Dealing with a Crushing Fear of Driving

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I hate driving.

I’ve hated it for as long as I even thought about having to do it someday. I’m fine in a car as a passenger. And I don’t use the word hate lightly. In fact, I rarely use it at all. But in this case, it’s true. I both hate and fear driving.

I legitimately hate driving.

I remember too many accidents, too many stories, from when I was young. Family sliding under a semi and being dragged in its blind spot, while other cars honked frantically to get the truck driver’s attention. Family driving mere blocks from home, still buckling the passenger seatbelt, getting hit by another car, and slamming her head into the windshield. A friend calling me, not to tell me she was running late for our plans, but instead bawling uncontrollably from the side of the road, having just had her first accident since recently receiving her license.

I didn’t realize how much those incidents were festering in me over the years.

At 16, I first avoided learning to drive by saying it didn’t make sense. I figured, why pay for a course at 16, when at the time here in Milwaukee, I was allowed to get my permit without a class once I turned 18. In the meantime, I had plenty of family and friends with licenses and cars who could help get me where I wanted to go.

When 18 came, I was too busy moving away for college. When I came back, I used public transportation when I could, but that’s when I really started relying heavily on a select few trusted family and friends to shuttle me around town. And though at this point, I truly began arranging my life around my fear, I still didn’t really admit the extent of the anxiety and fear I had about driving.

It went on like that for years. I did get my learner’s permit. I even renewed it a few times. But I didn’t practice often, let alone consistently. And every time someone I knew got in an accident, or I was involved in one as a passenger, my fear of driving only got worse.

Then I became a mom. A stay-at-home mom.

I look back with so much love at the time I stayed home with my newborn… toddler… preschooler. The experiences I had were priceless, and I hold them close to my heart. I’m so grateful! But I also know there were many times I felt lonely, trapped, unprepared, and unconnected. I had no car to myself, and even if I did, I couldn’t drive it. More truthfully: I wouldn’t drive it.

The worry of feeling less safe and less well without a driver’s license was beginning to feel nearly as bad as the fear of actually driving. I needed to be able to do this! I needed to drive to be the kind of parent and partner I wanted to be. As terrible and horrifying as driving was for me to consider, I knew I’d be a better mom once I learned this skill, and more importantly, faced this fear.

The best advice I got as an anxious would-be driver was to drive every day.

It didn’t matter if it was for ten minutes in an empty parking lot or five minutes around my own block. Just get in a car, and drive it. Discovering that approach changed my life. Taking daily mini drives became the small goal I could look to right in front of me instead of only seeing the huge obstacles ahead and fear all around.

At the time, my child was one year old. He was learning to walk, talk, and a million other things. If he could take on so much constant change, I could work on this one thing. So, I renewed my permit. Family members watched the little one while others took me out to drive. Then, sooner than anyone expected, I scheduled my first test.

I failed it. And the instructor who graded me was not nice. At all.

It was a punch in the gut — one that I could’ve used as an excuse to put myself out of my driving misery. But instead, I scheduled another test (at a different location) as soon as possible. Someone gifted me a professional driving-test-taking-behind-the-wheel session where I learned all the tricks. And the next time, I passed.

I wish I could say that pushing through the fear to get my driver’s license was the ultimate triumph. But it wasn’t.

When I returned to the workforce and started driving more regularly, I had one accident after another. It felt like at least an annual occurrence. Each collision rocked my confidence, whether or not I was at fault. Each change in vehicles took away any comfort I’d grown to have in the driver’s seat. Every time there was an incident (even a flat tire), the time, money, and energy it took to work through it chipped away at any resilience I’d built up against my fear. And every time, it felt like I had to start all over.

Looking back, I can feel just how embarrassed I was by my situation, by my anxiety. Before I got my license, I only told who I absolutely had to about my inability to drive. I rarely gave details about the situation if I didn’t feel they were necessary. I realize now that while part of the reason for that was shame, another part was not wanting to allow anyone to challenge me to work through it. I knew the whole situation would be intensely challenging to overcome and to be completely honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put in the work toward something I wasn’t sure was even possible. I’m not sure I knew that I could do it, and I didn’t want to fail.

But if moms are anything, we are so often stronger than we realize.

This lesson, decades in the making, has been priceless for me to learn… as a human, a partner, a friend, and a mother. And that’s not to say I’m over it, because I’m not. I’m filled with dread every single time I get in the wheel of a car. Thankfully, I’m (usually) able to push the fear aside enough to focus on the task at hand. So I can do it… Nevertheless, I still really, really hate driving!

Whether your fear is driving or something else entirely, know that more resources are available to you than ever. Talk to a friend, join a support group, find a therapist – in person or online. Figure out one small goal you can set right in front of you to block out what overwhelms you in the bigger picture or down the road. Then, take one small step—every day. You’ll be amazed how far you end up going.

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