Hills and valleys

This weekend, I noticed that I hadn’t noticed something.

For years, climbing hills was a source of great anxiety for me. When I approached a hill by foot, I would be nervous of twisting my ankle and not having the ability to go up. Even in a car, I was anxious that the engine would die during the ascent, leaving me stuck halfway up, with traffic behind me, below me, honking at me.

This used to haunt my dreams. At least a few times a month, sometimes more, I would dream I was trying to drive along a roadway with impossible hills, twists, and turns. It felt as though I was in a Mattel Hot Wheels® set. Of course, in these dreams, nobody else seemed to notice or care, including anybody else who happened to be in my car. They would cajole me.

I have an idea of where this anxiety came from. When I was a lad, my father, my brothers, and I went biking along a route that wound us up in Arlington National Cemetery.

My younger brother was a baby and was getting cranky from riding in his bike seat. My father had just had to change a diaper in a triangle of grass on a busy bridge, having also had to repair my bike tire because I’d fallen into a streetcar rut.

There is a big hill in the cemetery that I could not bike up. My older brother had made a show of going up it and then taunting me about my failure. My father had likewise biked ahead of me and, frustrated that the excursion was ending so stressfully, lost his patience with my tween insistence that I could do it myself.

And that was where my anxiety started. From that point forward, hills made me anxious.

I started working in earnest to get rid of that anxiety about a decade ago or so. It was reaching a dysfunctional level, where hills above a certain height would cause me to hyperventilate. I avoided driving on trips to Chicago and Milwaukee because of various tall bridges there. I held my breath on the Ambassador Bridge. I-75 around the Carbon Works? I found other routes instead.*

One fairly unavoidable incline, though, is the I-96 to Southfield ramp. When we come back from Ann Arbor, that’s the route we use. Avoiding it would increase our drive time by five to fifteen minutes, so it’s not worth it. Instead, over the years, I’ve used that ramp as a gauge of how far I’ve come with getting over my anxiety.

Except last weekend, when I noticed only as I was mostly coming off the bridge that I barely even noticed I was on it. No anxiety, no preparation for anxiety, no steeling myself at all. I simply drove it, which is what thousands of people do every day.

It was a moment to celebrate my victory, before moving on to conquer other life obstacles.

* A bit of irony, because I had a few dreams involving the tall Carbon Works building visible from the bridge, but I didn’t recognize it for years due to my avoidance of that section of I-75.

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