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For phobics, tall bridge can be a terror

/ Source: The Associated Press

Maryland’s Bay Bridge offers a postcard-perfect view of the Chesapeake Bay, seagulls and ... whatever. I’m not looking.

I am memorizing every curve of the car’s bumper in front of me. Approaching the eastbound span on my way to a summer conference in Ocean City, my hands grip the wheel, my heart thunders and I’m talking to myself.

Calm down, you can do this.

But as the car climbs the bridge, everything goes on fast-forward.

Look at the painted line. Watch that car. Breathe in. One, two, three, four. Don’t look over.

Then I look over — about 19 stories down — and gasp. My head spins. For a few seconds, I feel as if I’m falling through the ripples of heat in the air and down to the dark water below. My station wagon slows to 45 miles per hour ... 40 ... 35.

Some people will do anything to avoid crossing bridges like the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge, its 186-foot height and 4-mile ride causing anything from mild distress to a full-blown panic attack. But many push on, motivated by necessity, pride and perhaps penny-pinching.

It costs $50 roundtrip to hire a private contractor to drive you over the dual-span bridge.

With my lifelong dread of bridges, I remember muttering when I learned that Maryland last year stopped offering free rides over the Bay Bridge, No. 1 on my list of terror spans. And yet ending the freebies might have been the best thing the state has done for those like me.

You need to cross, one way or the other, to get control of the phobia, according to psychotherapist Jerilyn Ross, president and chief executive of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. In fact, part of the therapy is learning how to do it.

“The more you avoid it, the more it mushrooms,” she said.

And here’s mushrooming for you: Two clients of Ross’ had their wives lock them in the trunks of their vehicles and then drive them across the Bay Bridge. Ken Medell, whose transportation company holds a state contract to drive people over the bridge, says he’s had customers lie down in the back seat. Others cry, shake with fear or hide their faces behind newspapers.

I’m secretly relieved when I hear these stories.

“Now that’s phobic,” I think. “I’m just afraid of bridges.”

Fears and phobias are not the same. After last year’s collapse of the Minneapolis freeway bridge, any driver might have reasonably worried about structural problems in other spans. And a Bay Bridge accident in which a truck went through a Jersey wall this summer might have led to some understandable angst.

'What if I lose it?'

With phobias, the fear is out of proportion to the threat of danger, often leading to avoidance. And if you play back your reactions, you realize they’re not rational.

My first thought on learning about the Bay Bridge accident wasn’t fear of an accident but fear of the fear. “What if I were stuck in traffic on the span and looked down, everything spinning around and around? What if I lose it?”

Medell, owner of Kent Island Express, can’t recall a single call from someone afraid of a bridge collapse. And the Bay Bridge truck accident didn’t lead to any noticeable increase in requests for his passenger service. In fact, mainly because of the fee, he expects the number of drive-over trips — around 4,000 annually in recent years — to decline to about 3,000 this year.

Looking back at other high-flying experiences, I recognize my behavior on bridges doesn’t make sense. With little problem, I have stared into a volcano crater and stood atop mountains. Once, I flew on a rickety prop plane in Central America in which the behind-schedule pilot took off with the door open. A few gulps, but that was just fear.

On bridges, my reactions confound me. My terror seems to rise with the incline, height and length of a span. And whether there is an unobstructed view from afar — more time to think of the upcoming nightmare. And whether you can look over the side and see what’s below.

More than a decade ago, I had a bad encounter with the John P. Grace Memorial Bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston, S.C. I was driving my best friend, then a medical student at a nearby university. And suddenly, there was a 155-foot monster in front of me.

The narrow bridge, built in 1929 and demolished a few years ago, made rattling noises. I froze. Embarrassed, I hoped my friend didn’t notice. But who was I fooling? I had stopped talking and breathing. Clammy hands on the wheel and eyes locked in forward position. My foot came off the pedal, and the car almost came to a complete stop.

My friend, Tammy, and I can make each other laugh hysterically. This time, she realized it wasn’t a joke. She began chatting about other things, and somehow, we crept across that bridge, followed by irritated drivers.

But one bridge in particular has always loomed largest. It is the Bay Bridge, the perfect thoroughfare to hell.

As a teenager, I saw it as the roadblock to bliss. It was the most direct way to cross the Chesapeake Bay to get to Ocean City and other Atlantic beaches — but always terrifying. From one angle, the bridge just seems to end in the sky.

After college, I had my first Bay Bridge “freak-out.” With the spans and towers looming, my heart pounded and my confidence faltered. At the toll booth, I asked for help. I pulled to the side, got in the passenger seat, and a state transportation worker took my place.

After that, I just lost interest in Ocean City. I began planning vacations in Virginia Beach, about 80 miles farther but with the bonus of less-scary bridges. For instance, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, en route to Virginia Beach barely rattles me because, at less than 20 feet above the water, it’s not high enough to give me the dizzies.

But my giving up on Ocean City was the avoidance that Ross warned about, and it is a good measure of the severity of a phobia. The treatment is quite frightening to me, but it makes sense: You learn how to cross bridges, starting with the smallest of steps. In one case, Ross would drive a client over the bridge. He started in the back seat, then the front passenger seat. Then, he was driving. He would practice on smaller bridges, making his way to the higher ones.

Learning to cope

Eventually, even a highly phobic person can become desensitized and learn to cope with the misfired fight-or-flight reactions. “You want to do it to the point that you’re bored,” she said.

If you keep going over bridges, you eventually learn to trust that your feelings are frightening but not dangerous.

And if you do start to freak out, Ross says you shouldn’t fight the symptoms; just acknowledge them and try to refocus. If you’re breathing too quickly, try to slow it down. If you’re clenching your hands, relax them. You could also envision your reward at the end — a plate of crab cakes, a trip to the designer outlet mall, sailing on the ocean.

I had decided to conquer the Bay Bridge in June because work demanded it; I had a conference in Ocean City.

On my way east, the bridge looked ominous, its towers shimmering in the heat and blurred by the haze as I approached. From the car, I could see the boats, only tiny specks in the water. Even worse, I knew it would take me a long 5 minutes to cross, longer in traffic and even longer if my speed dropped off.

Even as I felt the dread creep over me, I was working with my own coping strategies, slowing down my breathing and spinning mind, listening to talk radio and talking to myself. Even though my foot eased off the accelerator and I briefly felt as if I would lose control, I kept moving. It was a demonstration to myself that I could do it, and one more chance to enjoy Ocean City.

At the end of the weekend, it’s time to out-psych the trip back. From my hotel in Ocean City, I call a state transportation number and ask for the name of the drive-over service. I write it down but don’t call.

“I’ll pull over at the outlet center for a break and make a decision then,” I tell myself. I keep going, though.

“I’ll make a decision at the toll booth,” I say.

The first wave of panic comes when the bridge appears on the horizon. I realize I’ve forgotten there’s no toll booth on the way back. Did I trick myself?

My hands grip the wheel and my heart thunders.

Calm down, calm down. One, two, three, four. Look at the painted line. Breathe. Don’t look over.

Finally, I’ve made it to the top, another success. And it’s all downhill from here.