When does being scared of something become a phobia? Well according to my research (typing ‘phobia’ into google), a phobia is more pronounced than a fear. It is a specific type of anxiety disorder and one that causes the sufferer to organise their life around avoiding the thing that’s causing them anxiety.
Of course we have all heard of arachnophobia, agoraphobia and perhaps more common phobias such as snakes, heights, germs if not by their official name.
So what is this thing gephyrophobia? And what did Geph ever do to me?
In actual fact, Gephyrophobia isn’t a fear of middle aged men named Jeff / Geoff / Geph. It’s the official name for a specific phobia of bridges. And up until very recently, organising my life around avoiding bridges was something that was very real and part of my life.
I wasn’t scared of bridges as a kid however, and I can pinpoint the very beginning of my strange and sudden fear of crossing over bridges.
It kind of make sense looking back. I was in my twenties visiting a friend in North Wales. Viciously hungover (puking out of the car window style) and in need of some fresh air and hilly views to attempt to bring me back to the land of the living. On the recommendation of my resident Welsh friend we visited Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Llangollen. A local treasure no doubt, this piece of local history was perhaps not best matched with my nausea and hangxiety.
The combination of ice cold air howling through the valley, being 38 metres above the river with only one barrier and a canal between me and sudden death sent me a little unexpectedly panicky. In actual fact, looking back, it’s safe to say this walk was where I had my first ever panic attack. As small kids tried to walk past me holding onto the hand rail, I was practically holding onto the floor on my hands and knees, desperate to make it back to the safety of dry land.
Life went on as normal and I don’t think that event really played much havoc nor caused any significant issues. But a year or so later, when Dad Muddling Through was nursing a fractured ankle, I found myself behind the driving wheel on a road trip. As we approached the Queen Elizabeth II bridge from Essex back home to Kent, something inside me switched and that panic sensation returned out of nowhere.
My heart was racing, my eyes streaming with tears and my knees literally knocking, I was overcome with a sensation of pure fear that made me want to either slam on the brakes or floor the gas – whatever way to get me out of the situation as quickly as possible.
That event scared the hell out of me. I went on to develop smaller scale physical reactions to driving over smaller bridges locally, and would dodge driving duties whenever possible. A few years on another (yeah, I know) limbic fracture caused me to have to drive several times a week over the Medway bridge, forcing me to be uncomfortable but able to make that necessary evil journey, but I’d never felt ready to return to the QEII in the driving seat.
In fairness, life as a stay at home Mum didn’t demand many trips Essex bound. I did have to politely decline the odd trip to Colchester zoo, Lakeside or legitimately dodge driving duties on any road trips. I just didn’t feel safe carrying myself, my kids or any passengers for that matter knowing I may spin out.
Five months ago however I stepped out of my comfort zone and returned to work. A challenge for our family logistics and one that also forced me to build a bit of confidence behind the wheel. My 45 minute drive across Kent reminding me that not only can I drive safely, but that I am actually a good driver.
So when I was asked to travel for business to Cambridge in August, my automatic response was to think of every way I could make the journey without driving over the QEII bridge. Car share? Train? Taxi? All options pointed to one simple fact – this fear was getting out of hand.
Having slept overnight on it, I decided this was the time. The time to stop telling myself I can’t and start telling myself I can. An opportunity to travel without the kids or Dad Muddling Through, to take my time and prove to myself that it’s all in my head.
And so that’s what I did.
With a lot of positive affirmations, deep breathing and extra strong mints, I made the journey home over the River Thames, and nothing happenned.
No panic, no shaking, no tears and no palpitations. I even forced myself to look out and admire the view, which for the record was breathtaking as the sun set over the skyline of London.
I don’t know why this time was different. What changed in me, or how I broke free from this crazy fear which took hold of me out of nowhere.
Maybe because in the last year I have achieved the impossible – giving up drinking, getting back to work and facing some challenging times with my own mental health, that I feel like anything is possible.
Or, maybe it’s because by the time I’d sat on the M25 for four hours I was just happy to be moving.
But I did it.
Perhaps anything is possible if you believe that you can control your fears, and not allow them to control you.