Why you should care
Because sometimes you’ve just got to keep driving.
Kensington Street in San Francisco is notable for the gray-white stump of tree trunk in its hillside, an anomaly that makes me think of a partially buried woman. The street is also narrow. So narrow, vehicles can park only on the right and must travel in single file. A fearful driver, I dread ever having to negotiate Kensington Street and only risk it when absolutely necessary, nervous of getting into an impasse with oncoming traffic, all the while trying not to think of the dead woman trapped in the hillside in the dirt.
One recent morning, while running late, I made the mistake of braving Kensington Street, the shortest route to my daughter’s school. About midway down the lane, a garbage truck blocked my way. I braked before the giant, hissing machine, my heart racing and sweat beading. Claustrophobic, catastrophic thoughts rushed me, and I sat frozen, unable to reverse my SUV, convinced I wouldn’t steer straight and would hit one or more of the parked vehicles. Rigid with panic, I gripped the steering wheel, as if choking it.
He said, “Lady, you shouldn’t drive.” He’s right.
I waited, telepathically pleading with the garbage truck driver to reverse and allow me the right of way. He and I stared each other down, his expression changing from impassive to confused to angry. As I tried to telecommunicate that I wasn’t being an ass but was instead panicked, my foot shook on the brake, and my damp hands made the steering wheel feel like it was melting. Amid the blare of car horns from the annoyed drivers behind both of us, I exited to the curb, feeling light-headed and breathless. The garbage truck driver stepped out of his vehicle, and into mine — and reversed and parked my car for me. After, he said, “Lady, you shouldn’t drive.” He’s right. My fear of driving is an affliction I’ve struggled with my entire adult life and something I’m forever trying to overcome.
My driving phobia — a fear that surprisingly lacks a Latin term and which I’ve dubbed ethrophobia, named after me, Ethel Rohan — isn’t limited to narrow streets. Of all the vehicular situations that make my skin bump, accelerate my heart rate and upend my rational mind, driving on the freeway strikes the most terror. I hate the speed, multiple lanes and sheer number of vehicles, all of us barreling over the concrete and risking everything. The fear of getting lost while driving is also torturous.
I have no sense of direction, and the few times I’ve gone awry in my car, particularly in the dark of night, the level of panic I’ve experienced — crying, chest pains and feeling as though I couldn’t breathe — proved incapacitating and humiliating. Similarly awful, when I drive I regularly see flashes of my crashing or of my knocking someone down, the images charging my mind like assailants from the shadows.
I love planes, trains, even buses. Just cars reduce me to an anxious mess. I’m not sure of the roots of my driving phobia. Only one scary childhood episode sometimes haunts: I was 11 years old, inside our family’s navy Hillman Avenger. The bright beams from our headlights and the oncoming traffic opened up the Irish countryside. Otherwise, darkness closed around us. My two younger sisters, my brother and I crowded the back seat, a soft and hard tangle of tiredness. I have no memory of seat belts. As she slept, Ma’s pale face rolled left and right and left on the passenger headrest. Dad drove, his window cracked open, letting in the waft of honeysuckle. The night also came at us over the glass, chill and creeping.
After our final lesson together, I asked Dad why he always drove with his driver’s window cracked open. He said, “So I can get out.”
Several times, Dad exited the car to straighten his long legs and gulp the air, anxious to stay alert. Unlike my siblings, I refused to sleep, too intent on watching and praying. Just outside the glitter of Dublin and its promise of home, Ma choked on a hard toffee. Panicked, she grabbed at Dad and the steering wheel, veering the car toward the ditch with a sickening swerve. Dad pushed at Ma’s flailing arms and managed to park on the verge, alongside the trees and the tall, dark shapes they cut. Ma opened the passenger door and vomited. Gagging and groaning, she sounded like she was throwing up her stomach right along with its contents. “Jesus,” Dad said, “you could have killed us.”
At age 19, Dad gave me my first driving lessons. From the outset, even though Dad proved to be a calm and patient teacher, driving frightened me — an awful undertaking that put me in control of a loaded weapon amid roadways of loaded weapons. I remember apologizing a lot during those lessons, when the car stalled, when I went right instead of left, when I forgot to signal, when I braked too hard and when I admitted I felt afraid. One afternoon, Dad said, “Stop saying sorry,” his voice sharp. I did stop saying sorry, out loud at least. Inside, I continued to apologize for what felt like repeatedly getting it wrong. Weeks later, after our final lesson together, I asked Dad why he always drove with his driver’s window cracked open. He said, “So I can get out.”
The few other ethrophobes I know are mostly female, and we all share the common link that none of our mothers drove. Since her 20s, my mother battled a degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, which prevented her from driving. Her mother didn’t drive either. There’s that great adage, “We can’t be what we can’t see.”
I worry my two daughters, ages 12 and 15, will also grow up to suffer a similar fear of driving and its inherent limits and stigma, daughters I want to raise to be kind, brave, confident, independent and accomplished. Yet the reality remains — every time I get behind the wheel, I’m scared and stuff in my head gets twisted. It’s something, though, I hope, that each and every time, my daughters witness my beating back the panic and turning the key in the ignition, trying all over again.