d had panic attacks throughout my life, but I’d never had anything even remotely close to this.

As scary and annoying as they were, I knew what had caused them. I was about to spend an afternoon in a bathing suit three months after giving birth, and I hadn’t really been fond of my body to begin with. Who wouldn’t panic?

Unfortunately for me, they (and that baby weight) haven’t gone anywhere. And although I may be making light of them, they’re really no laughing matter. Over the last 15 years I’ve uprooted my life and started from scratch in a new city five times, and given birth twice, but to this day the hardest thing I’ve ever done is drive the ten miles it takes to get from our current house to our new house.

Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Some days I drive down the highway with no problem at all and make the mistake of thinking my panic attacks are behind me … other days I can feel them coming on with just the anticipation of having to get in the car.

My hands start to shake and sweat, my heart starts racing, there is a tightness in my chest so palpable that I feel like I’m not even breathing. Then when I finally make that turn onto the highway and there’s that “no going back now” drop of the stomach, then the dizziness starts. When they’re really bad I have to stick my head out the window to keep my vision from blacking out. Seriously you’d think I was storming the beach on D-Day. I actually think that to myself in those moments, how people have been in actual danger, real danger, and gotten through it … and I have to talk myself into a five minute 60 mph drive in one of the world’s safest, unsexiest vehicles.

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I mean, come on. That’s a minivan there. It’s not like I’m driving on an episode of Ice Road Truckers.

Still, that’s anxiety for you. It pops up in weird places. Although I’ve never been in one, car accidents are a huge fear of mine, especially with my kids in the backseat. Nowhere in my day is there a more tangible example of my responsibility to keep them safe, and the fear of what could happen to them if I screw that up is so real to me as I approach that on-ramp, I can taste it.

Now Eric will roll his eyes and tell you that I’ve hit my fair share of curbs, and I did start to drive like a cabbie when I was living in Chicago, but these days I’m a good driver. I do my best not to look at my phone, I’m defensive and have maintained just enough of that city aggression to know I’ll never be that person stopping at the end of an on-ramp to look both ways before merging.

What scares me is not knowing if all the other drivers flying past the vehicle containing my kids are being equally vigilant … and a quick glance into their windows leads me to believe they’re not. I see a whole lot of people staring at their phones, and once passed a woman who was playing electronic Yahtzee while painting her fingernails.

But what can you do? You take all the precautions you can … you strap your kids into their recommended carseats in their recommended positions and you hope for the best.

 

Based on the tips I’ve gotten from both the medical professionals I’ve seen about this and the friends and family I’ve talked to about it, sounds like the only thing I can do is face it head on. Although I’m tempted to take the back roads, I can’t do that the rest of my life, and the longer I avoid the highway, the scarier it will be. (Even though I can provide a pretty convincing argument to myself that the back roads are the roads with drive-thru Starbucks.)

This week I’ve forced myself to take a highway drive at least once a day, and today marks day 7 with no panic attacks.

I’m not dumb enough to think it will never happen again, but there is something liberating about facing a fear head-on and succeeding. And if I’m really looking for a positive, what a blessing it is to learn to give up that control now, while my kids are still so young. Because once Evelyn is 16 and boyfriends, piercings and biker gangs really give me something to be anxious about, I’ll have had years of practice managing that anxiety, and I’ll know I’ve done my absolute best to keep her safe, and now it’s up to her and God.

And for those really anxious days, I guess there’s a good bottle of wine and a little Michael Bolton.