Panic on the Highway
"Fear is a fact of life everyone faces from time to time. In most cases fearis a healthy reaction to a dangerous situation. But sometimes fear can be so extreme, so overwhelming, that it interferes with normal living. That is what happened to me driving cross-country last summer.
 I'd agreed to help my brother, Mac, move from the East Coast to California. He would drive a rental truck loaded with his belongings and I would follow him in his sedan, then fly back. We figured it would be a simple trip, with four or five motel stops along the way.
 Living and working in coastal Georgia for most of my life, I did not have a great deal of long-distance driving experience. Looking back on it today, I can see that I'd always felt a twinge of fear when driving over small bridges and along hilly highways. And as I was getting ready for the trip I had a vague concern about the steep mountain roads that lay ahead. But I thought I would get used to them.
 As we crossed some high bridges near the Blue Ridge Mountains on the first leg of our trip, a kind of breathlessness gripped me, a sinking, rolling sensation in the pit of my stomach. I tended to veer slightly away from the edge of the roadway and the drop-off beyond. My knuckles whitened from my tense grip on the steering wheel. At the end of each bridge, a great rush of relief would come over me, only to be replaced in short order by fear of the next obstacle.
 When we stopped in Nashville the first night, I mentioned my feelings to Mac, who is the practical sort. "Oh, that's nothing," he said cheerfully . "Lots of people hate driving on mountain roads and high bridges. Just turn up the music on your radio and focus on that. Keep your mind occupied."
 I gave him a weak smile and said good night. But later as I tossed and turned in bed, I couldn't chase away the apprehension I had about the high driving ahead. The more I tried not to think about it, the more my mind kept going back to that helpless feeling of panic I had on the first leg of the journey. My fear seemed to possess a life of its own. You're being childish , I chided myself. This is ridiculous ! If I could just close my eyes and relax, I thought, the renewal of a good night's sleep would drive the fear away.
 But it didn't go away. All through the flatlands of Arkansas, Oklahoma , north Texas and New Mexico it lay like a coiled snake inside of me. When we approached the high plateau of northern Arizona it began to stir. As the grades grew steeper and the curves sharper, my sense of control faltered, "It's all in your head," I kept repeating desperately. "There is no danger. It's all in your head."
 Yet I couldn't defeat the terror. Mile after mile it was like an invisible force drawing my attention toward the edge of the road where the soft shoulder gave way to thin air. I tried everything I could think of. I cranked up the radio. Sang songs. Recited poetry. All to no avail. The palms of my hands were so sweaty that I had to squeeze the steering wheel to keep my grip.
 I kept closing the gap between my car and my brother's truck, inching toward the reassuring glow of the taillights like a frightened sheep following a shepherd. I could see Mac watching me in his rearview mirror , and that night at supper in Kingman, Arizona, he said, "Leigh, you're tailgating . You're much too close for these mountain roads." He studied my face for a moment, then added, "Tomorrow will be the last day of high country. Just try to hang in there. We've got this far okay. You know there's nothing to be afraid of."
 I understood that. I had to go on. But the prospect of hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs made it impossible for me to eat any supper. Mac tried to keep the conversation breezy, but it didn't help. I excused myself early and went to bed, exhausted.
 Sleep wouldn't come. I lay staring into the dark, listening to the sounds of trucks and cars rushing along the nearby interstate. I tried to summon up reassuring images of home, now so many hundreds of miles away. I thought of Betsy and Tabitha, the two lovable cats that belonged to my husband and me; of Ben, the playful mutt who loved to catch Frisbees. I thought about friends and neighbors. I pictured the faces of my husband and children.
 I also thought about Lillian, our parents' part-time maid. I could almost touch calmness when I thought about Lillian, with her gentle voice and radiant smile. I knew Lillian was praying for me; she always prays for our family, especially when one of us is away. I found myself clutching for a verse from Deuteronomy. How did it go? "Don't be afraid, for the Lord will go before you and will be with you; He will neither fail nor forsake you."
 But nothing could dispel the sense of helplessness that overwhelmed me whenever I contemplated the frowning mountains that lay ahead. The next morning I had to force myself to slide behind the wheel. Just one more day, I kept telling myself. Surely I can find the courage to make it through one day. If I just kept my eyes locked on the back of my brother's truck, if I just made my wheels follow his wheels, I'd be all right. If I would just take slow, deep breaths instead of shallow, terrified gasps, I would be all right.
 If I could just visualize my heart as a place where courage dwelt, instead of panic, I would be all right. I kept telling myself that the fear of crashing through the guardrail and plunging over the edge existed only in my imagination, pot in fact. Control, that was the key. I would cling with all my might to control. I would clutch it tight and take charge .
 But as the day wore on and the road mounted higher, that little core of self-control grew smaller and smaller, and finally, on a heart-stop-ping grade southwest of Barstow, California, it vanished altogether.
 My brother's truck, moving downhill fast, got far ahead of me. With it went the last vestiges of my courage. On one side of my little car the mountain rose like a gigantic wall of sheer rock. On the other side was thin air. I struggled desperately not to look over the edge.
 Traffic was streaming down the grade, mostly big trucks in the righthand lane. I wanted to join them there but I could not bring myself to steer to the right, toward the edge. Instead I kept inching to the left, going slower and slower in the passing lane, trying to hug the mountain wall.
Drivers behind me honked their horns angrily. Panic paralyzed me. I wanted to stop but there was no place to pull over. I tried to say the Lord's Prayer. My throat was too tight for words to come.
 Ahead of me I could see that the road made a sweeping turn to the left. A river of steel was rushing around that curve, moving fast under the pull of gravity. I knew that all I had to do was inch the steering wheel to the left and keep pace with traffic, but my arms were rigid. The fear that filled the car was stronger, much stronger, than I was.
 Behind me the impatient horns blared their angry chorus. I was absolutely certain that I was going to plunge straight ahead, through the flimsy barrier, then down, down, down through an endless drop. I moaned through clenched teeth. Again I tried to pray, this time silently. I begged God not to fail me, to take full control of the situation. Lord, save me from my fear.
 Then, abruptly, something unbelievable happened. The traffic roared on. The curve was coming closer. But suddenly, in a flash, the fear vanished. I experienced a presence, virtually a palpable sensation, of overwhelming love filling my car, washing over me, blotting our the stark panic. Another phrase from the Bible flashed into my mind; "Perfect love casteth out fear." I felt that perfect love, the Lord's love, reaching out to touch my shoulder. A voice, soundless yet perfectly real, said, You are safe now. I am here.
 I moved into the slow lane, next to the dreaded edge, and swept around the terrifying curve. I kept my eyes riveted on the road directly ahead. Down and down I went. The curve seemed like it would never end. But all the way down the mountain I felt love encircling me, keeping me safe from my fear and guiding me.
 Finally I came to a rest area and pulled in. I sagged back in the seat. I unclenched my hands and looked at my fingers, white and bent. The presence I felt so strongly inside the car began to fade, and with it went the last residue of the fear that had gripped me these past several days. It drained from me like a poison. I closed my eyes and said a prayer of thanks before putting the car in gear and returning to the highway.
 I awoke early the next morning in Los Angeles and glanced at the clock: 6:30, which meant 9:30 back home in Georgia. I lay there for a time, thinking about the day before and what I'd discovered that God's perfect love can conquer any situation. He can control things that are beyond our control, even the most crippling fear.
 I picked up the phone and dialed my parents' home in Savannah. A soft, familiar voice answered. "Hi, Lillian," I said. "We made it to California all right."
 There was a pause and a little sigh from the other end. Then Lil-lian murmured, "Thank You, Jesus.
 A little electric tingle seemed to run up my spine. "Why do you say that, Lillian?'
 "I have to thank Him. I prayed all day for you yesterday. I asked Him to ride with you and keep you safe, to put His hand on your shoulder. He did, didn't He?"
 "Oh, yes, Lillian," I answered, "yes, He did."
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