I was petrified. Best just to admit it right up front.
This was a game of the mind and I was already struggling mightily to find my playing pieces let alone anything resembling a strategy. But I knew it was my chance, it had to be done.
Let me back up a bit.
At the tender age of sixteen, I simply thought that I was far too cool to take Driver's Ed in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, on the edge of Amish country. And then, allez-hop my parents moved us out to Santa Cruz, California where driving was deemed far less urgent than following around a university student named Lawrence who looked remarkably like Julian Sands in A Room with a View. I should have learned to drive. But then I was in New York, where driving is a non-issue save for the wealthy, which I was decidedly not. My joke was that I could catch a cab like nobody's business (even if that involved showing a bit of leg and waving a twenty on New Year's Eve). And then I moved to Paris. And then Arles where everything was in walking distance, then the tiny village where...it was a real problem that I could not drive and my happiness went down as my dependency on Remi went up. Best just to admit that up front too. I paced until I ate myself up from the inside out. But this is a happy story, I digress.
When I arrived here on March 1st, I had made a list of goals in my head on the plane. So I wrote them out on a post-it note:
- Cut down Xanax
- Reduce Alcohol
- Study for permit
- Learn to drive
- Keep Writing
- Have Gratitude
It kind of brings tears to my eyes to share that with you because I am looking at the post-it note right now. It is still in front of me on my computer where I put it, so broken. I thought that if I could just do those things that maybe I could find myself again. And do you know, I have done all of those things. Am doing, too, present tense.
My Mom's husband Leonard offered to take me out driving for the first time as he has driven for a living for many years. Part of me is still in that car, his really fancy big boat that glides and yet that day I stopped and started around a high school parking lot, so tenuous and uncertain of the weight guided by my hands. Yet he built me up with praise, saying seeing promise. But I shook my head inwardly, knowing I had to find a professional to teach me. It is so different when you are not only no longer a fearless 16 and are too aware of the power of a vehicle. Shapes loom like monstrous shadows, all is a seeming permanent uncertainty, taunting. I had just come out of a bad full-on collision in January that lead to my world falling away from under my feet. Gun-shy doesn't begin to cover me.
And then I called a cheesily named All-Star Driving School who lined me up with my instructor, Bill Riccobono. Isn't that a great name? He is one of my guardian angels, I think. If guardian angels wear baseball caps and chew on rutabaga while they work. Because from the first lesson he understood that this would be a mental game with me. Within the first hour he asked me to drive around a cul-de-sac backwards and that I could do reasonably well, because I was out of my head, out of my forward motion fear. But the rest? For months, I danced around my commitment. I would meditate before each lesson and still end up covered in sweat by the end of it. At times I would shake, others I would cry. I couldn't lie to him in his little car because he saw anyway. This is a man who has been doing this for some time and has seen the gamut. Somehow, Buddhism came up early on and so he knew to reach me on a more spiritual plane to pull me out of my panic, where we could end our session with a "Namaste."
For financial reasons, I had to stop for a while, then he went on vacation, then I had to take a break around when my friend Ellie passed as I truly wasn't doing well. But I had passed my test for the permit in the spring, having only missed three questions. That buoyed me and it turned out that all of the pauses between lessons helped to build my confidence, to let me get used to the idea that maybe I could drive after all. My Mom did not quite trust me enough to take her car out on the roads so around and around the subdivision we would turn, practicing. Parallel parking, backing into a space. Kind of like me finding my way.
Months passed as I kept looking at that post-it note with hope and anxiety mixed with a "will I be asked to the dance?" longing in my belly. Finally, it was me who did the asking; I learned to drive. I remember laughing the first time that I kicked it up to 80 mph on the highway and Bill's responding, "All right!" in surprise. I could not have done this without him. He coached me wisely and with the calm assurance that I struggled to find within myself. How incredible it must be to work only with clients who are afraid and yet only to assure. He never made me feel like a fool and so I didn't have to beat myself up for the mistakes that everyone makes. After our last lesson, with my test impending the next day, he told me, "Just go for a drive," and had me promise to send him a photo with my certificate after having passed the driving test.
All morning, my stomach was tight and aching; I had not slept the night before with eyes blinking open at the ceiling. I did my best to breathe and to remind myself of what I have learned in Al-Anon, that all I can do is just show up and do "the next right thing." Bill had promised me that the test giver, L, was a "good man" and he was. Having arrived early, I watched L as he coached a young driver that had not even passed the parking portion of the test so that she could do better next time. I knew that I was again in good hands.
I got into the rental car, as I don't have one of my own. I adjusted the mirrors and pulled the seat up close under the steering wheel to give me the illusion of being more in control. The day...could not have been more perfect as autumn days go - blue sky overhead, yellow leaves falling - all encouraging me in beauty. L explained the parking maneuveurs although Bill had already been over them with me so many times. I did what I had promised Bill - to take each very, very slowly and yes, that worked. They were not perfect, but nearly so.
So I should not have been surprised when L gathered his papers and got into the car for the driving portion but I was. "Ok, here we go," I said out loud. And then explained sheepishly that I would probably be talking to myself out loud a bit, coaching style but not to worry. "Of course not," L replied, "those are often the only sane conversations you can have in a day!" And with that, we both laughed and I went for a drive.
Of course, I asked "L, did I pass?" as soon as we came to our final stop. He made me wait as he went down through the list of "must-have's" very dead-pan until adding, "and make sure that you smile when they take your picture at the DMV so that it doesn't look like a mugshot." I started to cry, I couldn't help it and threw my arms around him sideways, he didn't flinch. "It has been a very long road," I offered. He nodded.
So I celebrated with my family that night and today I went to get my license. I did my hair and my makeup but still grinned like a chipmunk for the photo, I couldn't help it. This is one of the biggest things that I have done for myself in my life. Not because it was hard but because I was petrified and yet I found my way through. Not to mention that it was a little more than symbolic. As my wise friend Stephen said, "You are taking the wheel of your life." I am. I did.
I can drive now. I can take myself to wherever life leads me.
At least I know that I can try.
This was a surprisingly hard post for me to write because I feel incredibly vulnerable about this subject and yet don't feel like I could accurately give you the experience of what this meant to me. Usually, I correct and correct each text for hours until I can't stand to look at it anymore but I can't with this one. So, I am giving myself permission to put this out there imperfectly and just let myself be happy.
Thank you, as always, for your incredible support and kindness.
With much Love and Gratitude, Heather