Facing Existential Fear on the Freeway
How isolation has affected my ability to engage with the world and others.
I've always been a confident driver. When I first started driving, you could even say I was over confident. I learned to drive on snowy, icy roads during a classic Canadian winter. I drove on city roads, on rural roads, on large highways, I even pulled a trailer of horses behind my family's GMC Sierra 2500. All by the time I was 17.
I've now been driving for 15 years (What?! Just realized that's half my life!) And I've moved to the biggest city in Canada, with one of the most notorious highways in all of the Western world. Toronto and Highway 401. I met it with a smile, a cool demeanour and a great playlist pumping through my stereo system. Toronto has a lot of crazy drivers, but I trusted my experience and always felt at home on the road.
But now, after 16 months of relative house arrest, something has changed. Since we've been advised by the government not to leave our houses except for essential services, I've rarely had to drive my vehicle. I work from home now and as Toronto has been in a locked down state for 80% of the pandemic, this has resulted in me only driving a day or two out of the month, and when I drive, it's not very far. This is a far cry from my days out on the prairie, driving on average 3 hours a day, often before the sun rose or after it set.
When I'm on the road now, especially when I'm on the highway, I am no longer calm and confident. I find myself nervous, fearful, seemingly out of my body in an alien world. What once was familiar, is now completely surreal. I struggle to see the highway as anything other than a bunch of metal, death machines flying down a raceway at fatal speeds.
I'm shocked to feel that way. I fight against it, I try to shove down the fear that rises in my throat, to ignore my quickening heart rate and tightening chest. I don't want to feel those feelings.
On the surface, there's an obvious reason for my newfound anxiety. My driving skills have gotten rusty. It's a muscle that's not as easy to flex as riding a bike.
And it's not just that! The fact is, I've gotten used to an indoor sedentary lifestyle. Things move extremely slow in my everyday life. Nowadays I'm hypersensitive to loud noises, bright lights and fast moving objects. So yeah, of course I'm anxious when you throw me onto the most chaotic highway in North America. It all seems to add up but the truth is that my fears run so much deeper than these simple facts...
Since the pandemic began, over a year ago now, I've been faced with the impermanence of life. Suddenly, I wasn’t able to see the ones I loved. My family, who lived in a different province than me, felt like they were in a different galaxy. Time became more precious than ever as I was faced with months that turned into year(s) of time that was seemingly lost.
It all changed so quickly and I found myself thinking about how nothing lasts. Everything is impermanent. Including the people I love. Including me. Death became a newfound acquaintance that visited me regularly. An acquaintance that I was not very comfortable with but who nonetheless unabashedly stalked me as I tried to carry out my days in peace. Death became a major topic of my attention, no matter how hard I tried to avert it. And how did I feel about it? Well, I was terrified. I am still terrified. I’m terrified to lose the people I love and I’m terrified to lose myself.
And so, it would seem the real reason I clam up when I get in the car is my not-so-good friend, death. Who seems closer than ever when I’m on the road. Driving used to represent good times and freedom, now I feel like I’m the main character in a psychological thriller when I’m in the driver’s seat.
This issue is just a microcosm of new personal fears and anxieties that have arisen as a result of global trauma and an isolated lifestyle. One of the biggest fears, along with death, is the fear of the unknown, the fear of others. I had been working so hard previous to the pandemic to build genuine relationships with others, to trust them and to trust that I would be accepted, and if I wasn’t accepted, that was okay too. That trust seems to have gone out the window. This is also evident on the road. I don’t trust other drivers one lick. It’s important to be cautious of other vehicles when driving, however it’s not healthy to have a gratuitous fear of everyone that comes near, which is exactly what I have as of late.
I’m only 29 years old and I have a lot of living ahead (I sure hope), I plan to travel to many places near and far, and I plan to use a car to do a lot of that traveling. So, I’m going to have to find a way to negotiate with this fear. A way to feel safer and at ease, both when I’m out on the highway and just when I’m out of my house! I’m not too worried, because I know it’s possible to overcome anxieties. I’ve done it before and now I’ll do it again. It might take a while but I just have to keep being open to the possibility of this shifting. The possibility that I can transform my fear, or at least make room for something else. Like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence, and if impermanence plays any part in this, I can’t feel this way forever.
I wonder if other people are experiencing this right now, and I’m sure they are. I’ve talked to quite a few people who are apprehensive about getting back to “normal life”. We all seem to be a bit afraid of the world right now. Of each other. But I also know that we want to re-engage. We want to live life as it was meant to be, outside of 4 walls. We want to connect with each other and feel safe.
If you are reading this and you’re feeling scared, or worried about getting back to life. It’s okay. A lot of others are feeling the same. Take it slow and be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. We all probably feel a little awkward right now.
Hope to see you on the road.