How I Finally Got Over My Fear Of Driving

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I grew up in the South and the Midwest, but some part of me has been a New Yorker for as long as I can remember. Yes, I dreamed about tall buildings, Broadway shows, and being one of those cool people who wears all black and doesn’t make eye contact on the subway. But mostly? I’ve just always hated driving.

As a 14-year-old in suburban Missouri, I asked my dad to start walking me through a few pointers so I could think through the process before I got my learner’s permit at 15. But, God bless him, instead of helping me understand how to ease off the clutch and shift into gear, my physics-minded father launched into a long lecture on torque. (Note: I still do not know what torque is or what it has to do with driving, but if you’re interested, here is a Quora post that could potentially shed some light.)

So when I got my permit, I was still totally in the dark about driving a stick shift — the only option in our driveway at the time. On one incredibly frustrating day, my dad tried to teach me in a nearby parking lot, and it ended in tears. Later, my mom did the same, and I broke a record for Number of Times an Engine Can Stall During One 3-Mile Drive.

But it was, honestly, kind of fine not being able to drive. Thanks to my late-August birthday, most of my friends were older, so hitching rides was easy. I did finally get my license at nearly 17, after a tornado sent a tree crashing down on one of our old stick-shift Saabs, and my dad replaced it with an automatic. But because I was soon off to college in Chicago (at a very walkable campus — no car needed), I only had about a year, give or take, of real driving time.

Which means that I was particularly well suited for life in NYC, a city where for eight years now I’ve very comfortably relied on walking, public transportation, taxis, (more recently) Lyft — and the fact that one of my close friends and frequent weekend-trip companions gets carsick if she isn’t in the driver’s seat.

Of course, over the years, as my confidence in my ability to get by without a car increased, my confidence in my ability to drive — unsurprisingly — plummeted. I had a near-panic attack one Friday night before a river-tubing excursion I’d foolishly offered to drive to. I turned into a sullen teen when I visited my parents one Christmas and my mom asked me to pop over to the grocery store to pick something up. I shamefully declined to help when my neighbor asked me to move her car once, to avoid a parking ticket when she was out of town for longer than expected. I convinced my husband that it was too expensive to pay for a second driver on our rental car during a vacation in Italy. Basically, I got out of driving any way I could think of.

And then, this September, I was invited to bring a plus-one on a heavenly-sounding trip to the Berkshires. I’d been aching to get out of the city and see some fall leaves, and my husband had been complaining for a while that he’d never been invited along on any of my work-related adventures. So it seemed like an obvious yes — but there was a catch. The trip was sponsored by Ford; to get up to the picturesque villages of the Berkshires, I would personally have to do the majority of the driving, as the journalist invited to experience the car.

Basically, I got out of driving any way I could think of.

On the day of the trip, we took the subway to a garage near Columbus Circle, where we were to pick up our 2017 Ford Fusion — and I walked in nearly shaking from stress. I painted on a brave face, though, so that the kind folks at Ford wouldn’t second-guess their offer to put me behind the wheel, and my husband and I loaded our bags and ourselves into the car.

I’m going to preface everything I’m about to say with an I know. I know it sounds a little too convenient to be true that I magically got over my fear of driving because of a really nice car that I was using courtesy of its manufacturer. But, reader, I honestly did. From the moment I got behind the wheel of our deep-burgundy Fusion, felt the soothingly buttery-leather seats (stretched over eco-friendly soy foam, btw!), started up the surprisingly straightforward GPS, and eased the car out of the garage — into midtown Manhattan traffic, no less — I actually felt…kind of fine.

So why did my anxiety melt away so quickly? Why was I okay, despite the fact that I was driving in busy traffic, in narrow, urban-highway lanes, for a fairly long time considering the last time I rented a car, it was to drive 2 miles to Ikea?

Here’s what I’ve been able to figure out: First, I was driving to a destination I was really excited about. Our trip began at Storm King Art Center, a stunning outdoor sculpture park in New Windsor, NY, and then we made our way to the beautiful Hotel On North in Pittsfield, MA — home base for the weekend, and located conveniently right in the middle of the Berkshires. That meant we were a very reasonable driving distance from MASS MoCA, Canyon Ranch, and the famous Prairie Whale restaurant. It was all gorgeous, and the weather was perfect. In other words, I had to drive, but it was for a great reason.

Second, I was driving a car in which I felt totally comfortable. Unlike the motorized-skateboard feeling of most of the rental cars I’ve driven over the past few years, the Fusion felt reassuringly weighty, solid, and safe. It was easy to see the traffic around me through the front and rear windshields and the mirrors, and the GPS worked without a hitch and, for the most part, gave me the perfect amount of notice before I needed to make a turn.

And finally — don’t laugh — but I think the power of intention-setting was at play here, too. Yes, I may have been flipping out internally when we arrived at that garage, but for several days before the trip, I’d been telling myself, “You’re going to be fine. You’re a good driver, and you’ve never had an accident or even a parking ticket. You can do this.” I resurfaced this internal reassurance as I started the car, and it actually stuck. I was fine — I drove well, I didn’t have an accident or any interactions with the cops. I knew I could do this — and I did.

Maybe the part of me that’s always been a New Yorker isn’t related to my vehophobia: It’s my attitude that I should be able to do whatever — or go wherever — the hell I want.

Editor's Note: The lodging, activities, and transportation for the author's trip to the Berkshires were provided by Ford Motor Company.

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