The truth about my fear of driving.

#RealTalk vol 17

Jae Hermann

Hi! You’re reading #RealTalk - A midlife anti-crisis featuring a collection of motivational essays and intentional living insights.

I was on a bit of a hiatus during my cross-country road trip from WA to FL so expect #RealTalk - the Digest to return next week. Thanks for your patience as I get myself settled into my new surroundings. New to the party? It’s great to have you here.

Today’s post is a bit of a carryover and some new revelations. Read on.

When last we connected, I made light of my fears to drive across the country with my brother and cat, Mr. Skimps. I aimed to introduce you to “Lizzy” for a glimpse into how I’ve learned to defeat negative self-talk. Lizzy is my embodiment of fear and self-doubt, a visual aid that I can cuss out or lock in a closet when I feel overwhelmed. The truth is, talking about Lizzy was also my attempt to lighten the heaviness of why driving scares me. 

In high school, I found that I could make folks laugh in uncomfortable situations, and since then, humor has become my go-to deflection method. Making people laugh is my trick to avoid being the focus of ridicule. Who judges the clown who makes fun of himself? Rarely does anyone care to look beyond the jokes and self-deprecation. 

Sometimes jokes are just smoke and mirrors.

My driving fears started a few years ago after landing a gig as a producer for a daytime talk show. I loved most aspects of my job. I enjoyed booking talent for the entertainment segments, the logistics of keeping the show on schedule, and the benefit of eating great food in the kitchen segments. Still, among other things, the hours were long and stressful. Days at the studio started at roughly 7 a.m. or earlier if I had to do an off-location bit before going in and ended at 6 or 7 p.m. Within a few short months, I went from excited about going to work to dreading it. 

I respected my executive producer, but I hated her ideas about what made “good TV.” Sure, she had three decades of talk show and reality TV experience, but I wanted our show to have integrity and heaps of feel-good experiences. Instead, there were too many occasions where the show focused on gritty or shocking celebrity crap. Plus, there was a bunch of back-biting, passive-aggressive behavior, and underhanded prejudice happening behind the scenes - all the makings to drive my highly sensitive introverted self to the brink of exhaustion and overwhelm. 

Our show aired at 4 p.m. however, we recorded at 10 a.m., so I was able to take a break for a couple of hours in the afternoon, the time I used to run errands or take a much-needed nap. One afternoon while driving back to the studio, I had the worst experience. 

Approaching a stoplight, I got a kind of gray haze in my vision, I could see, but things were fuzzy. To not totally freak out, I figured I should apply more pressure to the brakes, which seemed the obvious thing to do, right? The problem was at that moment I couldn’t remember which pedal was the brake and which was the gas. Naturally, this is where I started to freak out. 

In a panic I lifted both feet, I didn’t know what else to do. Thankfully there wasn’t a car in front, behind me, or the adjacent intersection.

Because I was already slowing down, my car drifted out of traffic and stopped with a gentle bump at the curb. I was safe. I hadn’t hit anyone but the thought that I could have hit someone, hurt someone, a child even - it was that vision that broke me down. I became hysterical, sobbing at the life I could have ruined. I laid my head against the steering wheel and just cried. 

It took a few minutes before I could get myself together. I was a snotty mess, but my vision cleared, and I was able to get back in traffic and drive to work. 

Could I shake it off and get back to work? Yeah, no. 

In all of the time I’d worked with the show’s EP, she was a hard-ass, but upon seeing me when I got back to the studio, she immediately sent me home. I must have looked far worse than I thought because she had sympathy and fear in her eyes. 

I made it home without incident and then stayed in bed for a week before going to see a doctor. I felt weary and depleted, and too afraid to drive again or leave my apartment. As I look back, it's a good thing I didn't have the chance to try to shake off what happened. Not taking the time to rest could have made things worse. 

It was my doctor who suggested my job was the cause of a panic attack. Oddly I didn’t make the connection. I genuinely believed that I was going crazy or suffering from a brain tumor. 

Even with therapy, fear of driving paralyzed me; in fact, I sold my car and Ubered for years before I got the courage to drive again. I kept that painful little nugget of truth to myself for a very long time. 

The panic attack compounded by poor night vision terrifies me; this fear isn’t Lizzy feeding me negative self-talk, my driving fear is muscle memory I grapple with every time I drive.

Fear, real or imagined, still feels like a lousy ride you don’t want to take.

My very patient therapist helped me to understand how exhaustion and my attempt to work in a job that ran counter to my sensibilities was the root cause of my anxiety. She helped me to make sense of everything that led up to the day I lost my senses while driving because short of a brain tumor, I blamed myself. I carried guilt for working myself so hard and guilt for a crime I hadn’t even committed. 

Now, practically every time I drive, I remind myself that I haven’t hurt anyone and that any awful thing I could imagine isn’t real. 

Some days I drive without giving that terrible day any thought, and yet other days, the days when my heart races as I start the engine, I tell myself, “You’re okay. You’re safe. Your fear isn’t real. Get out of your head.”

My secret is out and look, nobody died.

I told my brother about my panic attack during our cross-country drive, which might explain why he did most of the driving. To his credit, he didn’t give me grief about my incident or freak out. Something else I have to remind myself of, generally speaking, folks don’t judge our mishaps, we do that to ourselves. 

There's so much atrocity and evil happening in the world, why do we burden ourselves with guilt and anxiety? I’ll go out on a limb here and say we don’t purposefully invite fear, guilt, or anxiety into our psyche. I certainly don’t. Panic attacks caused by stress can happen as a result of sensory overload exacerbated by physical, emotional, and mental depletion. 

Excessive worrying over things we can't control, failing to practice restorative self-care, and not speaking out and asking for help feed stress and anxiety.

I'm obsessive, I hyper-focus, and I'm an overachiever. I know first-hand the dangers of stress and overworking, but knowing isn't enough. Staying on the right side of healthy habits takes consistent dedication.

Also, speaking up and letting others know when you’re going through something is a strength, not a weakness. I’m still working on that one.   

Have I completely overcome my fear and anxiety? Nope, it's a constant battle. Every day I remind myself that I'm blessed and grateful, which makes it easier to manage.  

Thanks for reading! xo, Jae

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