I had panic attacks wall to wall on my birthday, which is never a very good day for me.
I suffer from anxiety and panic most of the time. I’ve had a lot of terrible experiences which have left me constantly braced for terrible things. I’ve also got poly-cystic ovary syndrome, which can make a brain start panicking all on its own from a chemical imbalance. I regularly wake up in a hypervigilant state, fully expecting that my husband and daughter will have asphyxiated from carbon monoxide in the night, or that a SWAT team will burst through my front door mistaking the address, or that the harassing neighbor will be looming over me with a gun. This is my usual state. There was no reason to panic on my birthday. It was a good day. A friend had sent us some money to help replace our ruined car, which we badly needed. Together with the gofundme money, it would be enough. I could finally return the geriatric borrowed car that was too unreliable to drive on the freeway. But I couldn’t stop anticipating how this would be a bad thing. I panicked all day long.
The next day, I got to work looking for a car. This had to be my job, because I’m the family’s only driver. Michael’s mother drove motorcycles instead of cars so he never learned. This had to be my car and mine alone, even though the thought terrified me. I lined up all the listings for used cars in our price bracket that looked promising. I googled Japanese-sounding names and narrowed them down to cars known to be reliable. Of course, that was no guarantee that they would be reliable. All the dealerships we can afford are seedy at best. Exactly half of their reviews on Google maps are from people who are thrilled with their purchase, and the other half are irate people complaining that they were sold dangerous, expensive wrecks. I tried sending emails to ask about the cars, but nobody emailed back, so I had to pick up the phone– another panic trigger. Finally I narrowed it down to one dealership that looked promising. I typed out a script and I read it as I talked to them on the phone. I told them which three cars I wanted to see. I arranged a mechanic I could test drive the cars to, so I wouldn’t become one of those angry souls in the Google maps comment box but would be sure the car was in working order. I asked a local friend if she could please drive me to Pittsburgh and drop me off. I downloaded the Uber app so I could be sure to get home even if every single car was a lemon. You can’t Uber from Steubenville, but you can Uber back from Pittsburgh where most of the used car dealerships I could afford are.
After each step, I panicked. After each panic, Michael and Adrienne and my friends on social media did something to take my mind off things. They made jokes. They gave good advice. Adrienne kept putting the guinea pig on my lap so he could climb up my sweater and sit on my shoulder like a parrot.
That night I barely slept, because I was worrying.
The next morning, I rode with my friend into the city.
I’ve been to Pittsburgh many times this year, but always into the tunnel and across the bridge– never beside the tunnel and down the road beside the mountain. It’s not quite so spectacular to drive beside the mountain. You don’t get that magical view of the skyscrapers across the river. Instead, it’s just a long noisy crowded boulevard lined with used car dealerships. I’ve never seen so many used car dealerships. There’s one grim-looking rusted squat building next to another next to another, each surrounded by a lot of polished up vehicles in different stages of disrepair. I wanted to run away.
I’ve never felt so alone as when my friend wished me good luck and dropped me off in front of the dealership I’d spoken with the day before. And then, after she left, I felt even more alone, because the dealership was not open. And the three cars I’d admired online were nowhere to be seen.
Panic rose in my throat like a geyser, but I swallowed it.
I paced around the lot for several minutes, praying to Saint Michael, wondering what to do. I called the number of the dealership twice, but it went to voicemail. The open and closing times written on the sign out front were so faded I could barely see them, but I knew if I waited an hour to see if they opened I’d lose my spot I’d arranged at the mechanic. I wanted to curl up into a ball and hyperventilate, but somehow I didn’t.
Then, on a whim, I paced right into the lot next door and stared pointedly at a car whose make and model I’d been admiring online, just to see what would happen.
The pointed staring worked. A man materialized behind me like a genii and asked if he could help. I asked for the mileage and the price, and if I could see the Carfax. The miles on the car were low, compared to others I’d been looking at. The Carfax was promising, with no recalls or accidents. The price was significantly higher than I’d meant to spend, and I started to panic again, but I didn’t let it show.
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly,” I said. “I only meant to spend such-and-such.”
I hadn’t meant to take part in a game of haggling, but I said the magic words. The genii insisted that he wouldn’t make a profit with all the work he’d put into the car, which we both knew was a lie, and he knocked five hundred dollars off the price.
That was still a bit too much, but we had it in the bank. If I scrapped the old Neighborhood Trolley this month I could use that money toward the tax at the BMV when I registered it, leaving us with just about zero but no worse off than we’d been before the accident. We’re always at zero this time of the month. Rent is due to be mailed on the 15th, and we’re always good for it when the landlord cashes it on about the 20th, but it’s always a close call. We would have the same close call or a little closer, with a working car, if I went through with this.
“I’ll have to call my husband,” I said, so the genii would know there was a male waiting in the wings to get angry if this went badly. I had a loud conversation about the bank account, and then I announced that I was test driving the car to a mechanic, which the genii permitted.
The drive was difficult. I missed several turns on the maddening zig-zagging streets and had to double back. I was having a terrible time steering the surprise car I hadn’t planned to look at, and I wondered at what a bad driver I’d become. I started to panic, but again, I swallowed it. Eventually, I found the mechanic, who found that the car needed an alignment but nothing else. He showed me that the bottom of the car wasn’t rusty and that lots of good work had been done on the vehicle. He even drove the car around with me in the passenger seat after he’d given it the once-over, nearly veering into telephone poles once or twice to show me that the car’s wheels weren’t aligned properly.
It turns out I’m not a bad driver. I was just driving a car that was tilted the wrong way, in heavy traffic, in one of the worst cities for driving. It’s a bit like learning to run with lead weights tied to each ankle– it makes you a better runner once the weights come off. After the alignment, the car glided like a speed skater, all the way to the bank. I drove it perfectly and I only got lost twice.
After the bank, the car skated to the genii’s dealership, and then to the notary, and suddenly I was on my way home.
I’d done it.
I’d shopped for a car by myself.
And I hadn’t had one panic attack.
I drove to the gas station and filled her up. The lever to open the gas tank was down below the seat. It took me a minute to find it but I didn’t panic.
I found the freeway, back beside the mountain and west to Ohio, without even using my GPS. Driving back and forth to the mechanic and the bank, the notary and the dealership, had taken so long that I hit the freeway in the middle of rush hour traffic leaving the city. But I didn’t panic.
I managed to swallow my first meal of the day on the way home.
I can do things without them blowing up in my face after all. In fact, maybe I’m good at doing things. Maybe I’ve been driving a brain with a bad alignment for a long time, and it’s made me an excellent driver.
I can do things– not completely alone, not in a vacuum, not with the rugged and narcissistic American self-reliance we’re all gaslit into thinking we ought to have. But with the help of friends and with advice and cheerleading from chosen family, I can do things. I can even do them without panicking.
The name of this car is Serendipity. But that’s a hard word to spell, so I’ll probably just call it the Neighborhood Trolley, risen from the dead.
I feel like I’ve risen from the dead myself.
It’s going to be all right.
image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.