How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bridge

Allow me to relive a nightmare: We’re driving down the New Jersey turnpike in mom’s blue bus-like Volkswagen Vanagon. We’re going to D.C. to visit fam’, and the route is so familiar I’ve memorized each exit and its corresponding town. Plugging along with my brothers in the back; Mom at the wheel; and me, fidgety, in the middle row, we feel each jag in the road and the greater pull of what’s headed up the turnpike. We finally pass the ominous green sign with its letters of doom: Delaware Bridge, 10 miles ahead. And so it starts — the nausea, the palpitations, the first tremors of a panic attack in the making. Mom and my brothers start singing and try to distract me. But it’s too late. I’ve already seen the sign, and it already feels like we’re going to die.

It’s called gephyrophobia or, more simply, a fear of bridges. It’s a real condition, believe it or not, and it used to cause a hell of a lot of embarrassing vehicular drama on my behalf. During grammar school field trips into New York City via the George Washington Bridge, teachers used to let me hide under the seat to avoid sights of the 200-foot drop into the mighty Hudson River. And there was that time in college when I traveled with friends to Hampton, Va., not knowing we had to cross the 20-mile Chesapeake Bridge, and I awoke to the sight of endless water and started to freak, causing my friend to almost drive off the bridge. Then there’s the time I had to cross the Delaware Bridge alone in order to get back to college, and I had to pull over a mile beforehand to call Mom so she could talk me out of turning around.

Not to mention, when Drew and I first staked out a driving route in anticipation of our move to New Orleans, we were prepared to drive 250-plus miles out of the way to avoid crossing the longest causeway in the world. I know, I know. I sound like a freak. But there’s a reason I’m admitting this to you, and it all ties in with warm and fuzzy theories of coming of age, metaphors of transitory phases, etc.

Psychoanalyst Sàndor Ferenczi — seemingly the only one to study bridge anxiety — once wrote that gephyrophobia originates in a profound fear of “crossing over to what lies ahead,” whether it’s from the womb or an enormous life change. And bridge anxiety is an extreme manifestation of the stress associated with such changes. Actually, my diagnosis is much more unsophisticated and less clinical: I’m not a good swimmer, and I’m afraid of heights. Seems logical enough.

Drew and I shared a good laugh about all this as we crossed over the Huey P. Long Bridge last Saturday on our way back from the Zurich Classic. I told him about an article my college friend — yes, the one who almost drove off a bridge because of me — e-mailed about a North Carolina dentist with a fear of bridges who last week won the Seven Mile Bridge Run in the Florida Keys.

Incidentally, my friend also included a little message along with the article: “Freaks unite! LOL.” But little does she know; I’ve overcome bridge anxiety, especially since crossing the Causeway — all by myself! — a few weeks ago. It was exhilarating crossing it for the first time. The sight of endless water was comforting and strangely familiar this time around. It could be because the bridge is closer to water and thus gives the illusion of complete safety, even in spite of the two accidents last week that resulted in people overboard.

One would think crossing New York City-metro bridges would be enough to whittle away silly phobias of bridges and heights, but in my case it never did the trick. It wasn’t until we moved here and I crossed the CCC, Causeway and Huey P. that I conquered the fear and learned to trust the sensation of powerlessness and the unfounded anxieties of not making it to the other side.

I’m not sure if it was a voodoo spell or just gradual adaptation to the “Big Easy way,” but I’ve finally made it to the other side, and I’ve never felt more at home or more alive.

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