This morning I was driving to work. It was really a perfect morning- sunny and warm, and heading into Friday with some fun plans for the weekend. As I left Skaneateles for the short trip over Route 20 for Auburn I noticed something in my rearview mirror. A dark Toyota SUV was tailgating the truck behind me. As I approached the hill with the shoulder to pass near Broadway Road the Toyota whipped around the truck. The passing lane is pretty short and really only space to pass one car. I don’t know what the Toyota was hoping to gain, because in front of me were four or five other cars, all doing about 50-55 (the posted speed limit is 55). Nowhere to go.
But of course, he pulls up fast and is immediately on my bumper. I put my hands up, asking “What do you want me to do?” I gently let off the gas to slow down and tap my breaks, to say “Buddy, get off my ass.” I can feel my heart beat a touch faster and my jaw tighten.
As we go over the hill between Broadway and Swamp he pulls out to the left into the other lane, illegally passing me. “What the fuck is this asshole’s problem?”
As he pulls alongside I honk and flip him off. I’ll be the first to admit I’m now really pissed off at this guy. Surely now he can see the cars in front of me and he knows he’s not going anywhere, right? As I’m thinking “What’s the emergency that’s causing you to drive like such a prick?” he starts coming back into the right lane. The problem? He’s basically parallel with me. I honk and hit the brakes, steering away from him. I come to an almost dead stop on the shoulder, as he speeds ahead, to ride the bumper of the next guy.
Here’s the thing… I’m a reasonably smart and calm guy. I like to think of myself as maintaining a cool head in most situations. I’m a meditator. I’ve done dialectical behavioral therapy that’s taught me to monitor how I’m feeling, and the connection between my physical body and feelings. But it was like a switch was flipped.
Whatever fight or flight lizard-brain instinct kicked in to “fight.” I took off after the guy. I want to be very deliberate here and stress that I am ashamed of what I did next. I followed him into Auburn. I followed him past where I normally turn to go to the office.
I wanted to know what was so goddamned important that this guy had to illegally pass and run me off the road.
He turned into a parking lot.
He circled the lot, then turned back onto the street.
He turned into another lot.
He parked and got out of his car, his phone in one hand. I had the window down and began calling him an asshole (the lizard brain is not particularly creative). He said he was calling the police to tell them I was harassing him. I shouted, “You ran me off the road you piece of shit!” I was gripping my steering wheel and shouting “Yeah, call them asshole! Call them!”
And then something happened. The human part of my brain kicked in again.
Paul, buddy, what’s going on? Just get the fuck out of here. It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it.
I rolled up my window. The lizard got out one last “Fuck you, piece of shit!”
I drove back to my office. I parked, got my bag, and headed over to the building. I got inside. I got maybe halfway up the stairs when all of the anger and tension and anxiety that had been building in me since I first saw his car tailgating the guy behind me suddenly washed over me.
I’ve been through enough panic attacks to recognize what was happening. My knees buckled, I felt the instant sweat, the little gasps for air, and a sense that the walls were all coming in. My head became flooded with anxious thoughts. Observing them after the fact you can tell the realistic worries from the panicked overreaction but at the moment they are all equally realistic and terrifying.
He’s calling the police and they’re going to find you. Your vanity plates will be easy to lookup. Why’d you get mad you stupid asshole?. What if he had a gun? You’re such an idiot. You’re at fault for following him. You’re so dumb. Why’d you overreact? All that meditation and shit was wasted on you moron. You didn’t learn dick. Congratulations. You almost got into a fight because someone… passed you on the road? And then you ran away. You’re a coward. Why didn’t you stand up for yourself? You could have been killed. You could have been killed. You could have been killed. What is wrong with you?
It’s like all of these thoughts and more hit simultaneously and you get overwhelmed. An outside observer may have only seen me stop on the stairs. Maybe lean a little on the rail. It’s mostly an in-between-the-ears thing.
I’m glad to say that while the ending of this isn’t necessarily happy, maybe it’s a little reassuring. I started making good choices. I knew I needed to talk, so I called my mom and told her I need to swing by and see her. Talking helps. Do you know what else helps? Breathing. Deep breaths. Slowly.
Writing about these things helps. Sharing and being honest and open about how I feel helps.
I learned a few things today, so whatever else happens, that means it’s a better day than most. Maybe not better. But it’s not a wasted day.
When we are under stress it’s easy for the lizard brain to flip on. Turns out millions of years of evolution embeds some stimulus responses pretty deep in the brain. But that same brain is capable of manifesting our conscious minds to think, reason, and problem-solve. Maybe my meditation and dialectical behavior therapy experiences really did help. I know it’s why I knew I needed to talk, breathe, and write. I think it may have been what got me to turn around and leave.
So what’s next? Maybe the guy really did call the police. Maybe he didn’t. If he did, what’s going to happen? Who knows. For now, it’s out of my control. Maybe this encounter was a wake-up call for this other guy, as in maybe don’t drive like such a prick. Maybe he feels a little bad about his own behavior this morning and got caught up in his own lizard brain thoughts. Probably, to some extent, right? Maybe he really is just an enormous piece of shit. Unlikely though. People are… people.
I know I’m not perfect. I know I fall short of expectations, both my own and others. I can be a jerk. I can be a bad driver. So I’m going to try and take the lessons and move on, hopefully, a little wiser, a little more self-aware, and a lot more careful on the road.