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Emails to my Therapist

Falling Asleep at the Wheel–The Shock of a Near-Miss

Dear Nicholas, Mid-day today, driving to the grocery store, I hit the wall of an underpass. The sound of metal against concrete and Bob yelling my name woke me. I yanked the car back into the lane and kept going. I’d fallen asleep at the wheel.

We were not hurt: the car scraped the middle of the wall, didn’t slam into the end. Not hurt, but badly shaken. Now, hours later, I hesitate to write about it.

What I Always Told Myself

I’d always thought that I would know seconds in advance when I was about to fall asleep and then wake myself up. That was foolish because I don’t know in advance when I’m falling asleep at night. Instead, it’s suddenly morning.

Today it was suddenly horrifying.

So how to deal with such a failure of competence?

*Get more sleep

*Stop driving if I feel at all sleepy

*Forgive myself? (I’m getting better at that and not a moment too soon.)

*Let time take me back to my usual feeling of immortality?

What Happened Next?

In the grocery, I found that I was leaking tears as I hunted for the cherry tomatoes. The sudden harsh awareness of how close death sits to us all the time–and my own shocking fallibility–was hard to take.

After our shopping, Bob drove us home. Twice on that ride, I gasped in fright because I thought another car was too close. That hyper-vigilance may linger for a few days.

What To Do?

I’ve resolved to get more sleep. The light must go out by 1 a.m. I’m a night owl, but I need to set a limit. I hope I’ll stick to this resolution. I fear I might not as time passes and I tell myself that it only happened once in all these years and probably won’t again.

I’ll probably forget the nearness of death. Maybe that’s not so bad. Living with that sharp knowledge would make me continuously jumpy and probably less safe.

Surprise– I think I nodded off again for ten seconds just now. More sleep, that’s the answer!. Then at least if I cause a disaster I’ll know I did what I could to prevent it.

My psychologist husband Bob suggested a reframe of the event: that I “saved us from a wreck today.” Actually he saved us, by yelling. If he hadn’t been watching….

The whole incident is humbling.  I think it will come to mind when I feel rising exasperation at anyone else’s mistake.

I may be thinking about this for a while.






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  • Tam
    February 25, 2023 at 1:42 am Reply

    Don’t think this will post cause FB has kicked me off for 28 days. But first, your story is humbling . . It could happen to any of us . . We stay so busy, both physically and mentally . . and you more than most!! Sending hugs and big hugs to Bob for the shout out!!

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 2:39 am Reply

      I’m glad FB let you post, Tam. We thank you for the hugs.

  • Bobby McKeithan
    February 25, 2023 at 2:25 am Reply

    This used to happen to me too, Peggy, resulting in one nasty accident and bunches of near misses. I found having someone in the car with me and carrying on a conversation helped. The radio didn’t help, but when I installed a super blaster sound system in the truck that did help. What really turned the tide was when I was finally coerced into having a sleep study done, and was found to have a rather severe case of sleep apnea. Since getting and USING my CPAP machine, these incidents are rare and my daytime alertness has improved. Like you, I’m a night owl and still don’t get enough sleep, but the sleep I DO get is better.

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 2:39 am Reply

      That’s quite a history, Bobby. I’m glad you found out what was causing the trouble.Thanks for your story.

  • Randee Bieler
    February 25, 2023 at 5:51 am Reply

    Jesus, Peggy, I am grateful you’re safe. Both of you. So many things bring death to mind these days for me too. I do t like that it came skulking around you two darlings. Lets catchup soon.

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 3:37 pm Reply

      Thank you, Randee!

  • Mary Anne
    February 25, 2023 at 2:49 pm Reply

    I finally admitted to myself that as much as I was a night owl, my body couldn’t cope with little sleep at night. I also had a sleep study done like Bobby, and found out that I also had sleep apnea. Using s cpap for the past 13 years has helped so much, but forcing myself to get at least 8 hours of sleep at night has helped tremendously. Years ago, commuting daily to a university 70 miles away while raising a daughter, being a wife and working, I’d pull off the highway into s commuter parking lot to grab a nap, but now I no longer have that need.

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 3:36 pm Reply

      I’m glad you’re not still keeping that schedule, Mary Anne. I grab roadside naps too; once had a CVS manager come out to knock on the window and see if I was alive.

  • John Brent Bill
    February 25, 2023 at 3:09 pm Reply

    Glad you’re safe and sound, dear friend. Scary stuff, indeed.

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 3:34 pm Reply

      Thanks, Brent, and it’s so cool that we’re dear friends without meeting once IRL.

    February 25, 2023 at 6:06 pm Reply

    Please get a medical checkup. It could be a small stroke. I had one last year and thought I was fine but I felt off. They only found it with an MRI. Take care.

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 6:47 pm Reply

      Wow, Linda! I’m sorry you had that. Pretty spooky. I’m definitely going to get everything checked, including the sleep apnea possibility. Good health to you!

  • February 25, 2023 at 6:48 pm Reply

    Peggy, Bob seems to provide you the service my wife provides me!

    A falling-asleep incident helped prompt me to enter Bob’s group therapy in 1990. Depressed and chronically fatigued by the disappointment of “Youie Summer” 1989 (and driving home alone from work), I fell asleep at the wheel around I-40/exit 273 in Chapel Hill and awoke to my car’s bouncing across the median at 55 mph headed toward the oncoming lanes. By great good luck (some would say it was God’s grace), I managed to head back to the ongoing lanes and skid across them onto the shoulder. Do you remember Bob’s consulting you to read some of my “Youie Journal” in order to advise me that it needed work? Fond memories, but only because I lived to have them – as you survived to post your cautionary tale…. [moristotle [dot] blogspot [dot] com/2006/07/youie-summer_03.html]

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 7:40 pm Reply

      I’ll have a look back at Youie Journal, Moristotle. I’m glad that, with your wife’s help, you have survived your own close calls.

  • Janet Greenlee
    February 25, 2023 at 7:36 pm Reply

    I’ve just started reading this blog, but have you ever been checked for sleep apnea? Falling asleep like that is a major symptom. Please let us know what happened.

    • Peggy Payne
      February 25, 2023 at 7:41 pm Reply

      I’m going to arrange for an apnea test this coming week, Janet. Thanks for your interest and welcome to the conversation here. I hope to “see” you again!

  • Anonymous
    February 25, 2023 at 8:05 pm Reply

    So scary because you and Bob are so important to me. I have been prone to falling asleep— in meetings, and behind the wheel — since my 20s! It’s a Sheehan thing and it IS scary. Try, if you can, not to fixate on what could have happened and on the fact that it didn’t— and you are alert to the issue now. Keep a bag of butterscotch candies in the glove compartment— they can help too.
    Or call us to keep u awake when you start to drift.
    Much love

    • Peggy Payne
      February 26, 2023 at 2:43 am Reply

      I’d much rather call you, Ruth, than eat butterscotch (not my fave.) And falling asleep in meetings is almost as scary as a bridge abutment. I think falling asleep is also a Payne thing. But together, we’ll stay out of trouble.
      Love from Bob and me.

  • Peggy Clover
    February 26, 2023 at 1:34 am Reply

    Glad to hear all is well, and glad to hear you will be looking in to the cause of falling asleep. So scary.

    • Peggy Payne
      February 26, 2023 at 2:37 am Reply

      Thanks, Peggy!

  • alcooke
    February 26, 2023 at 12:19 pm Reply

    Peggy, I can reinforce the notion that we likely do not know when we are falling asleep at the wheel. I have done it least twice(that i am aware of). I am aware because i was awakened by the flashing blue lights. First time my passenger was agitated because i did not immediately respond to those lights. In both cases the officers thoght i must have been drinking. It was interesting to me that when the first discovered i was hazardous for another. Reason, he lost interest (that was the first event only. The guy seemed disappointed that he couldn’t get an arrest.) second time i was nearing the end pf a 24 hour drive and cery close to Wilmington and home. That officer got me out to walk around a bit. The chilly air helped. “I’m younger than that now.” But it is so much easier than we might imagine. I’m glad your event did not involve other vehicles (I had a professor who died and took 2 more with him by “presumably” falling asleep.) glad you are still walking etc. and i’m sure you will be paying attention more now. All the best to you

    • Peggy Payne
      February 26, 2023 at 7:08 pm Reply

      I’m glad you escaped your own incidents unscathed, Al. Your professor’s story is awful. I don’t really know how to pay more attention, though. I was paying attention when this happened. But if I ever feel sleepy again on the road, I’m pulling off and sleeping. Also, routinely getting more sleep (19 hours this weekend, so far) My suspicion is that medication is involved. But I’ll be finding out more very soon. Wishing you safe driving.

  • Lee Grohse
    February 27, 2023 at 1:29 am Reply

    So very glad you and Bob were unhurt. Must have been scary, but good that you’re taking it as a wake up call letting you know you needed to address the sleep issue. Many years ago, during an intensely stressful time (my Jack was just diagnosed with autism), I had a series of car accidents, the last and most serious being running a stop light and plowing into the side of a beer truck. Not sleepy, but my attention/concentration was just flat out shot. I remember that husband of yours suggested to me that each time I got in the car to repeat something like “I will be alert and see everything I need to see and more. I will hear everything I need to hear and more.” That helped a lot I think. That increase in accidents clued me into the fact that in general I was a highly distracted driver….in fact a highly distracted person in general. A diagnosis of ADHD and medication significantly improved my driving and also my work, my irritability, my constant fidgeting, my interrupting others. Since I retired, I no longer take the medication daily because I enjoy my unmedicated bouncing thoughts. But I always take it when I am going to be driving more than just a trip around the corner and know I am so much safer. I trust you will find a quick and effective solution to improve your sleep. If Bob hasn’t designed a sleep mantra for you to use before bedtime, tell his to personalize one for you! Wishing you safety and good sleep!

    • Peggy Payne
      February 27, 2023 at 4:15 pm Reply

      Bob gave me a similar mantra years ago, Lee, when I was fairly new to writing fiction. A couple of times when I went straight from immersion in the story to driving home, I ran stop signs. He suggested that while I was still sitting in front of the the keyboard (typewriter at the time) I repeat to myself a line about driving safely and paying attention. It worked. I’m glad he helped us both. Good to hear you’re enjoying your bouncing thoughts.

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