Most people quake at the thought of public speaking. Not me. I've yakked in front of thousands, on television, on SiriusXM radio. Flying? I'm cool with that, just as I've skied my share of black diamonds. Spiders? We coexist.
What I've lived in terror of since I was a Midwestern teenager is an activity most people perform with the reflexive ease of washing their hair, and Saudi Arabian women—to their profound relief—have only recently been granted the right to do: It's driving that's scared the bejesus out of me.
We hear plenty about road rage. Road fright, not so much. I fail to understand why the fear of driving doesn't merit its own handle, like gamophobia (fear of marriage) or taphephobia (fear of being buried alive). Surely, I am not the only person freaked when, on the other side of a slender yellow line, an ill-equipped individual—me, for example—is operating tons of machinery that can, with one wrong move, maim another human being.
I have obsessed about this since long before people combined driving with texting.
One of my most far-reaching life decisions was weighted by my dread of driving. After college in Wisconsin, I considered moving to Chicago, Minneapolis or Los Angeles, each a reasonably affordable, desirable destination. It was only Manhattan, the costliest city in the land that called my name, strictly because of its mass transportation system making it the easiest American city in which to survive without a car.
Settled in New York City back in the day, I immediately learned that many women eschewed subways, which featured not only graffiti, vermin and suffocating summer heat, but also groping pervs. Not me. Thankful that I didn't have to drive, I happily endured sweaty commutes sandwiched next to gentlemen ready to bump and grind. Though we New Yorkers now enjoy air conditioning, it's been ever thus.
I married my husband because not only did he own a car, he possessed an unerring, internal GPS. I have now spent decades in this heroic man's passenger seat. Being a creative type, while he's chauffeured me hither and yon, my mind wanders. As a result, though New York City has been my home for decades, I retain only the dimmest grasp of how to navigate the megalopolis. Mosholu Parkway? Kosciuszko Bridge? The charmingly named Sunrise Highway?
These locations sound vaguely familiar thanks to the patois of traffic alerts, but do not ask me for directions. I literally never know where I'm going. This compounds my fear, along with the fact that the streets of New York are home to a disproportionate number of audacious people behind the wheel—suspiciously unlicensed, I'm willing to bet—who consider speed limits to be mere suggestions and who make turns from whatever lane they fancy.
Given my history, you might assume I don't possess a driver's license. You would be wrong. I've been licensed to drive (and possibly kill) since I went kicking and screaming to the DMV a full year after all of my friends became certified at 16, when we North Dakotans were typically green-lit to legally drive. Rarely was I the designated driver. Maneuver out of snow banks? Merge with traffic? (We may not have had bagels, but we did have traffic.) Maintain the speed limit? Not in my skill set.
In earlier decades, on several memorable occasions, I screwed up sufficient courage to get behind the wheel. Once, I drove all the way to Cape Cod in a biblical downpour. Unfortunately, however, twice after I was on the brink of becoming comfortable with driving, I experienced collisions, each entirely my fault. There was another automobile on the road? Really? These smashups hurt our cars more than they hurt me, but they thoroughly obliterated my confidence and parked me, literally, on the curb for a good long while.
Recently, however, Rational-Me did a Ted Talk for Terrified-Me and decided that not driving is barking mad, since my self-imposed limitation dramatically handicaps my independence. While I can live without zipping up to a Costco or making a quick hop to Jones Beach on a cloudless, 90-degree day, I've recognized that, as the years pass, my paralysis may have far more limiting consequences: Should I ever want to ditch NYC, I'm screwed, since driving is required in any other place where I can imagine living. Thus, I have sworn to get down and dirty behind the wheel. If 225 million adults and teens in the United States can drive a car, I am determined to do it, too, dammit.
My first recent foray, on a nearly deserted suburban parkway one sunny Sunday afternoon, was borderline pleasant. With my husband at my side, my terror alarm sounded only after an hour when I had to turn and in my rearview mirror spotted a hell-for-leather Hells Angels brigade speeding—hand to God—directly toward my car.
"Right! Go! Move!" my husband shrieked as I white-knuckled the steering wheel, and then stalled the car at a busy intersection. I was that driver, the one you curse.
Since then, with considerable practice, I've improved. Give me a country road and no need to pass a double-wide, and I will get from A to B. You would not want me to ferry your newborn baby home from the hospital and no one would mistake me for either Thelma or Louise. Nor will I be responding to the daily online solicitations I receive to become a Lyft driver. But I will get the job done, and safely, too, even if afterwards I require a spa day to gather my wits.
Now, if I could only change the ink cartridge in my printer.