- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge offers a postcard-perfect view of the 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 mph … 40 … 35.

Some people will do anything to avoid crossing bridges such as the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, informally known as the Bay Bridge. Its 186-foot height and 4-mile-long ride causes 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 round trip 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 across the 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, said 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.

Miss Ross said two clients had their wives lock them in the trunks of their vehicles, then drive them across the Bay Bridge.

I’m secretly relieved when I hear these stories.

Fears and phobias are not the same. The Bay Bridge accident this summer in which a truck went through a Jersey wall might have led to some understandable angst. Those are fears.

With phobias, the fear is out of proportion to the threat of danger, often leading to avoidance.

Looking back, I recognize my behavior on bridges doesn’t make sense. 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.

My having a bad experience on the Bay Bridge after college, then giving up on Ocean City was the avoidance that Miss 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 with the smallest of steps. In one case, Miss 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.

Eventually, even a highly phobic person can become desensitized and learn to cope with the misfired fight-or-flight reactions.

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, Miss 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.

I had decided to conquer the Bay Bridge in June because work demanded it.

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 five minutes to cross, longer in traffic and even longer if my speed slowed.

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. The first wave of panic comes when the bridge appears on the horizon.

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.

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