I'm 27 years old, and I don't have a license.
When I was 16 years old, my father asked me if I wanted to learn how to drive. I didn't really have an interest at the time. I had just moved from a completely different state and started at a new high school. At the time I didn't really have a lot of friends, so didn't see the reasoning behind driving. Where would I go? Why go out if I'm going to be by myself? I can do that at home. So I told him I didn't really need to drive, that I'd rather wait until I was a little older. He understood, so he didn't press it.
Time passed. I moved away to college. I still didn't have a license. I lived on campus and everything was within walking distance, and the city I lived in had a fantastic public transit system so I didn't really need to drive. By the time I was in my third year, I had a girlfriend who had a car – so any time we wanted to go out, she drove.
After we graduated, my girlfriend and I moved in together and eventually got married. She still drove everywhere. The whole time, we either worked close together and carpooled to work, or I worked from home – so I didn't really need to drive. I relied on her, my parents, and friends to get around. Uber and Lyft were a panacea.
So I didn't really need to drive.
Now, I look back; I'm 27. I kept telling myself I didn't really need to drive. There was no reason to. I had a support network. I could get around other ways.
Of course, that isn't the truth. The truth is: I never really felt like I could drive.
There were a few times in high school where my father took me out on the road. We started in the parking lot, as you do at that age. At first, it wasn't too bad. I could take it slow, there was nobody around. It wasn't so bad.
One day, we were out in the country. He told me to get in the driver's seat – it would be fine, it's an empty road, nobody is out. So I got in and took off. After a few minutes down this old almost-dirt road, he told me to turn right onto a 3 lane avenue. At this point, I wasn't super confident, but he wouldn't steer me wrong, right? So I turn out.
I immediately hear him yell to stop. I panicked and didn't know what to do. Another truck was coming down the highway. It looked like he was coming straight for me. He laid on his horn and swerved around. He didn't hit me, but it felt like I was seconds from disaster. I was sweating, time was moving slowly, I couldn't concentrate on anything unless it was directly in front of me. It was only later I realized that what I was experiencing at the time was a panic attack.
I pulled over shortly after and my father took over. I didn't drive for a few weeks after that.
Later that month, we were at my aunt's house. She lived out in the country (I grew up in a small town – everywhere we went was out in the country). Her driveway was pretty long, and as we were leaving my father told me I should back out in the truck to get practice reversing. I was having flashbacks to my previous experience, but figured there was nothing that could go wrong since it was just a driveway.
So I hopped in and started backing out. Her driveway was quite long, maybe 200 feet. I took it slow and easy. As I approached the road, though, I wasn't aware of where the back of the vehicle was – and I ran straight into her mailbox and knocked it over.
At this point I was two for two and not feeling very good about myself. I took another break for a few weeks, but again my father had suggested going out.
This time, we were on a newly constructed toll road. There was nobody on it, as it was our town's first toll road and tolls were for suckers. We were alone out there, so my dad was taking some time to explain some of the details about how cruise control worked. As I was looking down at the instrument panel and steering wheel, I got distracted from what was in front of me on the road.
When I looked up, I was going 70 MPH in the oncoming traffic lane.
If we hadn't been alone, I could have been dead. I had lost focus, and my father was looking at the panel explaining how it worked. The sweating started again. The feeling of dread as I swerved back into my lane. I was flashing back to that first almost-wreck, when I lost the sense of space of the vehicle and hit the mailbox; disaster scenarios were spinning around in my head. We pulled over and my dad drove us home.
New drivers make mistakes. It happens all the time, it's part of the learning process, and all you can hope for is that nobody gets hurt during that process.
But what I was feeling was different. I was fixated on everything that could go wrong, on how I could hurt people – myself, people around me, people I cared about in the car with me. Every time after that I sat in the drivers' seat, my mind was racing. I started shaking.
I was terrified. Every bone and muscle and neuron in my body was telling me:
Get out of that seat. Don't touch that wheel. You can't do this. You're going to kill someone. You're going to get in a horrible wreck and die. You're going to get your parents killed, your friends, your girlfriend, your wife. Don't do this, it's not safe.
And so I stopped driving.
When you're a kid and you don't drive, nobody really bats an eye. Oh, he's waiting until he's more mature, he's responsible, he's taking his time. That's fine. His friends can drive I'm sure, he can get around and his parents can help out.
When you're in college and you don't drive, it's a little more suspect. How does he visit his parents? I guess he stays on campus, that isn't so bad I suppose, he lives in a big city with good public transit. And he saves money by not having a car.
But when you're an adult? You start getting funny looks. What? How do you get to work? How do you buy groceries? What if there's an emergency? How do you hang out with your friends?
The stigma turns into a positive feedback loop. You feel like a failure because you can't drive, so you feel like you have to just pull yourself up – get over your anxiety. But that pressure only makes the anxiety worse. The fears and thoughts and expectations build up until you sit down behind the wheel until it just explodes in all the wrong ways. There were times I would almost break down into tears at even the thought of getting in the driver's seat.
I had settled. I'd just wait for self driving cars (save me Elon Musk!) and be done with it.
But one day, my wife gave me a book: Taming Your Gremlin. I won't bore you much with the details of its teaching, but suffice to say it's probably the only self-help book I would ever recommend. Within, there was a fairly simple concept that I'd never actually thought about:
When you say you can't do something, what you're really saying is that you choose not to do that thing.
And it was true. I was choosing not to drive. For a multitude of reasons that felt very real to me, but it didn't matter: I was making a choice. And if I could choose one way, why couldn't I choose the other? It would be hard, but I was tired of being afraid. So I chose to sit down behind the wheel one more time.
And again. And again. Every time I could, I chose to take control and channel my fear into action.
And I'm still going.
Driving is hard for me. I'm still nervous, even now after I've been driving for around 4 months fairly regularly. I take it slow and cautiously (go around me please, I'm that guy driving at the speed limit instead of 10 over). But it's getting easier. I still make mistakes, and every mistake sends me spiraling back into that dark, scary place where I want to give up. But I pick myself up and keep trying.
I choose not to be a 28 year old without a license.