How I Finally Conquered My Fear of Driving

In facing a phobia, one writer gets a refresher course in the twists and turns of life.

woman-driving-car-window
Photo by Holly Andres

I consider myself lucky in love and unlucky in cars. When I was 12, my dad fell asleep while driving us home from a visit to Grandma’s. We hit a telephone pole at 30 miles per hour. I broke my femur (the thickest bone in the human body) and had to be cut out of the car with the Jaws of Life. I had two surgeries and spent months on crutches and in physical therapy.

For a few months afterward, I was jittery in cars. But I got over it. I was young and resilient. Eventually I turned 16 and got my license. Although I was slightly anxious behind the wheel at first (I have the sense of direction of a houseplant), I became a little more comfortable each time I put the key in the ignition.

Then, when I was 18, I was slammed back to square one: As a camp counselor on a night off, I went to an ice cream parlor with four of my fellow wholesome teens. On our drive back to camp, a skunk ran across the curving country road. The driver, who had only recently gotten her license, panicked. She lost control and swerved wildly back and forth until we hit a parked milk truck. I went through the windshield and broke a shoulder blade and a finger. I crawled to someone’s lawn, across broken glass, as fast as I could. Everyone in the car was injured, but no one died. Later, when we saw a picture in the newspaper of our car in the junkyard, it was so squashed and splintered, it seemed impossible that anyone had survived.

I grew up. I drove when I had to. Because I lived in New York City, there wasn’t much occasion to. But I got behind the wheel when I was visiting my family in Rhode Island or traveling for work.

When I met my husband-to-be, Jonathan, I moved to San Francisco for a time. Everyone there drove very slowly and got stuck at four-way intersections smiling at one another, inching forward, stopping, smiling some more. It was annoying but predictable, and therefore manageable.

Eventually we moved back to NYC, now over a decade ago, and had kids. Since I was hardly ever called upon to drive, my fear—always lurking in the shadows like a mugger—got worse. I turned down invitations to friends’ houses if my husband couldn’t drive or if I couldn’t take public transportation. I passed on the crazy-cool Korean water spa in Queens unless someone could take me. My life started to feel more and more circumscribed. Being afraid to drive felt like a metaphor for passivity and dependence—and it was a huge and ever increasing source of tension between my husband and me.

Thanks, I’ll Walk

When Jonathan drove, I’d stare wide-eyed at the road, making reflexive squeaks and jerks. It drove him nuts. Not only did it distract him but it also made him feel that I didn’t trust him behind the wheel. He sometimes felt as trapped as I did, knowing that we could never move to a place where I’d be called upon to drive.

Then, a couple of years ago, in the middle of the night, we were driving with our kids to a vacation in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Jonathan was behind the wheel; our girls, 8 and 11 at the time, were in back. It was pitch-black and the road was deserted. Out of nowhere, right in our headlights and filling the windshield, were two giant brown bodies. Elk. I felt my skin get hot and time slow down and blood rush to my head and then the noise and a pow. All four air bags inflated. For a moment, I had no clue where I was and thought I was blind. (My past crashes had been in air bag–free cars.) The kids screamed, but I became totally calm, living the moment I’d half-expected since I was 18 years old.

The car was totaled, but we were OK. The girls sobbed to see the dead elk on the side of the road. A nice trucker offered us a lift to our hotel. It wasn’t until we arrived that I saw I had a giant slash on my arm, from elbow to shoulder. I didn’t want to go to the ER. I still have a scar.

I wouldn’t get behind the wheel after that. Then, last summer, Jonathan and I had a fight. Like most fights, it started off being about one thing but became about others. One of those was driving. We were at my mother-in-law’s house in Wisconsin, and I couldn’t even storm off after the fight because I would have had to drive. I felt ridiculous and powerless, unable to even make a dramatic exit. Suddenly, I became determined to face my fears, clip on the damn seat belt, and get into gear.

Caution: Student Driver

I started researching. I’d wanted to use one of those immersive virtual-reality machines—like Grand Theft Auto in a giant egg—but I couldn’t find one anywhere nearby. What I did find was a Long Island driving school called A Woman’s Way. ”Phobia counseling for licensed and unlicensed drivers,” the website said. The founder, Lynn S. Fuchs, had served on the Department of Motor Vehicles’ advisory board for years. She’d helped rewrite the curriculum for prospective driving instructors. Her teaching methods were cited in the state DMV’s driving manual. She worked with only one other instructor—a woman named Myra. (Come on, how can you not trust a Myra?) On the phone, Lynn assured me that I could learn to cope with my driving anxiety, putting me instantly at ease with her friendly Long Island accent. She scoffed at my desire to use a driving simulator. (“You need to actually do it!”) I made an appointment.

The night before my first lesson, I lay awake staring at the ceiling. (I’d have counted sheep, except they’d probably have jumped into the path of a speeding SUV.) In the morning, I took a train out to a place called Valley Stream. Lynn’s associate, Myra, picked me up at the station. Myra was in her 60s, with bright orange hair and a hypnotically soothing voice, plus that same reassuring motherly accent. Still, my hands were shaking. “The anticipation is the worst part,” Myra promised.

As she drove to a quiet neighborhood where I could get behind the wheel, she surprised me with her use of the horn at an intersection. I grew up thinking that anyone who used a horn was rude. Myra noted placidly, “I think of the horn as a conversation.” Sensing my doubt, she explained: “Your horn is your voice. It’s how you express yourself. You use it when you’re not sure another driver knows you’re there. You’re not being rude; you’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m here.’” This felt oddly like a feminist lesson, and I determined I was in good hands.

Myra pulled over. We sat in the car for a few minutes talking. My fear, we discovered, focused on two things: not knowing what was going to happen and not being in control of a situation. But, Myra noted, when you’re driving, you are in control—you’re more in control than you are as a passenger. She had a point.

“Drive,” She Said

It was time to switch seats. I felt as if I were swallowing a giant rock as I walked around the car, opened the driver’s-side door, and slipped inside. “Adjust the seat,” Myra prodded. She showed me that she had her own brake and could stop the car if I got in trouble. She could grab the wheel if I froze or panicked. And she revealed a secret weapon: The student-driving car was equipped with an oversize rearview mirror. It was as big as a loaf of bread! I looked into it and heard angels singing. I could see so much more. Noting my excitement, Myra said, “You get one of these when we’re done! Anyone can buy one!” It snaps right onto the regular mirror. “People may laugh,” she continued, “but when they see it in action, they always want one.”

We went through the pre-driving protocols: seat belt, mirror, hands on the wheel, and so on. Myra’s voice calmed my monkey mind and convinced me I could actually do this. When she was confident that I was ready, she talked me through pulling away from the curb. We were off.

And I realize this is anticlimactic, but I felt...fine. Where we drove, there were very few cars. Myra watched me closely and approved. “You’re a decent driver!” she exclaimed. “You’re just a nervous and unpracticed driver.” I felt absurdly pleased, the way I had when my father-in-law, a veterinarian, told me I had a very well-socialized cat. As we meandered through the shady streets, I felt no fear whatsoever. It was almost boring.

Cruise Control

Of course, that first go-round, we’d kept things simple. At our second session, Myra and I drove on slightly busier streets. The time after that, we added the main drag, turns in traffic, and speed changes in and out of school zones. Each time I returned to Myra, my anxiety ramped up during the 24 hours leading up to the lesson. Then when I actually got behind the wheel, it mellowed out.

This fits with research showing that inexperienced skydivers’ heart rates ratchet higher and higher until right after the moment they leap out the door of the plane, at which point their heart rates drop radically. In other words, the anticipation is by far the worst part. So says science! And Myra.

In practice, I found that I had the most anxiety when someone was tailing me closely, obviously annoyed with my rigorous respect for the speed limit. I’d be very concerned about the feelings and emotions of this anonymous irked person, but Myra wouldn’t have it. ”Stop worrying about him!” she would say. ”Let him worry about him! You’re following the law, and if he wants to pass you, he can pass you!”

Myra was smart about my anxiety. “The hardest moment for you,” she observed, “is when you touch the outside door handle.” She was right: I’d built up the notion of driving into this massive thing, and it had taken on a life of its own, one that had nothing to do with actually piloting a vehicle. In all the crashes I’d been in, I was a passenger—powerless. The fear of driving itself was what I’d been fearing, to lousily paraphrase FDR.

Guru Maya

I laughed when it dawned on me that almost everything Myra said in that car felt like a Zen koan that applied not only to driving but also to life: “Don’t join the pack!” “Focus on the big picture!” “Leave yourself an out!” When she told me, “People drive their cars the way they live their lives,” it helped me focus on how I pilot. Am I tentative and jumpy (or perhaps, worse, aggressive and bullying)? I want to be a generous driver and a generous person, someone who respects taking turns and takes reasonable risks.

My takeaway from the advice “Be aware of blind spots” wasn’t just to make sure a big truck could see me; it was to be aware of my own biases and blocks. My blind spot, as Myra had helped me realize, was that I was more paralyzed by the prospect of driving than by the act of driving. My husband had his own blind spot—that his tangible annoyance at me in the car made my anxiety in the car worse. We both had to tune in, focus, and work on vehicular growth and coexistence.

Then there was a classic: “Expect the unexpected,” said Myra. Meaning, some schmuck could plow through a stop sign or a kid could chase a ball into the road, so don’t get complacent. This sounds negative, but it needn’t be. With a little practice, nervousness can be transmogrified into alertness. When you’re attuned to your environment and open to possibility, you can be ready for adventure and more attentive to life’s quirky moments—with your kids, your spouse, nature, a movie, a play, a physical sensation.

Road to Somewhere

Ordinarily I am the person whose eyes roll like dice in a craps game when people say anything too woo-woo spiritual. Mystical clichés make me hork. But facing something that scared the living daylights out of me made me see these gems as truly meaningful. Yes, Myra’s advice was meant to specifically improve my driving skills, but when applied to something that had legitimately been holding me back for years, it felt expansive and potent. And it made me view the future as full of possibility, independence, and action.

Driving really is about trusting yourself and being respectful of others without letting them dictate your behavior; you need the belief that you know what you’re doing, which it’s taking me a while to build. I still get a tiny stab of fear when I touch the car-door handle. And I haven’t driven on the highway yet, though I feel confident that I can. But now I can picture myself driving—taking my kids to the Korean spa, going to that cult ice cream place in Tiverton, Rhode Island, visiting friends upstate.

Even if I never manage to, say, cruise down to Mexico in a convertible, hair blowing in the wind, one thing is for sure: I’m finally, after all these years, beginning to take the wheel.