Gephyrophobia, aka the fear of bridges, affects thousands of people the world over. I am one of them. This phobia has haunted me in different forms all my life, and probably will haunt me my entire life. Living in Portland, which has the nickname “bridgetown” gets interesting for someone with this phobia. Portland’s eleven bridges spanning the Willamette, and two bridges that cross the Columbia into Washington might sound like a nightmare for gephyrophobic individuals. Luckily – my phobia isn’t as severe as some people’s or I might have to move. Still – this phobia affects me in ways most can’t imagine.
Bridge nightmares: the early years.
From the time I was very little, I’ve had insane nightmares about bridges. The earliest dream I can remember (though certainly not my first bridge dream) had to do with my childhood dog and my mom.
The bridge in my dream was a standard looking bridge for the most part, but with one lane that arced away from the main bridge deck and over the water. This lane also had a steep incline which went up probably 100 feet in the air – so cars and pedestrians had to go uphill, and then downhill if they chose to drive on this lane.
In my dream, which I had when I was maybe eight or nine, I was walking across the bridge with my mom and my dog Charlie. We walked up this huge incline on this arced lane and I was frightened of falling off. My mom really didn’t see any problem with the bridge, but I did; I knew something terrible could happen if we crossed this bridge. Sure enough – something did happen! My dog Charlie ran off the side of the bridge and plummeted into the river. Needless to say, I was mortified.
Again – this was not the earliest bridge dream, just the earliest one I can recall. I’ve had bridge dreams from a very young age. I really wish I knew why.
The open tailgate.
If my gephyrophobia wasn’t bad enough already, I had an incident on a bridge at a young age. My dad had an old 1960s Ford pickup truck with a canopy on the back. When I was probably 9 or 10 years old, my family went camping, my dad and mom rode in the cab, but there was only room for two people. So I had to ride in the back with all the stuff (this was still legal in the 80s).
I hopped in and my dad closed the tailgate, but something obstructed the tailgate from closing all the way. Still – the tailgate closed so I didn’t pay any mind. A few blocks into the journey, the tailgate came open and I tried yelling, but my parents could not hear me. As we got onto I-5 and started across the Fremont Bridge, I knew that I was going to die! I knew I was going to fall out! I held that tailgate up for dear life, and prayed the entire way. I’m getting chills just thinking about the incident – it scared me so much!
I remember after we were across the Fremont Bridge and trying to get the attention of the car behind us. With my one free hand I waved. I even lowered the gate just a little – maybe they could see that the gate wasn’t secure. Maybe they could – well – I have no idea what they would do to be honest. Possibly honk? Perhaps they could have pulled up besides my dad’s truck and yell “Hey, your tailgate’s open!”
We finally pulled off and stopped for breakfast. My dad was shocked when I opened the gate, as it was hard to open from the inside. Thankfully, nothing happened that day, but my gephyrophobia worsened from the incident.
The shaking Marquam Bridge
In fifth grade, I went to Washington Park with a friend and his mom. On the way back, we hit rush hour traffic going through downtown Portland. We crept along the freeway, and onto the Marquam bridge at what seemed like five miles an hour. It must have taken about a half hour to cross that damned bridge.
If you know the bridge, you know that the Marquam tilts inward at parts. The left lanes are at a lower grade than the right lanes – as there’s probably about a 30 degree incline. This means every car on those parts of the bridge are titled towards the driver side. So – there we are, going slow and tilting inwards as though we’re going to fall into the Willamette River. On top of that – the bridge was shaking. There were so many cars that the bridge physically shook as we creeped along. I was freaking out obviously.
This incident ruined the Marquam bridge for me forever. In high school, I was an equipment manager for the basketball team, and I always traveled with the team to their away games. One day, while traveling with the team in a bus, we inevitably cross the Marquam. I blurted out – oh no…not the bridge! Yeah – everyone laughed and I never lived that one down…
I still have dreams about bridges. These dreams happen randomly, and I always feel so out of control. Just like the dreams I had as a kid, the bridges of these “modern” dreams make no logical sense. They’re built at weird angles, or sometimes they’ll cross a body of water (usually the Willamette River) several times. Some of these bridges go underwater! Some of these bridges are so high you need an oxygen mask.
There’s one recurring bridge in my dreams. It goes from the west hills, over downtown Portland, and into the Rose Quarter area of town. The bridge is higher than any bridge I’ve ever seen, and I’m always riding in the bed of a pickup truck while holding on for dear life, closing my eyes, and praying that I don’t fall out. Yeah – I think the tailgate incident inspired, at least in part, this particular set of dreams.
There’s also halfway finished bridges. Like – actual gaps in the bridge! I guess you’re supposed to just rev your engine and jump your vehicle over the crevices – and pray you don’t land in the water. One good thing about these bridges – they’re not very high (usually). One bad thing – it’s really hard to escape from a submerged vehicle.
Regardless – the most infuriating thing in these dreams – I’m the only one that thinks there’s anything wrong with these bridges. Even if you have to jump over a gap or have to hold on for dear life. No one else thinks anything about these bridges! What the heck people, can’t you see these bridges are dangerous?
The Fremont Bridge!
The Fremont Bridge scares me probably more than the Marquam. Maybe it’s the tailgate incident, maybe it’s the height, I don’t know. The weird thing about the Fremont – I’m usually fine when we get on the actual bridge – it’s the on-ramps that freak me out. The on-ramp I take the most – from I-5 South to the bridge isn’t that bad – though I do white knuckle it a bit. The on-ramp from I-405 Northbound to the bridge however, that sucker must have been designed by a serial killer – it’s just that evil. It curves as it approaches the bridge, and at one point during the curve, I feel like whatever vehicle I’m in is doomed to drive straight off the side of the on-ramp.
Of course – this fails in comparison to the on-ramp from I-5 North to The Fremont bridge. That on-ramp must have been designed by Satan himself! The on-ramp goes up above the bridge, curves and then drops down onto the bridge. Come on ODOT, if I wanted a roller coaster ride, I’d go to six flags! This overpass has me so frightened, I honestly get nervous even going near it. If I’m a passenger in a car, I’m always afraid the driver will accidently get on this overpass while driving past. Again – this overpass was designed by Lucifer.
Why do I have gephyrophobia?
Honestly – I don’t know. My mom always thought it was the tailgate incident, but again – I’ve been having bridge dreams ever since I can remember. My gephyrophobia has no known root that I can pinpoint. Maybe something happened on a bridge when I was a toddler that triggered this phobia. Maybe I heard of a bridge collapse when I was young. Between the years of 1977 and 1981 alone, 11 bridges collapsed. If television news reported any of these collapses, I probably heard about them – as my grandparents always watched the news. Maybe my gephyrophobia is just an irrational fear. After all – isn’t that the definition of a phobia?
Still, there could be a deeper root – maybe my fear doesn’t have to do with bridges at all, but rather a fear of something else entirely.
If not gephyrophobia, what’s the true phobia?
There’s evidence to suggest that gephyrophobia goes hand in hand with a fear of heights and/or a fear of water. Certainly the bridges I’m mostly afraid of are usually pretty high. While I am not afraid of water anymore, I was afraid of deep waters when I was really young.
Then again, let’s look at the Fremont Bridge. I’m fine on top of the bridge, it’s just approaching the bridge that freaks me out. If I was truly afraid of heights or water, I feel like I’d be most frightened at the top of the bridge.
More likely, the true fear is something different. I’ve always been overly cautious about anything that didn’t seem safe to me – even if everyone else said it was safe. If a structure seems rickety or underbuilt or might cause me to fall, I want nothing to do with it. I’ve always been this way. This is why I never slid down the fireman poles on playground equipment, or even played on the monkeybars. Yikes! I could fall!
This also makes sense on lower bridges. On say, the Hawthorne bridge (one of Portland’s oldest bridges), I really get frightened (especially walking over the bridge. The most frightening part is the part that lifts – as the plating feels thinner and gives a little more as you step down. Oh – there’s also the fact that the road is just grating that you can freaking see through. That just doesn’t seem safe!
Do you have gephyrophobia?
I have no official numbers on gephyrophobia. Honestly, it’s hard to know. There’s enough that the 17.6 mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel has volunteers who will drive your car across the bridge for you, while you presumably fall into a fetal position in the back seat. I’ve heard similar stories about the Michigan’s 5 mile Mackinac Bridge. These services show that there’s probably more gephyrophobia sufferers than we can really measure. Most people just don’t talk about it. Maybe they white knuckle their fears, maybe they avoid bridges altogether.
Which brings me to my point. Aside from getting over my own gephyrophobia, I have one hope in sharing my experiences. I want others to share their own gephyrophobia. I want the subject to become something we all talk about. If we talk about our fears, maybe we can find a cure. At the very least, we can see that no, we are not alone in our phobias.
So – if you suffer from gephyrophobia, I want to hear from you. Why do you think you have this phobia? Do you also have dreams? Have you had horrific experience with bridges? Is your phobia a mystery to you? Share your stories with me and others. Maybe together we can find a way to heal.