A Phobic’s Guide to Highway Driving

Elizabeth Knaster

1. Don’t be fooled. It looks easier than it is. If you merge onto the highway in your gold ‘99 Toyota Corolla while the other cars zip by like cheetahs, you will be terrified. Your lungs will tighten. Your palms will leak sweat onto the steering wheel. Your heart will flutter like a cymbal, recently hit. You will squeeze the wheel and your knuckles will turn a greenish white. You must exit the highway. You are afraid of dying. You are afraid of driving. The fear comes and stays and there is nothing you can do about it. Your only option is to not drive on the highway. Don’t turn left onto I-5 North. Take side streets over University Bridge instead, up to 15th Avenue, and all the way home.

2. Check your tires before you sit in the driver’s seat. If you forget, you will remember too late, already on the road, and you won’t shake the feeling that the tires are on the verge of popping and ejecting you up over the railing of the Aurora Bridge into the Ship Canal. If you forget, everything sounds like your tires have popped: the stone that smacks your rear bumper, an Entenmann’s truck rattling, the African drum beat on the public radio station. Suddenly, you are convinced this is just like the accident, and the adrenaline surges into your veins and into the back part of your brain, the spot where worrying happens. You picture your car swerving into the tombstone gray wall that lines the highway. There remains a remote chance that you’ll reach home without hyperventilating, but it’s unlikely. Take the next exit, turn right and pull up in front of the furniture store. Get out of the car and stare at your tires and give them a kick to see if they give. You are wrong again. They aren’t weak. You are.

3. Most people don’t know your secret. Most days you can assimilate. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. If you call in sick on the morning you are scheduled to give a presentation in Tacoma, you have a problem. If you take a two-hour bus ride and transfer buses not once, but twice, to reach a meeting in Bellevue a twenty-minute car ride away, you have a problem. If you prefer to pay fifty dollars for a cab to cart your boyfriend to the airport, even though you are cheap and poor, you have a problem. If you can’t camp or snowshoe or shop in Portland for the weekend without someone to drive you there, you have a problem. If you leave thirty minutes early to take side streets up to writing group, you have a problem.

4. You are sitting cross-legged in an oatmeal chenille love seat studying your therapist. The line between her eyes deepens and folds, like the wings of an origami bird. She suggests, again, that you visualize each detail of the road to gain mastery over the five-mile stretch from your house to your boyfriend’s. You both know that nothing will work. She believes you are hopeless. Your therapist won’t say this out loud to you. Instead, she will smile a close-lipped smile and rub her hands together and announce that you’ve reached the end of your session.

5. You are not that special. There are others. All the old people you know in Florida refuse to drive at night or in the rain or on the turnpike. The mother of your seventh grade best friend also was afraid. She hated L.A. freeways, especially in unsavory urban neighborhoods where she pressed her Cadillac’s automatic lock button again and again, locking on top of locking, to ensure everything outside stayed outside. You are like them. You are not special.

6. You shouldn’t but you do it anyway. You borrow your boyfriend’s car to pick up your friend at the airport because his car is heavier and sturdier and a Volvo station wagon, and you believe that if the car crashes, the chance is higher that you will live and not be a paraplegic. You begin your drive calmly and pass downtown’s office buildings and sports stadiums and the West Seattle Bridge, and you run into a touch of commuter traffic, which slows the pace of the road. You are thrilled to have the pace of the road slowed. You smile and turn on the radio and sing along to Cyndi Lauper on the eighties station. Then you pass Boeing Field and traffic thins out and cars and SUVs and grocery-store trucks around you hit their gas pedals and march forward and you know you are not safe and the tires are not as heavy on the road as they should be and you just know that if you release the wheel with one pinkie finger the tires will rebel and jerk you into the lane next to yours. Positive affirmations fail you. You are dying to pull over onto the shoulder, but then you won’t be able to get back on the highway and you’ll have to call a cab or your boyfriend or a helicopter to lift you to safety and to retrieve your friend sitting on her suitcase outside baggage claim. You cry real tears because you are really afraid and because you are really ashamed by how afraid you are.

7. How quickly you’ve forgotten. You used to love to drive, back before the fear was memorized in your muscles and bones. Warm Santa Anas blowing back your hair, radio tuned to KROQ, elbow relaxing on the window sill, right hand at twelve o’clock on the wheel, barely touching it, as if the car was on auto pilot. You’d ditch school and drive your parents’ ‘84 navy blue and dolphin blue striped Chevy Blazer through the canyon to the beach, the Pacific Ocean spread out at the end of the road like a picnic blanket. You didn’t have to depend on anyone anymore, all of them unreliable, no one was as reliable as you.

Now your love is crushed and cold. You don’t love your car anymore. Your car is a prison.

8. Don’t be stupid. Water is not your friend. Water is the worst. Water turns the road slippery and oily. Don’t forget. Don’t you forget it. The last time you drove on the highway in the rain to get to your boyfriend’s house your tire burst. Just like that. It blew and veered toward the cement railing that edges the road and you jerked the wheel to the right to avoid hitting it and turned your car into the lane next to yours where a woman with her small white dog was flying along in her white Honda Accord. The woman and her white dog cracked your passenger door so hard your Corolla twisted 180 degrees and slid forward into the middle of the off ramp. You looked at your hands and they were shaking. Everyone was breathing just fine: you, the woman, the white dog. Everyone was breathing and your hands don’t stop shaking.

9. You must submit to your fear. You are helpless. Anything can trigger the anxiety. Nothing can stop it. Certainly not you. The anxiety starts in your tailbone and rises to shoulders and your throat where it sticks like a chunk of dry tuna fish. Your only option is to flick on your right-turn signal and take the next exit.

10. The night before the accident you drove along the highway and your friend Charlie heard a click click coming from the passenger side of your car. He tilted his head out the window and said he heard the click click of a nail in your tire. You thanked him and made a mental note to drive the car to a mechanic or a tire shop or a gas station for a full inspection. But you forgot, you stupid girl. It skipped your mind until after the accident when the guy at Les Schwab presented the nail from your blown tire. You drove on the highway knowing there was a nail draining the life from your tire, you drove like this in the rain, you drove and forgot everything. How could you have forgotten? Instead of hearing the nail click click in your tire as you turned left onto I-5, you only heard Bob Dylan singing “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and you sang along loudly because the windows were rolled up tight and no one could hear you.

11. Breathe into your stomach. Breathe into the top of your chest. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Open your muladhara chakra. Open your sahasrara chakra. Turn on the radio. Purchase a car adaptor for your iPod. Sing out loud to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Sing out loud to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Cry. Pray to God. Make promises. Insist that the accident won’t happen again. Insist that you don’t care. Insist that you deserve to be happy. Anytime you arrive at your destination without having an anxiety attack you are relieved and proud and encouraged to try again. But it won’t last. A few times you’ll succeed and not have an anxiety attack. But don’t get used to it. You beat it that time, but the fear always will return. You have the power to overcome your fear of driving but you never will. You have accepted the fear. You are a very accepting person.

12. When you tell people about your accident, they often say, “That sounds scary!” or “Oh, no!” or “I’m so glad no one was hurt!” They suggest time will heal. They believe you’ll get over it. They have gotten over things, too. It’s not that they mind driving you around, but they assume you won’t be afraid forever. Who wants such a weak friend? “It will get better,” they say. But they are lying. Everyone knows you are a lost cause.

13. You are not done being punished. When your auto insurance lowers your premium you call to make sure there was not some error. Joanne, your account service representative, informs you that your rates have returned to their normal level after three years of elevated post-accident insurance rates. The news does not improve your mood. It might have been tempting to forgive yourself, but your insurance company doesn’t know you like you know you. They are done punishing you for the accident, but you are not done being punished.

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Elizabeth Knaster is a graduate of the Writer’s Program at the University of Washington, where she earned a certificate in literary fiction. Her writing has appeared in Poetry on Wheels: An Anthology of King County’s Poetry on Buses Program and Rivet Magazine. Elizabeth also has a master’s in public health from the University of Washington and works as an epidemiologist at the Urban Indian Health Institute.