My lips are terribly chapped this morning, and not because I was out in the cold for too long, or because I got windburned. We are having a warm and gentle autumn in California, and if anything, it would be more reasonable to think I’m burned from my long weekend relaxing in the sunny Santa Barbara wine country. But I’m not sun chapped; in truth I have a type of road rash like the abrasions one gets from contact with asphalt or pavement. Let me explain…

I absolutely hate being on the interstate, especially if car travel involves hours in multi-lane traffic. The excitement of the journey, the anticipation of visiting a gorgeous locale, or reconnecting with friends isn’t enough to help me get past my anxiety about being strapped to my seat and hurtling down the road at 75 miles per hour. Even in my comfortable and quiet Audi, with a partner who is a cautious driver, there’s waaaaaaay too much freeway stimuli for me to remain calm. I am aggravated by the sounds of cars passing, especially when they are going much faster than the flow of traffic, or when they pass on the right. On the freeway, I can’t keep up with all of the visual stimuli: multiple lanes of traffic, vehicles merging and exiting, and the ever present driver who thinks the Fast and Furious films are instructional videos. And, I have some vestibular issues which are not at all unusual for people on the spectrum and those who have sensory integration challenges. For me road trips = no bueno.

I cope with my freeway overwhelm with repetitive behaviors, one of which is rubbing my lips together. I get the briefest moment of relief, yet I am not sure if that respite comes from the distraction or the repetition. Dr Barry Jacobs of Princeton University found that animals who perform repetitive motions trigger a release of serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with calmness and well-being. It would probably be helpful if I could do something rooted in repetition like sewing or knitting when I am a passenger, but my hypervigilance makes it impossible for me to take my eyes off the road. I can’t sleep in the car, I can’t read, and I can’t relax. I am a horrible shotgun companion who channels her psychological and physical discomfort into backseat driving and subtle self harm. After our 5 hour drive yesterday from Southern California to San Francisco, my lips are a mess: painful, irritated, and rough.

My chapped lips will get better with time and a generous slathering of shea butter, but there is no easy answer for my road trip frustrations. COVID19 will be keeping us home for the next few months, so we’ve no long car journeys planned. Perhaps as California returns to a stricter shelter-in-place policy I can be more consistent about meditation, and work on some positive self-soothing strategies. For now, it’s off to Walgreens for lip salve, a short drive that is just my speed.