It had been a long time since I’d driven any vehicle when I found out that in two weeks I’d be teaching a canoe class which meant I’d likely be responsible for driving a 15-passenger van. “You’re going to need to practice,” my husband, W, said, holding up his truck keys.
He was right. I didn’t want to have to tell my boss I couldn’t drive. Already she had been so kind to me when I had a panic attack on the river during staff training. Today, sunny with dry pavement, was a perfect opportunity to get my confidence back driving on familiar country roads.
I took my time adjusting the mirrors and the seat. There was no point in delaying further so I put the truck in drive and crept to the end of the driveway. “Good job,” W said encouragingly. The truck felt a whole lot bigger than my former car, the Subaru Outback that I’d given to my dad since we didn’t really need two vehicles. But I managed to avoid taking out our mailbox as I turned onto our road. “Good job,” I told myself.
I took a slow circle around our neighborhood and Wayne kept up a steady commentary, which is usually my job but a welcome distraction. Even my hands felt weird on the steering wheel. Two guys sitting in lawn chairs on the other side of the loop held up their beers when W waved. I wondered if they could tell that I was completely freaking out, but I was driving like a normal person and it wasn’t like I had my chin on top of the steering wheel. No one could see how fast my heart was going.
At the stop sign I had to tell myself that it was extremely unlikely that I’d suddenly forget which was the gas and which the brake, but then I reviewed in my head, just to be sure. How was it possible that I’d driven for nine years without a panic attack, and without wondering if I’d spontaneously lose my mind and confuse the gas for the brake or pass out at the wheel? Those days seemed impossibly long ago and that person seemed like a different me.
Pulling onto the main road I felt a moment of relief. Here I am, driving, effortlessly making the truck follow the curves of the road and accelerate up to speed. And seconds later the pounding heart, and the woozy, not quite inside my body feeling came over me. I shouldn’t be doing this. I need to get off the road.
I remembered what my therapist said, that it wasn’t going to be easy, that I was going to be scared. I kept going. The feeling didn’t go away, but the intensity dropped to bearable.
“I get to see all kinds of things I never noticed when I’m driving,” W said. It was like we were touring the back roads, driving for pleasure, almost. I drove all the way to the next town, 15 minutes away, not comfortable, but not panicking, either. Driving didn’t seem so foreign anymore, even in W’s truck. It seemed possible that I could get used to this. Maybe someday I’d even be able to get back on a highway A terrifying thought–no, don’t think of that now!
In a big parking lot I turned around and headed back home. Just pointing homeward changed something in me. I knew I was going to make it. I didn’t feel scared. Nervous, yes, but not freaking out. By the time I pulled into our driveway I was positively joyful. I could feel that dumb smile I get when I just paddled through a scary rapid and came out okay. In a way, I guess I’m lucky I can drive for half an hour and it’s like I paddled a class IV rapid.