This isn’t easy for me to admit: I grew up in Centreville, and I’ve been a confident Bay Bridge driver all my life. Until a year ago, that is, when at the end of a long drive home from another state, I had a sudden, full blown panic attack on the eastbound span late at night. I crept across dangerously slowly, trying desperately to breathe while chanting semi-hysterically, “You can do it, you’re almost there, you can do it.” I didn’t believe a word of it. Along with heart-stoppingly terrified, I felt flabbergasted and bewildered. Where did this come from?? I love bridges, especially this one. The Bay is so pretty! You can see so far! Look at the boats and the birds and the wind on the water! What demon force has frozen the blood in my veins?
I managed a few crossings with great difficulty over the winter, but in March I found myself stuck on the shoulder of Rte. 50, a few hundred feet east of Exit 32—in other words, just beyond the point of no return. I’d had a head-on collision with a wall of panic far more sturdy than the sketchy guardrails on the bridge. To my great shame and disbelief, I sat frozen in my car all night, utterly paralyzed with the fear.
After an hour or two, a living breathing saint in the unlikely form of a state trooper stopped to find out what was going on. Officer Kahn extended compassion and empathy as I stammered through an explanation for loitering on the side of the road in the middle of the night. He guided me to a safer parking spot, where I could gather my wits and try to find my way out of my dilemma.
There I sat for several hours, feeling ridiculous, alternately psyching myself up to do this simple thing that I’ve done thousands of times and knowing without a doubt that if I get up onto that bridge, the side rails will close in and I will definitely die, taking all the other drivers with me.
At sunrise, Officer Kahn even offered to escort me across the bridge before the end of his shift. I convinced myself I could make it if I kept my eyes locked on his taillights and pretended I was on a regular road, but halfway up the dog legged ramp at the beginning of the bridge, I froze, and hit the brakes again. Even my guardian angel looked a little frustrated as he radioed to request a lane closure, and a tow truck. I haven’t attempted the trip since.
I can still drive myself from Kent Island to the Western Shore without a hitch. It’s the eastbound span that’s the horror show for me: It’s only two lanes wide, it’s got that cursed curve as you head up the incline—and now it’s under construction until at least 2025! So, not only does the ever-changing maze of barrels and reflectors and lane closures add a psychedelic funhouse vibe to the trip, it also triggers insidious questions about those flimsy guardrails, and corrosion, and 1950s building codes. Nighttime is the worst, what with approximately 85 billion reflectors and randomly flashing arrows scattered on the roadway like sequins on prom night, blinding work lights focused directly at your windshield, and impatient tractor trailers in the rearview.
I can’t live here and not be able to drive home from Annapolis, so I’m bound and determined to overcome the phobia. Luckily, I’m fine as a passenger in either direction— especially armed with with beta blockers to help prevent the panic from breeding more panic. I’ve devised a sort of ad hoc recovery program, diligently catching rides to the Western Shore with trustworthy friends as often as I can, in order to build up a nice big hoard of positive bridge experiences to quell the feedback cycle of fear.
I think it’s helping. My next step is to find someone willing to loop back and forth across the bridge on some auspicious afternoon as many times as we can stand it. Maybe if it goes well I’ll even try taking the wheel. Or maybe that will wait for another day. I need to conquer it, and I believe I can—otherwise I’ll have to move to a different state.
As bewildering and shocking as my new terror is for me, I realize that I’m far from alone. In the past, I gave people with the dreaded William Preston Lane Phobia a smugly pitying side-eye and no sympathy, but now that I’ve joined the ranks of the white-knuckled hyperventilators, I find fellow phobics everywhere. Twas ever thus, but Maddie, a young woman who drives people across the bridge for a fee, suspects it’s gotten worse lately. She floated a theory in Christine Tkacik’s bridge phobia story in the Baltimore Banner a few months ago: “A lot of people’s mental health got worse after COVID.” Ain’t that the truth!
I have no doubt that, for me at least, this shiny new fear is an unexpected side-effect of the pandemic. Maybe I got out of practice at high-intensity driving. Maybe I lost faith in the solidity of realities I’ve always trusted, and the Bay Bridge got swept up in that. Mental health in general, as Maddie notes, has grown shakier for almost everyone. This fact is visible all around us, manifested in different ways and to different degrees for everyone. Maybe bridge fear is just my nervous system’s cute little way of acting out my covid trauma.
Whatever the reason, it’s a major impediment to life on the Eastern Shore. Growing up in Queen Anne’s County, the bridge represented freedom, options, all the glittering possibilities of a life beyond cornfields and insular small towns. The bridge was the road to excitement: ideas, dreams, culture—shopping! We’re much less isolated over here today, but the constraints of life on this side of the bay are still significant. Access to employment, to health care, to many essentials and conveniences often means crossing the bridge. Even traveling in the wider world often begins with driving over the bay—that’s where the airports are. With public transportation minimal throughout most of Maryland and essentially nonexistent on the Eastern Shore—including services like Uber—if you can’t drive yourself across the Bay Bridge, you’re missing a level of autonomy that most adults take for granted.
The state used to help anxious drivers across the bridge, a practice I wish they would resume, for people who can’t afford the $40 a pop it costs for a commercial service like Maddie’s. It could be great if there were other low-cost resources to help people overcome bridge anxiety, too. How about classes, and maybe special “anxious driver” events where bridge traffic could be calmed and supervised and 18-wheelers were prohibited, so people could try it in gentler conditions, with rescue drivers available. I also wish there were a ferry, and a train, and regular bus routes across the bay, all of which would be enormously helpful to bridge-phobics, and would help ease the brutal bridge traffic that literally traps people in their homes on Kent Island.
If one of the world’s scariest bridges is going to be the sole lifeline connecting the two halves of our state, I think we ought to help people get across it.