How I Overcame My Fear of Driving

Having lived in the city for over a decade, it was pretty easy not to drive. You can get everywhere by walking, hopping on the train or taking the bus. And of course Uber! You name the mode of transportation, I preferred it over driving, even if it meant taking two trains, a cab and a ferry to get to my destination! I carpooled with strangers to birthday parties and bribed friends to drive me to wedding showers. When I met my husband, it was a match made in heaven. Not only did he love to drive, but he was a backseat driver! Score! More reasons not to drive!

Then, a few years ago, we decided to move out of the city to Weehawken, N.J. for the usual reasons folks leave the city; more space, cheaper rent, amenities and a parking spot! This was our baby step into suburbia, although I’m using that term suburbia loosely, since Weehawken isn’t really “suburban.” It’s all relative, right? That said, the lifestyle in Weehawken was certainly more suburban. I needed to drive to do most things. First, I started driving locally along this stretch in Weehawken called River Road. It was the only road I would use to get anywhere; doctors, pharmacies, haircuts, supermarkets. If it wasn’t on River Road, I wasn’t going! It was the perfect, non-threatening road, filled with traffic. I loved traffic because it meant that I could drive slowly! Success! Driving up and down River Road, I was independent and driving again, right? Hardly. I got away with this for another four years…

Then, came last Summer, when I was on maternity leave with my first child, it became clear that I had to drive outside of my beloved River Road. Try taking a ferry, two trains and a cab with a newborn! I knew I had to get over my fear of driving, but I had crippling, irrational anxiety about it. For those of you familiar with anxiety, you will recognize the symptoms- pains in the chest, can’t breathe, rapid heart rate, loss of vision, sweat, dry mouth! As Sheryl Paul defines anxiety in The Wisdom of Anxiety, “Anxiety is a head state that keeps its prisoners trapped in the realm of unproductive and fear-based thinking. Anxiety keeps you on high alert, and at its core, lives the belief that you’re not okay, that you’ll never be okay, that that you’re not safe physically, emotionally, and/or spiritually. Anxiety and trust are mutually exclusive.” That last line is key. In order to overcome anxiety or a fear of something, there must be trust in yourself that you can overcome it. For me, trust came with practice, and positive dialogue with myself. I know we are always taught that comparing ourselves with others is a useless exercise, but for this purpose, I found it helpful. I reminded myself of all the people I had come across in my life who drove and assured myself that if all of them could do it, so could I. Power in numbers.

I eventually embarked on my first trip to Staten Island to visit my parents. I put my sweaty hands on the wheel with a death grip of 10 and 2 and didn’t move them until my destination. I didn’t allow myself any music or phone calls because every bit of my concentration needed to be on driving. Just silence, a death grip and me continuously reminding myself to breathe and drive. I went through this exercise for three months during my maternity leave. Eventually, one day after doing this trip a few dozen times, I realized that I no longer have to remind myself to breathe or drive, I just did it. I just drove.

In one of the final scenes of “Cast Away” after Tom Hanks’ character has been rescued and comes home, he tells a friend: “I stayed alive, I kept breathing, and then one day…the tide came in and gave me a sail…and now here I am…And I know what I have to do now, I have to keep breathing because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

I stayed alive, I kept breathing and now here I am, driving. There will be other fears that come my way. In fact, I can name a few right now. But, the next time, I will look back at my fear of driving as a challenge I overcame and believe I can trust myself with whatever the tide may bring in.

These days, I drive to more than one destination. I even live on the wild side and play a little Tom Petty from time to time. In fact, I have come to enjoy rides in solitude and I often feel a sense of accomplishment after I have driven to a new destination alone.

I must admit though, I still enjoy some traffic! Old habits die hard.

About Claudia Marie Russo

Claudia Marie Russo is a Corporate Communications executive in New York City. A graduate of Villanova University, she holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and is currently pursuing her Masters of Science in Corporate Communication from Purdue University. In her spare time, she enjoys long days at the beach, attending folk rock concerts, cooking, drinking wine, eating Margherita pizza and spending time with family and friends. She currently serves on the leadership committee for the Villanova Communication Alumni Network. A New York native, Claudia now calls Weehawken, New Jersey her home, where she lives with her husband and daughter.

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