15 Years of Hiding Anxiety
Happy anniversary to me – 15 years ago, I got my driver’s licence.
Table of Contents
The Anxiety Forming
A driver’s licence… ooh… ehm… great!? This may be your response.
For many people, learning how to drive a car is just a normal step in the process of becoming an adult. It might be exciting at first because it promises more freedom and opportunities. But soon enough driving and having a greater radius of movement becomes like breathing, like second nature.
Not so for me.
I learned how to drive when I was 17. That year of my life was challenging. I was depressed, though I didn’t really call it that way. My first chronic illness had just come knocking and messing with my body. A few days after passing my practical driving test, a friend of mine took his own life. And I was left by my first love a few months after.
I don’t know whether my overall state at that time had affected my developing relationship with driving. Or whether it had been impacted by the fact that my driving instructor was a sexist making me feel very conscious of my gender and all the stereotypes that come with it throughout my practical lessons. Or maybe it all would have developed just the same in more favourable circumstances. Guess, I’ll never know.
In any case, I remember the moment my instructor told me that I just passed my driving test. I should have been happy, I should have been proud. Instead, I felt like a fraud and an eerie uneasy feeling took residence inside me: “I am not ready! Can’t they see I am not feeling as if I got this?”
“Do you want to drive us back to the school?”, my instructor asked me. “Your preliminary license is taking effect right now so you might as well take the wheel.”
“No thanks”, I mumbled.
Here I was, released onto the streets as a capable young driver. Scared at the thought of driving anywhere on my own. What the hell was wrong with me?
The truth was the thought of driving made me anxious. More so – downright panicky.
And it got worse in the weeks, and months, and years to come. I did all I could to avoid having to drive. Finding excuses. Making appointments only when and where I could reach them via public transport, or a ride by someone else.
When driving was unavoidable, I would be stressed for days leading up to the event. It was like a dark cloud flying towards me, a feeling of doom I could not escape.
I remember one day I was on the driver’s seat, accompanied by my mom as a passenger, going for some kind of errand in the nearest town. I was waiting at the traffic lights on a 3-lane road. My level of panic in this moment was off the charts. Had you asked me how my name was spelled or under which foot of mine the brake pedal was, I would not have been able to tell you. Total blackout. It took all my mental strength not to give in to my instincts and run away, abandoning the car in the middle of the street.
Experiencing how panic could take a hold of me like this and turn me into an unreliable, non-functioning bundle of nerves left me trusting myself even less. My fear of driving became the fear of my fear. It was a vicious circle I knew I could not escape unless I did the very thing it kept me from: Practicing driving. Regularly.
Every time I backed away from an opportunity to practice defeated me even more. I felt sh*t about myself. Stupid, incapable, immature, embarrassed.
The freedom of exploring – here a remote gravel road in New Zealand – that is what a car is needed for.
The Turning Point
Fast forward 2 years later, my 19-year-old self was standing on a pedestrian bridge in Tauranga, New Zealand, watching the cars pace by beneath my feet. I had a meltdown and was crying uncontrollably.
Here I was, on the journey of my (young adult) life, having left the nest back home in Germany where my parents had taken care of all the important decisions so far, venturing about a country on the other side of the globe, and taking care of myself for the first time. For up to 12 months, I had set out to take a gap year between high school and university. Obviously freaking out and getting homesick within the first weeks all alone in this big new world.
Before I left Germany, I made a promise to myself: I would meet my fears and grow past them. I would do things I thought I wasn’t made for. I would connect with people I felt weren’t my tribe. I would jump on opportunities that scared me.
But instead of buying an old wreck of a car and exploring the back country – like every other backpacker did – I took buses from city to city, that way never being able to touch the wild, the unexplored gravel road, the hidden beaches.
I was frustrated. Instead of meeting my fears, I chose to stay stuck, I let opportunities pass me, I took away my own freedom. The reason for this I guarded like an ugly secret. I didn’t tell anyone I suffered from car driving phobia. Way too embarrassing.
Being dishonest with others and even with myself at times, didn’t feel good. I was a hider, an imposter.
And on that day, looking down from the bridge, I couldn’t keep it in anymore. ENOUGH. I had to, I just HAD TO BREAK FREE right now, I couldn’t stand my pathetic self anymore. The pain of being the oppressor of my own freedom had grown greater than the anxiety of meeting my fear. It was a turning point.
So I did it. I went online and rented a stupid car for the next day before I could change my mind. I didn’t sleep well in my bunk bed that night. The next morning, I cheerfully told my dorm mates I would go on a cool 3-day trip around Coromandel Peninsula while secretly shitting my pants (“hider!”, “imposter!”). When I walked up to the counter at the rental place, my ears were ringing. Oh sure do I know how to drive an automatic car! (Never done that.) Oh no worries, I have been driving on the left side of the road before! (Ehm… not really.)
I took the keys and walked up to my shiny, tiny white car. Iiieeeks. Standing with my left foot on the breaks and my right on the accelerator (typical manual driver’s error), I stuttered my way out of the parking lot. I had sincerely hoped I would have to drive past a few not-so-busy roads for the first couple of minutes, but no luck there. Right after clearing the car rental’s premises, I found myself on the freeway.
Buzzing with adrenaline I did all I could to keep my anxiety at bay. Right then, I learned a powerful trick that I still apply today. It is almost impossible to suppress the fear because this takes all my energy. Energy I need to function and make responsible choices. All this time I had tried to make the fear go away and, by that, only made gave it more power over me. But in this very moment, I did the opposite:
I invited my fear to sit on the passenger seat. I allowed it to exist and accompany me. However, I was on the driver’s seat, I was in control.
And so we went for a ride, the unlikely couple that we were. As I looked up, I saw that I was just passing under a white bridge. The very bridge, on which I had experienced my meltdown no 24 hours prior…
Tina at 19 years old & finally enjoying a back country beach in New Zealand thanks to Mr. Rental Car!
Authenticity, the Remedy
Before you think that this kitschy end of the story is the end of the story: No, dear.
I went through many setbacks and months without any driving and many more happy breakthroughs since. Still today, my anxiety is still taking the passenger seat. It is part of me for some reason unknown to me. But it does not control me anymore.
And today is the first time e.v.e.r. that I talk about this publicly. Just like suppressing a fear consumes precious mental resources, thereby giving it even more power, hiding something weakens us. It leaves us feeling like frauds, cowards… But why do we let it?
One thing I learned on my personal authenticity journey – and through the impactful stories of our WHYLD Podcast guests – is that freedom lies on the other side of vulnerability. If there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left for others to discover and exploit. Though the latter is not what most people would do, anyway.
It is much more likely that you choosing to be seen with all your strengths and weaknesses will result in support, in respect, in connection, in gratitude.
I am telling you this story of mine as it documents my own shift towards truthfulness and authenticity.
I no longer want to hide aspects of myself because they are all precious and they all have a reason to exist. Likely a value to give to others.
Whatever you are embarrassed about, whatever you keep from others, I want you to know how much damage this can do to your sense of self-respect.
When you choose the truth, you choose to love yourself – and render all your fears ineffective.
Try it out, I dare you.
Finally, one happy camper! Tiny Tina resting on a giant Kauri tree by a remote coast in New Zealand.
Your Turn - Exercise for You
Go get something to write on. And a moment to reflect.
1) THE HIDE
What thing about you do you tend to hide from others? Could be something tiny and innocent-looking.
2) THE COST
In moments when you actively hide it – like jumping to the next topic in a conversation, leaving out details, finding a cover story, or making sure nobody sees you in the act – how does that make you feel?
Are there emotions like anxiety, shame, guilt?
What does it COST you to hide this thing about yourself?
3) THE REWARD
What would you GAIN by deciding to stop the hide? What would it set free?
photos: Kat Smith & Tina Hewelt