I got my driver’s license at age 23—here’s what I learned

Many teens count the days until they turn sixteen, until they can get their driver’s  license and have the freedom all kids pine for. In my case, that day came and went, as did eight more years before I finally got a taste of that freedom. Learning to drive is a nerve-wracking experience for anyone, but for me it was the equivalent of slapping a bear in the face and waiting around to see what happens. Just the thought of driving made my heart race. Sitting in the driver’s seat, not even in motion, reduced me to heaving sobs of misery. I dealt with anxiety and panic attacks throughout my life, but nothing compared to the terror of attempting to drive.

My younger brother got his license when he turned 16 and I was so proud of him, but it was hard not to feel ashamed of the fact that he passed the milestone before I did. It felt wrong that my “little bro bro” was the one driving me to college! I went to an art school in St. Paul, MN, and I lived in a suburb about 30 minutes away. I felt like such a burden to my family and friends because I couldn’t get anywhere without their energy and time. Anxiety helps you feel guilt with extra intensity, and boy did I feel it constantly. Driving was always on my mind, and the teasing of loved ones didn’t help. It wasn’t meant to be hurtful, but the shame I felt about my lack of abilities just grew deeper. I kept thinking if teenagers could drive, why couldn’t I? What was wrong with me? Everyone told me how simple it is to drive, so why did my brain shut down every time I even thought about it?

My parents tried to teach me, but I was too embarrassed to let them. I didn’t want them to see how much pain driving caused me. I didn’t want to embarrass them either. Years kept passing and talk of lessons would come and go, each time I would weasel out of the conversation as quickly as possible. I truly didn’t think it would ever happen for me. I told myself I just wasn’t meant to drive.

Finally, a good friend of mine named Charles decided he was going to teach me. I had a crush on him, and there was something about him that always made me want to challenge myself and do better. He was an exciting, outgoing guy, and he made me want to experience life the same way he did. First, he talked me into practicing driving in the parking lot down the street from my house. I was lucky that he cared so much, because I was not an easy student. It could take hours just to talk me into moving a few feet, but he would keep telling me he believed in me, until I could believe in myself. Eventually he got me out on the road. Each attempt brought new challenges; getting up to speed, stopping at a sign, not panicking when a car was anywhere in my vicinity… I would cry and scream and even growl on occasion! I made terrified noises I didn’t think a human could make, and he would listen, comfort me, and then push me to keep going. When I wanted to quit, he would tell me how good I had already done, and that quitting would just make me feel bad again. He made me realize being proud of myself was a good thing, and once I got used to it, I wanted to keep making myself proud.

Charles and I fell in love and moved in together. It was super awesome, except that after a year of practice, I still didn’t have my license. The fear had been holding me back from practicing enough to get comfortable. But in our new hometown in Iowa, I started to gain momentum. I had to force myself every single chance I got to keep driving. I developed a mantra that I would repeat when I doubted myself: “This is my freedom.” Getting my license meant having the freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted. It still didn’t get easier for a long, long time. My stomach would ache all day knowing I was going to have to drive home with him after work. I would pull over and cry and scream until I couldn’t breathe. He would stay calm and comfort me, and then tell me to keep going. And I did. I kept going each time I thought I couldn’t, until finally, I could.

The last hurdle was getting my license. All my pain and practice lead up to that final step. I wanted freedom so bad it gave me the motivation to go for it. I was lucky enough to pass on the first try, and after that, you couldn’t get me out from behind the wheel. I was still nervous, and I AM still nervous, but pushing through that anxiety was well worth the ability to live my life the way I want to. I no longer have to feel like a burden. At 23, I finally have my license and my freedom.

[Image via FOX]

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