Learn to live despite risk, fear

Although only a handful of people know it, there was a time when I couldn’t get behind the wheel of a car without having a panic attack.

It started late one night when I was traveling through fog on Hwy 151. I had just passed the Springville exit, heading toward Marion, when a deer materialized in front of me. I swerved, missed the animal, and lost control. The car took a nose dive into the median, pivoting while in the air. When it ended, the car rested across both lanes on the opposite side of the highway.

The accident replayed in my dreams for weeks afterward. I woke up panting, heart racing.

Suddenly I, a woman who has always loved to drive, was white knuckling the steering wheel with sweaty hands, convinced another deer was around the corner and I wouldn’t be as lucky the next time.

I refused invitations that would require me to drive after dark, and altered my daily routine so that I would be behind the wheel as infrequently as possible. In a word, I was miserable.

A whitetail deer crosses the road at dusk and enters a field on Whitetail Road by Calmar Sunday, Janurary 2, 2011.
A whitetail deer crosses the road at dusk and enters a field on Whitetail Road by Calmar Sunday, Janurary 2, 2011. (Joyce A. Meyer/Freelance)

The fear of that next accident kept me from the people and things that I loved — the stuff that, for me, makes life worth living. Giving in to or avoiding the fear became more important than being with friends and family, accepting speaking invitations, attending community events, trying out new restaurants or taking much-loved road trips.

Unfortunately, the fear wasn’t irrational. Each year Iowa has one of the highest rates of deer-vehicle accidents. This year, for instance, State Farm Insurance ranks Iowa third in the nation, saying one out of every 68 Iowa drivers will encounter a deer on the road. If only lottery odds were as generous.

Before, these were statistics of which I was only vaguely aware. Afterward, they became a danger I could no longer set aside as a mere possibility. And, yes, there are still moments, especially when I’m driving in fog, after dark or when I traverse the patch of highway near Springville, that my heart leaps around in my chest.

Last spring, I stopped on Hwy 30 after seeing a deer bouncing toward the roadway only to have the deer run full force into my stationary front fender. The car still bears the head-shaped dent, and my mind renewed its use of sleep-induced instant replay.

Statistically speaking, I’ll encounter more deer. There’s a good chance, but no guarantee, that I’ll live through it.

Since the danger remains, the fear has too. But I’ve chosen to react to it differently. I’ve learned that avoiding all risks might make me safer, but won’t make me happier.

How much is one more day worth if we don’t spend it with the people or doing the things that we love?

For me, the real shame is building bubbles of isolation against all of the “what ifs” — the next deer, cancer diagnosis, mass shooting, car accident, assault, terrorist attack, plane crash or evildoer.

Even when we are cautious — driving slowly on a foggy night — bad things still happen. That doesn’t mean we stop being cautious.

Living is a delicate dance of acknowledging risks and refusing to give them control. Living requires us to keep going despite very rational fears.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on November 21, 2015. Photo credit: Joyce A. Meyer/The Gazette (freelance)