How a ‘shrink on wheels’ helped fix my driving anxiety | Well actually

Last Christmas, I did not wake up to the toasty aroma of mulling cider or the sound of youngsters rummaging beneath a tree. Instead I found myself in bed, slicked with sweat and flooding with relief. Moments earlier, I had been steering an SUV packed with my children and their friends. I was driving them along a bridge that suddenly jutted straight up into the sky. Just as we were all falling into a bottomless body of water, I startled awake.

“Driving is a very common theme in anxiety dreams,” Susan Kolod, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York, tells me. She lumps such nightmares together with dreams of flying or learning at the last minute that you have a test. But I love air travel and I don’t mind tests. It’s the crippling fear of driving that gets me.

I actually used to drive. Sometimes I even liked to drive. Eons before Olivia Rodrigo sang about it, I obtained a driver’s license. That was when I was in high school, and I had a third-hand (or maybe it was fourth?) Toyota Camry during my final year of college. But I was quick to sell the car once I moved back to New York City. The subway system suited me just fine, thank you very much. But in the subsequent decades, my ever-paralyzing case of amaxophobia, as the fear of driving is called, had a chance to take root.

According to a 2010 study, anxious drivers are more likely than others to get in an accident. Meanwhile, road accidents are the leading cause of non-natural deaths in the US. According to a survey of 1,500 Americans by the Zebra insurance-comparison company, two-thirds of Americans experience driving anxiety, and 75% of female respondents identified as anxious drivers (as did 55% of male respondents).

And now here I am, a fortysomething mom, part of a family that owns a car but who firmly identifies as a non-driver. Or a “passenger princess”, as my new driving instructor, Everlina-Whynter Thomas, tells me. Thomas is roughly my age, though she likes to say with a wink that we are the exact same age: 22. We are foxy and courageous. Highways and interstates, hear us roar!

Thomas works out of an Upper West Side driving school. I’d come to her via word of mouth – on Instagram, a friend had been singing the praises of this woman who could help a neurotic New York City native start to feel comfortable behind a wheel.

Women make up 85% of Thomas’s practice. The lion’s share of them already have licenses that they are nervous about putting to use. Her clientele also includes a teenage boy with Asperger’s who confides in her about his love life, a 97-year-old lady and a clutch of professional therapists.

“None of us are perfect drivers,” Thomas assures me the first time we meet, outside of her driving school. I flash my license, strap into her nondescript Honda Civic and turn on the ignition.

As luck will have it, the president, Joe Biden, is visiting town. The streets are choked with traffic so we’re crawling along, waiting for red lights to turn green. The slow speed combined with Thomas’s commitment to banter distracts me from my fears. If she is worried, she does a good job of hiding it. Even as I run a red light, her calm disposition doesn’t crack.

My original drivers’ ed instructor was a dyspeptic man who liked to direct his students to an alley called “Love Lane” and let off a creepy chuckle, then berate us over our terribly executed “Y turns”. Conversely, Thomas is basically a shrink on wheels – a mood stabilizer with limbs and a pulse. As I drive, we discuss our children, our shared love of Queer Eye and her roster of clients.

There are scads of other “passenger princesses”, such as the thirtysomething woman who eventually confided in Thomas that she was deeply depressed. “We didn’t drive that day. We just sat in the car for two hours and talked,” she tells me.

My body relaxes as I maneuver the car around town. When our session comes to an end, I am shocked to realize that it has been without incident. No trips to the auto shop needed.

In the following weeks, I am able to move the family car on alternate side parking days without much stress. And one night, when my daughter and her friend have a self-defense workshop in another neighborhood, I don’t order a Lyft. “You’re not going to kill us, are you?” my daughter checks as I rev the engine. I cut through the night and deliver them safely. Nothing tastes quite like freedom!

I share this incredible development with Thomas when I arrive for our second session. I’m bragging, and also trying to calm my nerves. Today, we’ll be spending two hours doing the thing I like least: driving on highways. It will be fine, she assures me as we sail up Broadway. She’s got my back (and an emergency brake).

We’re on the West Side Highway when a van behind me lets off a rude honk. “Just because we’re taking a little bit longer than he wants doesn’t mean that we’re going too slow,” Thomas says in her soothing voice. “Let them honk – and if there is an emergency let them go around you, or they can take their helicopter or their private jet.”

Next thing I know, I am cruising at 40mph. Perhaps this is nothing for you, but commanding a vehicle moving at such speed is downright terrifying. “You’re veering to the left,” Thomas tells me gently, taking hold of the wheel and guiding me back to the center of the lane.

“You have to give yourself grace,” Thomas says later, unbothered. “It’s going to take time.”

Her confidence that I am not about to kill either one of us is infectious. An aggressive driver tries to nose his car in front of mine. “Bless his heart,” she coos. “Let him go.”

We are gliding across the George Washington Bridge. I land on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Then the Major Deegan Expressway, the 3rd Avenue Bridge and the FDR Drive. This is all familiar terrain, and it’s strange not to be relying on my husband to power through it. They’re not exactly falling like dominoes, but my anxieties are definitely shrinking. “You know how to drive,” Thomas says. “It’s just building that confidence that is the problem.”

Soon enough, we’re back on safe ground – by which I mean the slower-moving streets of upper Manhattan. I can handle the city grid, so Thomas takes her eyes off the road to check her phone. She squeals. A couple of women she teaches passed their driving tests this morning. She gets on a conference call with them to share the news.

After our lesson, I take a selfie with Thomas and post it on Instagram. “Me and my driving instructor!” A ton of friends confess they are fellow non-drivers – all women, plus one who confides in me that her husband, an artist who gallivants around the world, shares my hangup. I send them all Thomas’s number.

I have yet to brave an expressway without Thomas, but I’ve been tooling around my neighborhood, hearing her comforting “you got this” or muttered “bless his heart” every time a driver tries to mess with me. Driving to a Japanese grocery store that’s a few neighborhoods and one short but super-fast stretch of highway away, I calm myself down by remembering that Kolod, the psychotherapist, was in her 30s when she overcame her own adversity to driving. “I used to just hitchhike everywhere,” she told me, “but I finally got over the fear.”

I’ve done harder things, have I not?

I square my shoulders and step on the gas.

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