I didn’t always have anxiety problems. That part of my crazy brain pretty much only popped out after my parents died. But there was one bit of foreshadowing, and that was how I reacted to trying to learn to drive.
In New Jersey when I was a teenager, you had to take six hours of professional driving lessons to get your learner’s permit, usually taught in six one-hour classes. Most people spend their first session in a parking lot, but maybe get to drive around the block one time at the end of the lesson. I didn’t get to leave the parking lot until my LAST session. And when I did that, my hands were shaking so hard it was jiggling the steering wheel.
I hated driving so much I barely practiced. I was plagued with a recurring nightmare where I had to attempt to control a careening car from the passenger seat, the place I thought I should be in the front seat of a vehicle. Pretty much every “practice drive” I took with my dad ended in tears (mine) and yelling (his). I failed my driving test within the first five minutes and vowed to never drive again.
But after my parents died, I had to suck it up and learn to drive. My brother was going to need me to come pick him up after track practice. I needed a license. My friends pulled together to help me out: Ben became my “driving guru,” expertly teaching me tricks for how to feel more comfortable on the road like how to judge my lane placement and how far down the road to set my gaze. Abby let me drive her sporty Subaru as much as possible, even though it took us twice as long to get anywhere than it did when she was behind the wheel. Fellow non-driver Liz got her learner’s permit at the same time so I had a “study buddy.”
Only a month after getting my permit I took my road test and passed easily. Within the next three months I bought my first car and put 5,000 miles on it, including my first cross-America road trip. Within two years I’d survived driving through a Pittsburgh winter, and my anxieties about driving were just a memory.
Until now. South Africa, like about 1/3 of the countries of the world, drives on the left side of the road. And suddenly I’m back to square one, my nightmare about driving from what I think of as the passenger seat is coming true, and even though the steering wheel is on that side now, I still feel as out of control as confused as I did in all those scary dreams.
It shouldn’t be that different. Everything’s the same, just flipped, right? I could play those mirror levels in Mario Kart, why can’t I do this?
Well, I can do this, it just takes a lot out of me. I have to concentrate on every step. I have to think “tight left, wide right” every time I make a turn. I flick on the windshield wipers when I mean to put on my turn signal about half the time. I look on the wrong side of the street for the road signs. I scrape the hubcaps on the curb when parking. I make Collin cringe and gasp when I get too close to parked cars on the left side. When I turn from a one-way street onto the left side of two-way traffic, I have a flash of panic that I’m about to be in a head-on collision.
It will get better with practice, and I know this. I’m sure by time I visit the states in October it will feel weird to be back on the right side of the road. Won’t that be a lark.
But meanwhile, I hate that in this really difficult, stressful period of huge life change, one of my oldest anxieties, one I thought I had conquered, is back in full soul-crushing force. It’s another way that I feel like I’ve reverted somehow since moving here, when I was hoping this chapter of our lives would be a bold step forward.