24 May 2008

Facing Down the Fear

Note: This is completely unrelated to writing or being a writer, except that I'm choosing to write about it. :-)

When I was in high school, about 14-15 years old, I had two friends who died in separate car accidents. Shortly afterward, I somehow managed to convince my parents to let me go to a Halloween party with my best friend who I rarely got to hang out with because my parents really disliked him. (Bad influence and all that. You know how it goes.) He's a few months older than me and had just gotten his license. He was driving his dad's brand new car. I'm sure you can see where this is going..... We ended up getting into an accident. The car flipped over into a ditch. It was one of those accidents where you crawl out of the car with little more than some cuts, look back at the car, and think No way should I be alive right now, much less conscious and standing upright. But we all walked away with only minor injuries. Nevertheless, after the accident I found that I got nervous riding with people I'd always felt were safe drivers. My parents even. A little too fast, a little too close to the line, or that car next to us....

So a few months later, everyone around me is getting permits and licenses and cars. In Maryland, where I grew up, you have to take Driver's Ed, but they don't offer it in school. You have to pay upwards of $300 out of your pocket for the class. I decided I'd wait til I was 18, then just take the test and be done with it. Well as I and my peers were all turning 16, they changed the law so that all first-time drivers, regardless of age, had to take driver's ed. Not having the money was a convenient excuse for not getting my license. In reality, I didn't want it. Had absolutely zero desire for it. A 16-year-old kid who doesn't want to drive? Yes. That was me.

I managed through high school without a license. I got rides from friends or my parents. I wasn't really a social butterfly anyway, so it didn't much affect me. Then I went away to college in Western Pennsylvania. Didn't need a car there, either. As a student, I was able to ride the bus around town for free. The public transportation there was surprisingly good. I met my now-husband when I was a freshman in college, and he became my personal chauffeur. He never complained (too loudly, ha). When I graduated, we moved to Maryland again (Towson, to be exact). So if I wanted to drive, I'd have to take driver's ed. Again, the money and time were a convenient excuse not to. We lived within walking distance of where I worked, and most of my coworkers offered rides at night anyway. So that's the story of how I came to be 25 years old without a driver's license.

Now we're back in Pennsylvania, where you aren't required to take driver's ed. And I'm pretty much out of excuses. Last week I went for my learner's permit. The written test was easy peasy. Finished in less than five minutes and they handed me a piece of paper that says I can drive if I'm accompanied by another licensed driver 21 years of age or older. I thought the driving part would be easy, too. I already know the rules of the road. I know all the common sense things you need to know. Now it's all mechanics from here on out. How bad could it possibly be? I tried everything I could think of to psych myself up for learning to drive. My husband's taken me driving twice so far. To be honest.... not my cup of tea.

The fear is still there, even after all these years. The responsibility of wielding such a massive machine is overwhelming. It doesn't feel natural. It feels all wrong, like I'm not meant to do it. I feel like I can't possibly control the behemoth (okay, it's only a little Kia Spectra, but it feels huge when I'm behind the wheel) at 10mph (which has been my limit so far) much less 60mph on the highway. Maybe if I hadn't lost two friends in car accidents at such a crucial time.... Maybe if I hadn't been in an accident myself around that same time.... But I never really remember feeling any burning desire to drive even before all those things. Maybe it's just not for everyone.

You never think that you'll look back on your life when someone asks what one of the most difficult things you ever had to do was and say Learning to drive. But I think I will. When it's all over and done with, I think this will be one of the worst demons I have to face.

I'm not sure too many people really grasp the way I feel about this. Even my husband. I think he thought it was mostly excuses, or laziness, or something else. Until he took me driving in the parking lot for the first time. It was a mental health ordeal for me to even put the car in gear. It's hard. It shouldn't be hard. It's scary. It shouldn't be scary.

Facing down this fear isn't like conquering my fear of roller coasters (which I did with the help of my husband, because he makes me feel safe, which points only to a good outcome with him teaching me to drive). Logic helped me through that one. I looked up the specs for some of the roller coasters at Kennywood Park (near Pittsburgh) and found info on the speed of the coasters, the total length of time the rides lasted, the tallest drop, etc. I picked the ones I was willing to ride based on those logical numbers. 70 mph is the max speed? Well hell, I've been in cars going faster than that, why not a coaster? Right? That was my thinking. And with my supportive husband with me, I took the plunge. I've gotten much braver in my choice of coasters, and I love them now. Why can't driving be like that?

It isn't. Not for me. There are no happy statistics that can assuage my fears. No logical anything that can chase my nervousness away when I sit behind the wheel. Even with my husband sitting right next to me, it's intimidating. Maybe it's a huge flaw in my character - maybe I just run from responsibility in general. I suppose it's possible. But this is a different kind of responsibility. We're talking about life and death. Two years ago, a friend of my husband's was riding his bike and was hit and killed by a drunk driver. He left a wife and young son behind. Now I don't drink, so I'll never be a drunk driver. But I will be a driver. And drunk or not, a car is still a lethal weapon. I could kill someone. Or myself.

Even if I do everything exactly right, never speed, never drive recklessly, notice every environmental hazard that could potentially cause an accident, obey all laws and traffic signals.... I could do every damn thing within in my power, do it right, and have the utmost confidence in my own skill, and it's still no guarantee. None. I can't control every other driver on the road. It scares the shit out of me. I don't know if I'm willing to relinquish that much control over my life. You might be thinking, But it's not that severe. Driving down the street or across the state isn't akin to handing someone a gun and a blindfold and telling them to shoot an apple off your head. Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm right. All I know is that it feels that serious to me.

We'll see how it goes. But it's been eating me up all week. I feel scared and nervous over something millions of people do every day. And then I feel inadequate because I can't be as relaxed as everyone else about it. I thought writing it out might help. I don't know if it has. I just needed to get it off my chest.

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