Behind the Wheel Fears (Part Two)

I learned to drive ten years ago. I had my accident ten years ago. I am afraid of driving.

Driving is one of those anxiety-inducing triggers that I must face every single day. I have to drive. I have to take myself to work five days a week. I have to pick Sunshine up from school five days a week. I have to run errands, go to ballet, and take my children to the doctor.

To be a functioning adult in suburbia, I need to drive.

I will always hate it. I will always be afraid of it. But I will always do it.

I know that everyone who battles anxiety must have a few triggers that they cannot avoid. That they must face every day. That they need to overcome in order to exist. I cannot avoid this trigger in the way that I avoid other ones.

Late last week, I was driving to pick up Sunshine from school. Her school is in a complex located just off one of those highways that run through commercial areas. The flow of traffic is steady, broken only by the occasional red light.

I was driving along, listening to Taylor Swift, Sunshine’s favorite artist, thinking about how much I did not like the book I was reading at the time. Maybe I should give that up and find something else. I was driving 40 miles per hour. A car waiting to turn right at the next light turned in front of me. There was plenty of space between our cars. She made a good decision. Without hesitation, the minivan behind her also made the same decision. This time, there was not enough space between us. I braked slightly, but the minivan did not speed up. My car rushed toward its rear bumper. I slammed my brakes, they squealed against the road, I hit my horn, my heart race, and I checked my options.

There was open space in the left lane, so I quickly pulled into it and passed the minivan.

My heart was in my throat when I pulled behind the last car in the parent pickup line, put my car in park, and picked up my phone.

I texted Saint Daddy.

“Driving seems like such an outmoded way to get around. There must be a better way to do it. Someone should get on that.”

I am always afraid that I will be in another accident. My accident was entirely my fault. Although, Saint Daddy did say that he had noticed that my Breeze did not maneuver turns well. He wished he would have warned me. Even if he had, though, I am sure the same thing would have happened. I did not think I was going too fast.

I am not worried about my driving, though. I know that my accident made me a hyper-aware driver. I check my mirrors, I pay attention to my blind spots, I wait my turn. I am not 100% sure if the opposite of an aggressive driver is a passive one. I do not even really know if I would consider myself to be the opposite of an aggressive driver, but I trust myself behind the wheel.

What I hate about driving is not me; it is them.

Driving is unpredictable because I do not know what other drivers might do. I was being perfectly safe and cautious in the right lane. Sunshine’s school was less than a half a mile away, so I would not have gone into the left lane of my own volition in case I had to be aggressive in getting over again. I am not interested in high emotion driving. The minivan, though, is something I could not predict.

I do not know what went on with the driver of the minivan. She made a dangerous choice, but I do not know how much thought went into it. The minivan turned out of a medical complex, the same one where I take my children to their pediatrician. Maybe she had received bad news. Maybe she was distracted and not thinking of the task at hand. There are a hundred maybes for that one driver.

And there are millions of drivers on the road.

I cannot even begin to imagine their maybes. I cannot even begin to fathom their what-ifs.

I hate driving because it is unpredictable. At any time, a white minivan could pull out in front of me. A red SUV could slam on its brakes. A black sedan could swerve into my lane.

I have to be hyper-vigilant, and I feel the weight of that bearing down on me every time I get behind the wheel. I cannot know, and that lack of knowledge threatens to throw me into a hurricane of thoughts I cannot control.

My children ride in the car with me. Recently, I drove Saint Daddy somewhere and dropped him off. I then drove our three children home with me. It was dark and raining. While we were near home, I was not very familiar with how to return to our safe little nest. Sunshine was telling me all about My Little Pony. Grumpy and Sleepy were taking turns shouting out nonsense and giggling. I missed a turn, and I tensed up.

It was early fall. 70°. And my brain told me to watch for black ice.

What if you’re in an accident with your babies in the car? What if you destroy part of them like you destroyed part of you? What if you give them scars to carry? What if you’re the problem?

Black ice!

The thought was absurd. I knew it at the time. “There’s not going to be black ice right now. What’s wrong with you?”

But how do you know?

I fought against my anxiety as I “uh-huh”-ed everything Sunshine said about Princess Celestia and Princess Cadence and their cutie marks. I told my anxiety about science as I found my way unto the bypass, a road that meant familiarity and increased speeds.

In the rain? You’re going to crash!

It meant more people around if there was a problem but also more headlights coming the other way.

Those bright lights are blinding, aren’t they? How are they even legal? You’re never going to see the turns in the road. You’re going to miss your exit. Look at that big puddle!

I hydroplaned a little bit. I always remember what Saint Daddy told me to do when that happens. I gripped the wheel, I let off the gas, I avoided my brake, and I felt traction come back under my wheels. Grumpy called for me “MA-MA!” Sleepy yelled, “DAD!” Sunshine kept prattling about the ponies.

I managed to make it to our exit and down the steep hill that led to home.

Sunshine began asking me about the reflective plastic in the middle of the road, and I explained to her that they helped drivers know where their lane ended to help everyone feel safe.

I wanted to make sure that Sunshine felt that safety, even though I rarely do in the car. Having the responsibility of three tiny souls while I drive only adds to that lack of security.

It is easier for me as a passenger. I can read or play on my phone and ignore the parts of being in a car that make me feel tension.

But I have to drive. I will always have to drive. It is a fact of my life that I cannot avoid.

I had thought that, by now, ten years later, a lot of my fears related to driving would have begun to disappear, but they have not. I am sure that is because of the unpredictable nature of my fellow drivers. I will never be able to control that variable.

So what can I do?

I make sure my babies are as safe as possible. The law says to rearface them until they are two, but science says to keep them that way until as close to four as possible. So that is what we do. Sunshine was three months shy of her fourth birthday when we switched her. Her brothers are still riding in the convertible carseats we strapped them into when we left the hospital with them right after birth. The law says to use a five point harness until four, but science says to keep them harnessed as long as possible. At the rate she is growing, Sunshine may fit in her convertible carseat until she is eight and she will be harnessed until she grows out of it. Grumpy and Sleepy will get the same seat Sunshine has when they are ready for an upgrade. Safety is worth inconvenience. Safety is worth the cost of a seat that will last longer. Safety protects my babies if something horrible does happen because of those variables that I cannot control.

For this reason, safety helps me handle my car anxiety.

I was not wearing my seatbelt when I crashed my car. Because of that, I lived and I walk. But I always wear it now.

Safety measures bring me traces of sanity when I feel powerless to overcome my thoughts.

There was no chance of black ice on that night, but my brain often tells me the impossible might be true.

I will drive, and I will be afraid. But at least I know some things that will help. And sometimes, that is the best I can hope for.

Behind the Wheel Fears (Part One)

Saint Daddy taught me how to drive. I was twenty-one years old. He was the only person I really felt comfortable sharing my ineptitude with, and he bravely took on the task of taking me on the road.

I care a lot about how how people view my intelligence and capability. And I did not like the idea that someone might think I was bad at it.

Saint Daddy never made me feel stupid. Saint Daddy is wonderful.

I had a bachelor’s degree, a mortgage, and a full-time professional career with benefits before I had my driver’s license.

A few weeks after I passed my road test, something catastrophic happened. It was one of those things that changes the course of your life forever. Occasionally, we all experience specific events that we can point to and say, with certainty, that it changed our lives.

I was in an accident.

I crashed my car.

I drove a little purple Plymouth Breeze. I was on my way to work. I had already been at work earlier in the day, but I had to go back for an important meeting. I had considered staying at work between meetings, but the prospect of being able to take a fifteen minute nap on my couch was too delicious. Rarely, do I have such opportunities. I went home.

Saint Daddy, whose title on that day was officially “boyfriend,” walked me to the car. I was telling him about a social engagement that we had been invited to.

I waved to him as I drove away.

I did not buckle my seatbelt. This is important. If I had, I may not have been alive twenty minutes later.

It is amazing how tiny little decisions create us. If I had worn my seatbelt, something I had always done and always have since, I would not have married Saint Daddy. I would not have had my three beautiful children. My life would have been a full stop instead of a pause. In failing to be fully safe, I kept myself safe.

I drove the old highway to work. It had been bypassed and the road was quiet, windy, and tree-lined.

The day was perfectly lovely. The leaves were just beginning to change. It had rained earlier in the day, but the sky was milky white and filled with clouds.

It was precisely ten miles between my house and the turn to my work on this road.

About halfway between those two points is a stone quarry. The road turns sharply and loose stones and gravel often litter the road.

I was aware of this. I had navigated this road many times over the previous month.

What I did not consider on my drive to work that day was this combination of facts: sharp curve, loose stones, and rain earlier in the day.

The road itself was not wet, but those loose stones were wet underneath.

When I hit that sharp curve, I was going precisely two miles over the speed limit. I cannot remember the posted speed limit, but I can remember that detail. I remember saying it to the officer at the scene. “How fast were you going?” he asked. I told him my speed and added, “It was only two miles over the speed limit.”

The wet loose gravel prevented me from getting traction, my wheel jerked around in my hands, I tried to control it, I avoided using my brakes as Saint Daddy had told me to do in these situations, and I careened wildly across the road and up the steep embankment separating the old highway from the bypass.

I remember that wall of green coming toward me. I remember not knowing how to stop it. I remember the loud thud as my car slammed into the embankment. I will always remember that sound.

The next thing I was aware of was how hazy my vision was. Everything looked out of focus. My periphery was non-existant. I was climbing out of a window on my hands and knees, glass littering the ground around me.

It was pure adrenaline and instinct that took me out of the car. Without that, I would have realized my injuries doing so, and I may have simply waited, lying on the ceiling of my car, for help.

When I stood, I noticed my left arm.

It hung limply and at an odd angle. It was clearly broken.

There I stood, knowing that I needed help, missing a shoe, my phone somewhere inside the car, and my arm broken on a road that might go fifteen minutes without a passing car. There were no houses in sight.

I started screaming. “Help! Please! Anyone! Please! I need help!”

No one would hear me. I yelled anyway. What else could I do?

I spotted a van in the distance. Silver and heading the opposite direction from the one that I had come.

The man driving the car pulled over to the side of the road and rushed to me. He helped me walked to his car, where his wife and two children sat. He leaned me against the hood of his car and he dialed 911.

“Can you please call my fiancé? He’s home right now. We live just three miles from here. Please?”

I know I already said Saint Daddy was only my boyfriend at the time, but even in my shock, I understood next of kin rules. Even “fiancé” is not worth much, but it is better than “boyfriend.”

He said, “We should wait for an ambulance. They’ll call someone for you.”

I do not know how long it took for the ambulance to arrive. I do know that when it did, they still did not call Saint Daddy. They told me to wait until they decided whether or not I needed to be life-flighted and then which hospital to take me to and then until I got there and then until I saw a doctor and then until my nurse checked on me again.

While I was moved to the ambulance, my neck properly supported, my eyes being repeatedly checked for dilation, a police officer began asking me questions.

Where were you coming from? Where were you heading? When did you leave home? Do you have your license on you? Was that your car? How fast were you going? Were you wearing your seatbelt?

Home. Work. 4:45. It is in my bag. Yes. Two miles over the limit. No.

“I’m going to have to cite you. I’m sorry. But not for the seatbelt thing. I know you can’t see what I’m looking at, but if you’d been wearing your belt, you’d either be dead or paralyzed. You must have rolled with the car. You’re lucky.”

Lucky.

It would take a long time before I felt truly lucky.

First, I needed Saint Daddy.

Saint Daddy has always been an instantaneous comfort to me. I needed him. My head was bleeding, my arm was broken, and…

“Can you feel that?” the EMT asked as we drove down the mountain to my second closest hospital. The nearest hospital did not have an orthopedic surgeon on call that night. So we went to the second closest one.

“Feel what?” I asked, my head strapped to the table, stabilizing my neck and spine. I could not see what he was doing, but I knew he was concerned.

“Okay. That’s all I needed to know.”

He told me jokes the whole way.

I was wheeled into the emergency room and my friendly EMT left me with the medical team there.

The doctor came in and released my neck. A nurse cleaned the glass from my scalp as the doctor continued to evaluate me.

“Can you feel that?”

This time I saw what was happening. The doctor was rubbing my left hand. I could not feel it. I shook my head. “Can you move your hand at all?” I tried. Nothing.

“Can I please call my fiancé? Please! He is the only person I really know within hours of here. Please.”

A nurse brought me a phone, and he was on his way to me. No hesitation.

Saint Daddy had known that I never showed up to work. I was expected there at 5:00. I left home with enough time to get there before my meeting. When I did not arrive by 5:10, my boss called my emergency contact, Saint Daddy, and told him that I had not arrived, wondering if maybe I might have stopped at a store on my way in. At 5:45, he called Saint Daddy again. “I just thought I’d let you know that she never arrived.” Saint Daddy got in the car and immediately drove the whole way to my work to see if he could find me. But the wreck was already cleaned up, and there was no sign of me. After that, more than an hour went by without his knowing where I might be.

I cannot imagine what that hour was like for Saint Daddy. If I am not sure where he is for five minutes, my mind starts to wander to catastrophe. I am not sure I could survive hours without information.

Maybe it is because of what I was going through, maybe Saint Daddy drove more than two miles over the speed limit, maybe he was already halfway to me when I finally called him, but I swear he was there faster than humanly possible.

The doctor came back in and talked to us. The x-ray showed a triple break in my humerus. The lack of feeling showed nerve damage, but “I’m not an arm guy. I’d deal with leg injuries, but I’m not great with arms. I’d rather not take on your case. We are going to arrange transportation elsewhere. Hang tight.”

The next doctor, the best nerve guy in the state, confirmed nerve damage. He wanted to see me in a week for a follow-up. Maybe time would clear up the swelling and the issue. He set my arm. It was the most painful experience of my life. It was nearing morning. I had not slept. I screamed out in pain, losing my vision as my brain focused on overcoming what was happening.

The lack of mobility and feeling did not clear up. When the week ended, we scheduled surgery.

My mom came up for the surgery. She would drive me the hour and a half to the hospital and drive me home afterward. Surgery, however, took longer than anticipated. I needed two pints of blood, and I spent the night at the hospital instead of going home.

My doctor, the nerve guy, said that I had utterly destroyed my radial nerve. “Ground it to a pulp. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s not dead, though. It may start to work again.”

The next four months were filled with appointments. My orthopedist wanted me there twice a month. I saw a physical therapist. I was told that I would never use my left hand again without a miracle. Although, there was a surgery that gave me a 70% chance of getting back a similar amount of movement. My physical therapist released me. There was nothing she could do for me. I wore a metal brace twenty four hours a day. I could not put on my own bra or pull my own hair back.

I prayed. I hoped. I prayed.

One evening, I was able to twitch my wrist. Within two weeks, I could type with both hands.

My doctor said, “You’re a miracle. Someone’s looking out for you up there. You must come from good stock.” He wrote about me in a medical journal. I named Sleepy after him seven years later.

After two months of not driving, my mom brought me her car. A coworker had been driving me to work, and one day, she simply chose not to. She said she was sick of making the extra stop and she left me to figure it out. Mom came again to save the day. She told me I had to get back on the horse, so to speak.

I was terrified. I worried about everything repeating itself. I took the bypass instead of the old highway. I drove five miles under the speed limit and cried when cars sped by me in the left lane.

It took five years before I drove the old highway to work. Even thinking about it, sent me into a tizzy of flashbacks.

I still hate driving. I think I will always hate driving. I am terrified of it in bad weather. I panic on unfamiliar roads and feel anxious at high speeds. If we are together, Saint Daddy always drives. It is an unspoken rule. I would rather not do it. Even if we are taking “my” car somewhere, I would rather he be behind the wheel. He has always liked driving. It is very win-win.

For the rest of my life, I will be unable to extend my arm fully. I will have areas of my hand that are nearly numb. I will have parts of my arm that are hypersensitive. My “funny bone” will be a little more exposed than it should be. I will have a nasty scar that runs the length of my left upper arm. And I will have a fear of getting behind the wheel.

Driving is one of those fears that I confront on a nearly daily basis. The sharp stab of anxiety is mostly worn off. I am aware of the tension in my body every time I get behind the wheel. I am just a little on edge. But the fear is more like a dull permeating ache now. I feel it everywhere, but I can survive it.

When the weather is bad or the roads may be icy or the turns come too quickly or I am not sure where I am going, that dullness becomes much more defined.

I have gotten to work after driving in the snow with red half-moon indentations on my palms from gripping the steering wheel.

After ten years, I have stopped believing that would improve.

Yes, I will always be afraid to drive, but some fears are unavoidable.

Some fears need to be confronted every day, even if they never will be overcome.

Fear will not stop me. I will not let it.

My accident defined a large part of my life, but it will not define me.