When I was in high school, I had a car. It was a Chrysler New Yorker, a responsible four-door sedan with a hint of sparkle to its exterior, as if it had been glazed in brown sugar and left to bake in the sun. (I’d really wanted my dad’s red Miata, a vehicle I was sure would transport me to the upper stratospheres of popularity at my Alabama high school, but my parents were no fools.) The Chrysler had plush, velvety seats, and it spoke to you, literally. If a door hadn’t been closed properly, a robotic voice would announce, “A DOOR is AJAR!” “A door’s not a jar,” we would tell it. Silly robot.
The high school version of me feels like a different person than who I am today. Even though passing my driver’s test was no easy feat — I broke into a cold sweat when asked to parallel park; who parallel parked in Alabama? — I felt pretty comfortable on the road, safe inside the spacious chamber of the brown New Yorker. Yes, one time I was pulled over when I ran a stop sign that I tried to claim was “too short,” and, yes, there were at least a few inebriated nights when I should not have been driving at all. But I was young and stupid, and I was unafraid. I pressed the gas and turned up the volume and I went. It all tasted like freedom.
Then something changed, or rather, everything did. My parents moved to England and sold their cars, including the New Yorker. Fine by me. I had plans to become an actual New Yorker. When you’re a New Yorker, you don’t need to drive at all. Or at least that’s what I told myself.
What I know now is that the ability to drive is power, no matter where you live. But in the 20 years since my college graduation, I’d driven less than a handful of times. Once in England to say I had; once in Florida because my then-boyfriend had a DUI and couldn’t. I was a passenger over and over again, en route to weddings in Vermont and New Jersey and Connecticut; in Israel with a friend who rented a car and made me the de facto navigator (this resulted in at least one panic attack); with friends on road trips near and far; with boyfriends going to Ikea. A fact emerged: If I was going somewhere beyond the limits of subways and public transportation, I’d have to find a ride. While this gave me less agency than I liked to admit, it was far less terrifying than taking to the road myself. I still had a valid driver’s license, kept up over the years “just in case,” but I didn’t even remember how to put gas in a tank.
As a full-time adult human, I pay my bills (usually). I own a home. I dress myself in the morning and manage to eat and think and work and get around. But driving was another story. I had a litany of excuses: It didn’t make sense in the city. Just being a passenger was stressful enough. Lyfts and Ubers were plentiful. The cost of insurance and keeping a car and even being a member of Zipcar was a price too high to pay. At one point, I told myself that if I had kids, I’d learn. When I had to, I’d jump back in. It couldn’t be that hard. It was like driving a bike. A bike weighing 4,000 pounds with the power to kill.
Somewhere along the way, I had become afraid of not only driving but also being a passenger. I couldn’t stop thinking about how every single vehicle on the road possessed the ability to end my life. What if the driver I was with fell asleep or drifted into another lane, or it rained or snowed or sleeted or the roads froze over? There had been an accident in my childhood. As my mom drove the family to my grandmother’s house in Michigan, we skidded on ice, flipped over, and landed in a snowbank. We were okay, but that moment of impact, of finding myself hanging from a seatbelt in an upside-down car, played over and over again in my brain as I got older. A second could change everything. What if we hydroplaned? What if we were swallowed by a sinkhole, or hit by an asshole? It might not be my driver’s fault, but the results would be the same. I started taking a tiny bit of Klonopin before riding in a car on long trips.
Then I started dating a man who lived upstate. Unlike New York City, upstate is a place where you do need to drive if you want to do just about anything. He had two cars, both worn in enough to make them ideal for practice. He urged me to try. I resisted.
Women certainly don’t need men to save them, not in the least, but there is something to be said for patience and support and gentle nudges from a person who loves you, especially when you’re scared. Driving again was something I’d been thinking about secretly for a while, for a few reasons. Given the state of the world and the current Administration, I knew it behooved me to be as empowered as possible. After all, the ability to take myself to Canada might prove extremely useful. But also, if I was to truly control my own destiny, to be as free and strong and self-directed as I wanted, shouldn’t I be able to do this thing that pretty much everyone over the age of 16 in America seemed to feel comfortable doing? There were times, I had to admit, when I’d turned down adventures and even jobs because I was afraid of driving. There were stories I’d missed, reporting them and also living them, due to my lack of confidence behind the wheel.
My therapist told me to trust myself. Easy for you to say, I thought. He drove to the city regularly. And even if I did trust myself, how was I supposed to trust anyone else? Sometimes trust feels like active foolishness.
The first time I got behind the wheel again was in the parking lot of the Home Depot on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Somehow, I’d thought this would be a less stressful practice spot than driving down city streets. My boyfriend pulled his Prius into a parking spot and we changed places. I backed out slowly and took a turn around the lot, feeling like I was in a slow-motion video game. A wayward shopping cart slowly rolled across my path. I braked for a family to pass. A guy in a van pulled up next to us and gestured for my boyfriend to roll down the window. I held my breath, thinking he was going to alert us to something terrible. “Want your car detailed, cheap?” he asked. A lap or two complete, I felt euphoric. It was the start of something.
Let’s say that trust is a bubble inside of you, a tiny thing that comes inflated to a certain level when you’re born. (Medical doctors, don’t @ me.) As you go through the highs and lows of life, that bubble ebbs and flows, growing in good times and deflating, punctured like a balloon, when you’ve lost a battle or a war. This trust bubble needs to be protected and patched when it leaks; you have to take care of it. Because even when bad things happen, you can’t lose your faith in yourself.
Of course, it’s not always easy to sustain that faith — especially when you’re anxious or afraid or no one has told you, recently or ever, that you’re worth it, you can be whoever you want to be, the possibilities are infinite. You need to believe — first of all — in you. How? You breathe in, remind yourself you can do it, hold onto the wheel (did you know the 10-and-2 position has now been supplanted with 9 and 3?!), and hope for the best.
If I think about driving too much, I can easily convince myself that getting behind the wheel is tempting fate, or worse: Something terrible will definitely happen. I’ll change my mind; it just isn’t worth it to try. But if I let the little balloon of belief float inside of me, if I whisper my therapist’s mantra, “Trust yourself,” it seems possible to do things like drive to the store, to yoga, to visit a friend, maybe even onto the thruway, and from there, who knows? For many people, driving is basic, something they do without thinking at all, but for me, it remains fraught. I still carefully check my mirrors and make sure they’re in the proper position before leaving the driveway. There’s no voice to tell me a door is ajar, so I make sure everything is closed. I get very nervous when it rains, or when the car makes a strange noise. I haven’t driven in snow. I don’t listen to the radio or glance at my phone or even really want passengers to talk to me when I drive — no distractions!
But every time I get into the driver’s seat, that bubble of self-trust gets a little more buoyant and sustaining. It’s nearly a year since my parking lot jaunt, and I’ve driven at least 50 times. I need more practice, but at least I’ve gone from uttering prayers to the universe to letting my brain wander (just a little) as I head to the store. I still have some anxiety, and I almost wept the other day during a sudden, torrential downpour. But what has surprised me the most about not only driving but also trusting myself — I got this, I can do it, it’s all gonna be okay— is how easy it becomes, like it really is second or maybe third nature. The other day, I got into the car and headed down the street without thinking about much of anything at all, except how good it was to be propelling myself forward instead of holding myself back.