Driving Away Depression

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on November 10, 2021 # Lifestyle

Driving on a highwayDepression can ruin our plans — no, not feeling blue or down — I’m talking about gut-level clinical depression, something I have had to battle, off and on, since first being discharged from rehab after my life-changing plane crash at the age of 20. Many of us have had that same battle, especially in those first five years or so when paralysis takes over our bodies like an unwelcome guest who barges in, takes over, and refuses to leave.

Usually, it happens when I am in a state of anxiety about the present or future. Sometimes it is mild and gradually goes away over a few days. Other times it hangs on, grows worse, and doesn’t begin to diminish for a month or so. And once, it took my life over and made my daily reality a living nightmare for a full six months. After about 20 years of periodic dives into the depths of depression every couple of years, one day, it lifted, and I haven’t been bothered since then. That was roughly 25 years ago.

Each time I battled it, I learned that certain behaviors seemed to help somewhat — listening to music, praying, forcing myself to go out and be among people, and driving. Yes, just getting in my car and driving — or riding with someone else who would drive me around — always seemed to help.

The first time was when I was discharged after nearly five months of rehab. My older brother picked me up in a boat-like Chevy Impala (vintage 1965) with hand controls made by a World War II paralyzed vet — a wire cable, rods, and hand throttle. My brother had taught himself how to use them and tried to teach me in a parking lot. I did okay, but we had to drive through the Los Angeles area before getting on the road to go home, so, lacking confidence, I let him drive. Not long after I returned to my boyhood home in a rural farm town two hours from LA, I took to the country roads and began exploring, just because I could.

For me, driving is therapeutic, especially on country roads or on long stretches of quiet highways. If I’m alone, I can think and gain perspective on my life as I look around and take in the scattered houses and farms, the crops, the mountains in the distance. This is when my life, my tiny little speck of reality in the vast reach of the larger reality, begins to rid itself of smothering inner-directed thoughts and starts to imagine future possibilities. Since my mind is stuck in negative mode, I have to exercise my will forcefully to move through space and time regardless of what my mind wants. Just move, do it, put on the miles. The farther I drive, the more distance I create between the present and the recent past. When I begin to see my sodden, silent, heavy-as-molasses problem, whatever it may be — as existing mainly in the past, then I know I have turned a corner and am heading for a new beginning.

Nearly a year after leaving rehab, when I returned to college in the LA area, I would sometimes drive west to the coast and head north, following the coastline. Later, back in the San Joaquin Valley again, where I grew up, I would cruise farmland or sometimes venture into the foothills. And once, about three years after a frightening 6-month depression that seemed never-ending, I drove up the huge Central Valley of California and kept going, all the way to Oregon, where I stopped and stayed, to make a new life. I was with the woman who would one day be my wife, and once we had settled in southern Oregon, we often took drives in the evenings, usually in the foothills that looked down into the Rogue Valley.

Later we took a driving vacation together, tossing sleeping bags in the back of her old Ford Econoline van with its foam mattress for our bed. One summer, we drove from Ashland, Oregon to Utah, into Colorado, cruised the great Rocky Mountains, slept under the Milky Way, and continued into Wyoming, stopping to sleep in the van at parks and rest areas and campsites. From there, we spent time driving through Grand Teton National Park and later, Yellowstone, where we stayed for three days. Then we drove through a thin slice of Montana into Idaho, looked back at the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains and continued on, following the Columbia Gorge all the way to Portland, where we eventually made our home as a married couple and raised a family.

Driving is not just a way to go from Place A to Place B. It’s a time to think and talk about the past, the present, and the possibilities for our future. It’s a time to unburden ourselves and begin to feel grateful for all that we have instead of mourning what is no more. It’s a time to leave behind what is no longer useful and welcome whatever lies ahead.

We still do it today, after being together for 47 years. It’s getting harder to find roads nearby —that we haven’t already driven. But we keep searching, knowing that whatever lies around the next corner might bring a surprise, a new insight or an original thought, or maybe — now that I have left depression in the dust — a cherished memory.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.