Surviving fear.

I’m terrified of driving. It’s why I hate doing it so much– I can’t relax, not even a teensy tiny bit, and I just don’t like that kind of stress. And I’ve been driving for years now and it’s not improving, and any attempt on my part to force relaxation only results in near-death experiences. My fear protects me too well for me to let go of it, but it’s exhausting.

Some anecdotes. I recently went on a three-week road trip, but I drove only about an hour or two total, because after my first shift driving my co-traveler thought it was too dangerous to let me do any more. I nearly wrecked the car three times in our first half-hour– before we even left my parents’ gated community, I nearly got us crushed in the exit gate. Then the road got narrower while I wasn’t paying attention to the curb, and I smashed into it at about 45 miles an hour. Then I was paying too much attention to the curbs and not enough to the signs, and nearly drove right through a red light.

Except for the red light, that’s really just little stuff. Yesterday, I could’ve been hit by a train. The train tracks run parallel to the road I live off of (in my apartment) and cross most of the major roads at some point. I am about 100 times as afraid of trains as I am of driving, so I never go near the tracks until there’s space on the other side to flee into. I followed my usual routine in this case; I stopped a few yards ahead of the track, even though there was about half a car-length of space on the other side, because the light up ahead was yellow and it’d be a bit before there was a full car-length for me to drive into. I zoned out, waiting for the light to change, singing along with the music…about the third or fourth time I heard them, I realized what the distant whistling noise was. The train was coming.

Now, I was a perfectly safe distance from the train, but I backed up a teensy bit more to be sure; I probably would’ve backed up several car-lengths but there was a car behind me, and another behind it. All I could think was, thank god I didn’t wait on the tracks. I wouldn’t have had space to get away in either direction (though this afternoon it occurred to me that I could’ve gotten out of the car, at least.) Even knowing I was safe, it was nearly painful to watch the train go by so close to me, I was so scared; I had a death-grip on the steering wheel, which I braced myself against to keep nearly all my body weight on the brakes (even though I switched to park partway through).

But I lived. Because I was nowhere near those tracks.

Today was another day of scary driving, this time through no particular fault of my own. First, I was at an intersection, waiting for my protected green so I could make a left turn. I was on a small road intersecting a huge, busy road. I had a red light. Then the main road had a red light too, and all that traffic stopped. But my light stayed red. Then the cars on the other side of the same minor road started crossing; I don’t know if they had a green or not, but I definitely had a red. But it was also definitely going to stay red. I waited quite a while, then started edging out– slowly enough that I could still reverse if the cars on the main road started going, but quickly enough that they’d see that I really was turning, and would wait. I triple-checked that they had red lights first, then double-checked again as I started driving, but sure enough, they were all stopped and I could turn safely. It probably only felt dangerous, but it was damn scary to have the traffic lights break like that! At least they didn’t give both of us green lights.

Immediately after that, I was behind a car that did not have brake lights in any form. Even more stressful, because it lasted quite a while! I had to pay a lot of attention to the change in distance between us to tell when they were slowing down. This is not really my strong suit. It wasn’t as big a failure as the traffic lights, but it still bothered me.

The thing is, I’m a bad driver (too overwhelmed with terror, remember?)– I rely on lights and signals to help me cope with the information overload. There’s nothing I hate more than drivers who ignore their turn signals, but at least I’m starting to learn that I can’t assume a car will continue straight just because it’s not signaling. But brake lights? Red light versus green light? Those are important! I need the rules spelled out for me in bright signs and big, flashing lights (literally!) just to stay calm enough to operate the car. I’m not great at following them, but I only feel even a little safe when I am, so it’s extra-terrifying to have that information taken from me, even temporarily.

And I’ve just written nearly 900 words, none of which are really talking about what I’m really talking about here, for which I apologize, though I don’t think I’m capable of getting to the real point today. I’m terrified of a great deal of things, and this is how I cope– I turn it all into stories and anecdotes, and I go through the motions, and I don’t really do anything to try to fight off these fears. Because my fear protects me too well for me to let go of it. That’s true of a lot of things. It’s true of trains, and of meeting new people, and rape. It doesn’t protect me well– I know I’m not really safe– and the trade-offs are pretty dire, but it protects me enough, enough that even at my most secure and confident I don’t really believe I should stop being afraid all the time.

And every time I live through driving, and come home with nothing more than another anecdote, this poisonous paranoia is vindicated. My fear has kept me alive; I must keep it alive.

But it sure gets exhausting sometimes.

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