anxiety while driving

Why I’m Pushing 30 Without a Driver’s License

In short, it’s complicated.

By: Jamie Lincoln

I never thought I’d be the friend who doesn’t drive. The friend who has to send multiple “Do you have any spare seats in your car?” texts before committing to a weekend away. The friend who can’t get from point A to point B if point B can’t be reached by way of public transit or Uber.

Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, I was accustomed to taking the subway and bus wherever I needed to go. By 14 I was relatively autonomous with a flip phone and change, though I often felt like a vagabond, making pit stops at friends’ houses before starting my long trek home. (When you can’t drive, preparedness comes in the form of packing overnight bags and staying longer than you should.) By 16, I longed for the gift of going places on a whim. I assumed I’d learn to drive quickly. My parents and two older sisters are all skilled drivers, so I had no shortage of willing teachers. Then, I got behind the wheel for the first time—and panicked.

It was a feeling that’s tough to articulate, but I’ll try. Helplessness comes to mind—a wave of total paralysis flowing through my body, while my thoughts ran free. I thought driving would be innate, like watching your leg shoot out when the doctor hits your knee with that tiny rubber hammer. Instead, my movements felt foreign, my instincts shaky. I could’ve chalked up my first experience to beginner’s anxiety and needing more time to learn, but even out of the driver’s seat, I couldn’t shake my debilitating worry. Every time I thought of driving, I felt immobile.

Over the next few months, whenever I had a lesson scheduled, I’d either cancel or tell my instructor I wasn’t comfortable driving outside of my suburb. Ultimately, I didn’t feel fully comfortable or competent behind the wheel, so the idea of being responsible for passengers’ safety, or putting others outside of my car at risk, was emotionally crippling.

So for 10 years, I stopped driving altogether. I moved downtown and discovered the joys of walking. Not being able to drive hasn’t impacted my life as much as I initially guessed; my office is a 15-minute walk from my apartment, the grocery store is 10, and my favorite coffee shop sits at the foot of my street. My boyfriend and closest friends are all a hop, skip, and an Uber ride away; for years I’ve managed. Only now, my norms are changing. Friends are getting married and moving, and for the first time I, too, can picture a life with someone. The thought of traveling to a new city and not being able to rent a car, or not being able to contribute on a cross-country road trip, or (years down the line) having to buckle my kids into an Uber because “mom can’t drive” is even more mind-boggling.

So as of last month, I decided to get back on the proverbial horse—only this time, I’m doing things differently. One of my biggest hurdles as a teen was finding an instructor who inherently understood how to communicate with me, so I requested a calm instructor who has a wealth of experience teaching nervous adult drivers. I got Nadeem.

At the start of my first lesson, my glasses couldn’t sit atop the bridge of my nose for longer than a few seconds without sliding down sweat. Nadeem asked me to start the car; instead, I opted to offload over 10 years of auto-related anxiety. I told him we needed to take baby steps, that there’s a reason I’m turning 29 next month and still haven’t figured this out. I asked him about his experience and if he’s ever dealt with drivers like me, to which he replied, “I’ve seen it all.” I liked that, and even smiled.

I also asked if he would be comfortable first evaluating my skills internally, then giving me a verbal rundown on what I could improve at the end of our lesson. I explained that critiques against my driving in real-time actually hinder my ability to think critically, and knock my confidence down a peg. Nadeem looked a little surprised, but agreed. At the end of our lesson, he said, “You’re not a bad driver. Did something happen to you in the car to make you feel otherwise?” Years of negative reinforcement, Nadeem, years of negative reinforcement.

But no longer. Now I drown my anxious thoughts with podcasts that cover subjects outside of my reality. In driving, and in life, I find thinking too much to be my greatest pitfall, so self-care entails turning my brain off for a while with episodes of The Habitat or My Dad Wrote a Porno. I’ve also found comfort in numbers. Millions of people feel anxiety while driving, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For me, baby steps and deep breaths go a long way.

With time, I hope to buckle my seat belt and feel like when the doctor hits my knee with that tiny rubber hammer. Like it’s second nature and I’m totally comfortable and confident. For now, I’m enjoying the ride.


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