I'm like many physicians: a bit of a control freak. C'mon, admit it, it usually takes a Type A personality to push through all this bulls**t: Exams, applications, more exams, more applications, brutal working hours, exhaustion, fear, abject terror, hazing, insurmountable debt.
But sometimes, we're just not in control.
My very first panic attack, I was huddled in a sleeping bag on the cold floor of a medical outpost in El Salvador. It was 2001, the January earthquake. I was one of a small band of medical misfits on a disaster relief mission. I was a student, and my job was translator.
We were housed in the same clinic where we saw patients, on the concrete floor. That night, there were several aftershocks, but no one else on my team woke up. I imagined the ceiling and walls caving in. Some large bug landed on my face. Mosquito? Reduvid bug? Was I going to get Chagas disease? I began hyperventilating, I could not get enough air. I was panting and suffocating at the same time. Nausea overwhelmed. It was pitch black, no electricity. I would have had to crawl over my snoozing colleagues, or throw up all over them....
It was the idea of vomiting (and dealing with vomitus) that broke the spell. Even in my panicked state I had an idea that it was all in my head. Damned if I was going to puke on my attending.
Maybe it's not completely unreasonable to panic whilst in a bona fide disaster zone, although it would have been utterly humiliating, as well as inconvenient...
There have been a handful of episodes like this since, and none with such a good excuse.
This weekend, for example.
It was Labor Day weekend, and I was not on call. I was solo with the kids, and we went on a little road trip, to visit relatives a couple of hours away.
The ride home was ugly storming, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey. My kids are in this sibling rivalry phase, where rivalry means drawing blood by any means necessary. So I had the car VCR on for maximal distraction.
Still, they fought, and I fought to keep my full attention on the road as they yelled: "You wear poopy diapers on your head!" "Oh yeah, you smell like poopy and pee pee AND cat food!" "AAAUGH! MOM he kicked me!" "WAAAGH! MOM she pinched me!"
I was into a long sort of barren highway stretch when I realized that the gas tank was low. Really low. Sixteen miles of gas left low.
Hmmm. Miffed at myself that I hadn't noticed that earlier when we passed several rest stops, I paused the DVD and asked Siri "Where is the closet gas station?"
Siri paused and then ever-so-unhelpfully directed me to a gas station ten miles BEHIND us.
Okay. I kept driving South, looking for any evidence of a gas station at any of the very few exits coming up. They were all for major routes, not towns. No signs indicating restaurants, hotels, or gas stations.
The range dwindled. When the gauge read nine miles, I started to really freak out.
"Okay guys, I need to pause the show."
The kids actually quieted down. I explained that if we didn't find a gas station soon, we may need to pull over and call for help.
But I really, really did not want to do that, in the middle of a heavy late summer rainstorm and on a holiday weekend.
So I just kept driving-- like Dory, Just.. keep.. driving...
With SIX miles left, a lonely exit had a lone sign: "Gas: Mobil"
"Hallelujah!" I called, and gleefully flicked the blinkers on, aiming right, to salvation.
But: the signs then directed me to cut left, OVER the highway, towards the ramp going in the opposite direction. This required me to veer left. The car behind me honked loudly: They were going straight, and I had almost clipped them when I veered left.
Face burning (did I just almost cause an accident?) and heart pounding, I tried to sort out where the hell the goddamned gas station was. It looked like there was a small access road on the other side of the highway, but I would have to cut across two lanes of traffic getting on the highway going in the opposite direction to get there, with literally no wiggle room, just straight across.
There were so many cars! I couldn't make it! I was funneled back onto the interstate: going BACK from where we came.
I yelled, something unprintable, multiple times, banging the steering wheel, then "OH MY GOD WE ARE LITERALLY GOING TO RUN OUT OF GAS ON THE HIGHWAY IN THE RAIN! S--t S--t S---t F---k F---k..." I felt that familiar catch in my breath, that quick succession of gasps that means panic is beginning to overwhelm, except I was DRIVING on the HIGHWAY with my KIDS in the CAR.
The logical M.D. brain kicked in. Should I pull over now? But the shoulder isn't that wide, and the ground is soggy. Pulling over on the interstate could be really dangerous, and if I pull over onto the grass I might get stuck in the mud...
Hey, I can ask Siri! "Siri, where is the closest gas station?"
A Citgo twelve miles away popped up. What??? The Mobil we had tried to reach wasn't on Siri's radar. Maybe it had closed?
So there I was, speeding along the interstate, with five, then four miles left, not sure if there were any options... Crying. The kids were silent.
The next exit was coming up, for a busy route, no buildings, no towns anywhere nearby.
Deep breaths: "Okay, guys, I'm going to try to turn around and get back to the gas station that's supposed to be there that we just missed."
Blinking away tears, I managed to turn around, thinking Okay, at least if we have to pull over now, we're heading in the right direction, and I won't look like such an idiot.
Just.. keep.. driving... Three miles. Two.
I made it back to the same exit and the same veer left and over the highway and across those two lanes of traffic feeding onto the interstate... It was a miracle, there was a break in the cars, we zoomed across, and into the Mobil. With less than two miles of gas left.
As I pumped the gas, my legs shook. We took a little bathroom break. I splashed water on my face, and then felt silly for having had a truly unnecessary freakout in front of my kids.
I've since reviewed this whole incident with my husband, and we have some rules: ALWAYS gas up to the max before a long drive, and never freak out while driving. Pulling over and calling for help is way, way better than getting into an accident.
Still, another reminder that we are not always in control. (And neither is Siri, apparently.)
|Photo credit Holly Mandarich: https://unsplash.com/photos/0317cop-0Ug|