My mother taught me to fear travel. My dog helped me find my courage

When I became the guardian of a frightened, dependent being, I vowed to parent differently than I'd been parented

Published March 25, 2023 7:30PM (EDT)

Author's dog, Beau, peeking out the car window (Photo courtesy of Author)
Author's dog, Beau, peeking out the car window (Photo courtesy of Author)

My mother raised me to fear traveling.

She told me that traveling was dangerous for a woman, though in her mind it was safe for me to drive the three-and-a-half hours it took to visit her in upstate New York, where she lived after she and my father divorced and before her death in 2011. Otherwise, my mother advised that I never go anywhere, especially by myself. She said that if I pulled into a rest stop while traveling, chances were high that I'd be raped, abducted and killed. I believed her.

My sense of direction was born as a family joke. When I was five, I was the flower girl at my Aunt Madeline's wedding at a Holiday Inn on Long Island. Weeks and months after, whenever we drove by a Holiday Inn, I asked my parents if that's where Aunt Madeline had gotten married. My father snickered and said no. My mother said I had no sense of direction. Over the years, every time we passed a Holiday Inn the punchline was, is that where Aunt Madeline got married?

I got my license when I was 17, after taking a summer driver's education course with two of my friends. Despite her harsh warnings, my mother gave me a key to the family car and taught me how to parallel park our white Buick Riviera on the side streets of our suburban neighborhood. She harped on the need to be a defensive driver. She let me drive by myself to school once a week. Driving farther than that wasn't a privilege I was granted.

My mother taught me to live in fear, as she did with my father. She was afraid of the way he ran their marriage, how he spoke to her, how he withheld her access to their checking account. She told me to ask him for money for my school supplies because she was too afraid to ask him herself. I was afraid of the way my parents argued at dinner, how my father breathed angrily while he ate, how my mother often choked as we sat at the table. I held my breath as she rushed out of the kitchen to vomit in the bathroom.

I didn't want fear to drive my life.

The consequence of defying my mother's fear wasn't a cure for my anxiety, or hers — it was our estrangement.

In my thirties, I pushed my inherited worry of calamity to the curb and drove from where I lived in Boston to where my childhood friend's memorial service was taking place in Manhattan because I didn't want to miss it. Days before I left, I felt nauseous as I envisioned driving more than four hours by myself. During the trip, I sat in my stripped old Honda Civic, my breath shallow in traffic and across bridges, fingers tight around the steering wheel, palms sweaty the entire way. This was before "smart" cars, before GPS was a common app on cell phones, and I held a traditional paper map on my lap with directions I'd penned and reinforced with a yellow highlighter in the side margins so that I could give a glance and know the next turn. Against what I thought were the odds, I found my way and parked in an underground lot on the upper east side.

"You've surpassed me," my mother spat into the phone when we spoke after I returned safely to Boston. She told me my brother was traveling to spend Thanksgiving with her the following week and that I should not come.

The consequence of defying my mother's fear wasn't a cure for my anxiety, or hers — it was our estrangement.

My mother never faced her fears. A week before she died of an aggressive form of ovarian cancer, she asked me to refrain from putting a death announcement in the newspaper, because she was afraid my father would see it, come to the funeral, and hurt her beyond the grave.

My mother didn't have to teach me how to live with fear — my father did the job himself. During my childhood, on our family vacations to the east end of Long Island, while my father drove our car, he watched me in the rearview mirror. On Old Montauk Highway, he accelerated up and down a stretch of steep hills as if we were at the beach riding the waves, only this was the road, not the ocean. With each tarred drop, my stomach fell, making me feel sick and sad and mad and scared.

When I asked my father to stop driving so fast, he laughed. I met his gaze in the mirror. His eyes were like bullets. He said, "Beg me."

My mother sat in the passenger seat, her gaze out the side window, as if she were gone.

I managed to adopt a dog who needed me to teach him how to overcome his fear.

Please, I tried. Please stop. He didn't stop until I cried or threw up.

Even after both my parents were dead, travel continued to pump my nervous system with anxiety. 

I was partnerless and in my mid-40s when the pandemic began, and my desire for companionship trumped my travel fears. To adopt my dog Beau, I had to drive across state lines to retrieve him. I didn't know if I could go through with it, but I ventured anyway. Adrenaline squeezed my stomach and chest, pushed into my throat, and traveled through my arms and legs, making my body tremble. On the ride home, secured in the backseat with a harness and seatbelt, Beau began to cry, his tiny voice at first quiet, then louder, until he was trying to escape his confinement. I pulled over and got into the backseat and held him, stroking his head until he grew calm and fell asleep.

Beau had an anxiety disorder, though I didn't know it at the time. I managed to adopt a dog who needed me to teach him how to overcome his fear. During our first week together, Beau had a panic attack when I left him at home to go to the supermarket. Friends told me he'd grow out of it, like a crying baby, but he didn't; each absence caused greater sensitization until Beau was diagnosed with severe separation anxiety. Until he could be desensitized to my absence — a process that I learned, for many dogs, can take a few months to a couple of years or more — I'd have to bring him with me everywhere. 

When I was a child, my mother always said a dog was a lot of responsibility, and when I asked for a puppy, the answer was always no. My father said he was allergic, but that, if I really wanted a dog, he'd be mine. He got down on his hands and knees and let me pet his head. He licked my face and panted. In our living room, he chased me and pushed me over, then got on top of me. His eyes penetrated me: I've got you. I thought I might suffocate and die. I never asked for a dog again. I understood that would be disastrous. 

Now I was the guardian of a frightened, dependent being, whom I vowed to parent differently than I'd been parented. 

One day, on the way to drop off a fecal sample at the vet clinic, as I pressed my foot against the gas pedal, Beau began to cry. His distress triggered my past. Distracted, I hit a cement pillar in my building's garage, my first-ever car accident. I knew we couldn't continue to go down this damaging path. I could encourage Beau to always be paralyzed by fear or I could teach him how to live life more fully. 

My mother's ideas on the consequences of travel weren't edicts, and they didn't have to be my fate. They were anxiety-driven beliefs that I had the choice to keep or discard. I began to see the power in decision-making: I could narrow Beau's world, as my mother had done to mine, or give him — and, in the process, myself — the tools to expand it. I harnessed whatever help I could find online, in books, and with a behaviorist trainer. I learned to model what had never been modeled for me. In changing my perspective, I discovered my ability to not only change direction, but the course of Beau's life, and mine. 

My mother's ideas on the consequences of travel weren't edicts, and they didn't have to be my fate. 

Today, Beau is almost three and he loves car rides. Strapped in the backseat of my mini-SUV, he leans his head out the window and sniffs the air. At stoplights, drivers in other cars — especially men — open their windows and talk sweetly to him. Walkers and cyclists smile and wave. Scooter riders cause Beau to become a barking, lunging beast, and so I've taken to driving greater distances beyond the city to quieter areas, to forests, conservation land, lakes and beaches, to places I never ventured before.

It's been about a year since I discovered a far-off dog park so large you can't see its boundaries from the entrance, a refuge of rolling hills and woodsy trails buffeted on three sides by the Massachusetts Bay. Although the drive takes 45 minutes to an hour each way and entails traversing city streets, tunnels, bridges and highways, I take Beau there weekly, if time allows. When we're there, fear isn't. Seeing my dog happily playing with others, galloping like a freed horse through the water and across grassy fields, rolling on his back, gazing up at the sky with a wide tongue-dangling smile, panting with pure joy — that brings me peace. 

The other day, driving the long way home, my hands on the steering wheel, I became aware, for the first time, of the absence of my lifelong anxiety. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw Beau curled up in the backseat, sleeping.

Love, not fear, takes us everywhere.

By Tracy Strauss

Named by Bustle as one of eight women writers with advice to follow, Tracy Strauss is the author of the memoir, "I Just Haven't Met You Yet." Former essays editor of The Rumpus, her work has appeared in Glamour, Ms., New York Magazine/The Cut, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, and HuffPost, among other publications. She teaches writing at Harvard University and has been featured as a writer on national television. 

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