Is my uncle out of line, or am I?
September 20, 2011 12:48 PM   Subscribe

OK. Here's my issue. I can drive, but I've inherited a bit of a driving phobia from my mom (who doesn't drive at all). In the small town where I'm originally from, I just stuck to regular roads and state highways. I've never liked the freeway.

I've recently moved to the Bay Area, and the driving is way more intense here than what I'm used to. There's a choir that I am interested in joining at some point, but getting to rehearsals and back at night is an issue since it's too far to walk. I could rent a ZIP car but I don't feel comfortable driving on the freeways here.

Whenever I said this to my uncle, he kept saying I shouldn't tell myself I can't drive on the freeway. He says millions of people do it every day and so can I. He starts comparing me to others, saying look at your cousin, he didn't know how to drive a stick shift before he came to CA and now he can drive any freeway in the world. And the woman next door who came from a small town and she can drive everywhere too. He brought my mother into the picture by saying, "this is the problem with your mom, she's passed her fears onto you", etc. Sure, that's all true, but it's not helpful and so invalidating!

I felt like he didn't get that I have a *real* fear of the freeway. I *understand* that it's an irrational/limiting fear, but it's there anyway. That part is REAL. Whenever I tried to state that driving on the 580 freeway is not something I feel comfortable with, he dismisses it and says it's just a lie I'm telling myself and that it's all because of my mom that I'm like this. I don't feel like he truly understands where I'm coming from, since he's never had a driving phobia. I felt invalidated. I'm sure he means well, and I appreciate all that he has done for me in helping me adjust to life out here. But his way of telling me to face my fears on the road was not helpful. Just wanted to know if you think he should have been more understanding of my fears.

The way I see it, when someone has a fear or phobia of something, the *worst* thing you can do is try to rationalize with them and shoot them with platitudes like, "you can do anything you set your mind to", or "that's a lie you're telling yourself", etc, because the person with a phobia already KNOWS that their fear is irrational. Or am I totally off the mark here?
posted by starpoint to Human Relations (53 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Just to clarify...I have never driven in the Bay Area before and I don't own a car. I'm mostly going to rely on public transit and walking.
posted by starpoint at 12:50 PM on September 20, 2011

I'm not clear what your question is -- are you looking to get over your fear of driving, or are you looking for validation that people haven't been handling your concerns properly?

Because if it's the latter, then yeah, they could be nicer about it. But I'm wondering if maybe they may be taking a "tough love" approach because you also sound so upset that you HAVE this phobia in the first place.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:51 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

What is your question- is it about getting to and from places in a car, or is it about irrational fears.
posted by TheBones at 12:51 PM on September 20, 2011

I don't know. To be honest, this conversation with my uncle just occurred an hour ago and my head is spinning and I'm so upset and had to post something somewhere. I have no one else to turn to at the moment as I have not yet made any friends here. I apologize if my question wasn't clear.

My question is: do you think that my uncle was being too harsh and misunderstanding when it comes to my driving fears, even if he did mean well? Or am I being too sensitive?
posted by starpoint at 12:55 PM on September 20, 2011

Do you want to be able to drive on the freeway? If so, you should maybe talk to a therapist or a driving instructor about your phobia. If not, then just don't drive on the freeway.

Forget about your uncle.
posted by grouse at 12:58 PM on September 20, 2011 [7 favorites]

it sounds like you and your uncle are in agreement - you both agree that you have an irrational fear of freeway driving that was passed onto you by your mother. and he's saying that it is possible to get over those fears and learn to drive in California, which is good news! it sounds like he's not the type to say "poor baby", and for that kind of talk you'll need to talk to someone else... your uncle is a "you can do it!" kind of guy, and that's a good type to have in your corner, too.
posted by moxiedoll at 1:01 PM on September 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't say that's the worst thing, he could force you to drive on the freeway instead. Platitudes like that aren't exactly rationalizing, and some people with phobias can deal with them better if they have more information or different techniques.

I don't think that either of you is out of line on this discussion. You might be a bit out of line in expecting that your relatives will understand everything about you. As you get older you will probably find other things that they won't understand, no matter how much you explain.

It's up to you whether you want to blow such things up into arguments or just not bring them up. So your uncle doesn't understand this about you -- so what?

On preview -- Yes, you are too sensitive. I doubt he misunderstood you on purpose.

You don't have a car, you probably have a lot of other things in life to deal with than where you will or won't drive the car you don't have.
posted by yohko at 1:01 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your uncle meant well. If you think he was too harsh, then he was too harsh, but it sounds like he was well intentioned. If you need to get over your fear of driving on the highway, see a therapist if talking to your uncle does not suit you.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:03 PM on September 20, 2011

I think it's hard for your uncle to understand that this is a real phobia because you Can drive, just not in the scarier situation you currently find yourself in. And in telling him that you Wished you could do the choir, he took that as an opening to say that there are other people who've gotten past fears, just as there are people who've moved past their real phobias.

You sound upset because you feel like your uncle was minimizing your fears, and in your head that turns in to his minimizing You. You are not your fears or your phobias. And he's right: if your phobia is preventing you from functioning, ie, doing things you Want to do in life like be in this choir, it's time to see if you can't address that phobia and get beyond it.
posted by ldthomps at 1:04 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The TV series "Obsessed" had an episode that featured someone with driving anxiety that sounds similar to yours. Might be worth a watch, it's on Netflix On Demand.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:05 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

My question is: do you think that my uncle was being too harsh and misunderstanding when it comes to my driving fears, even if he did mean well? Or am I being too sensitive?

Well, it really doesn't matter if WE think you are too sensitive. If you think you are, then do something about it instead of complaining about it online. Take a driving class. See a therapist. Go out and drive on highways during less travelled times.

Or you could always just take the bus or ride a bike or the BART.

If you are mad at your uncle, you could talk to him about how his words hurt you. Maybe you could go to a mediator and talk through these things with him.
posted by TheBones at 1:06 PM on September 20, 2011

Your uncle probably meant well. You sound like you might be frustrated about the not driving on freeways and he may be trying to encourage you.

People who don't have driving phobias may not understand especially as you can drive some places fine.
posted by oneear at 1:07 PM on September 20, 2011

I, also, am not sure what you're asking, but here's a stab. If you question is just "Is my uncle being at best thickheaded and at worst unkind about my phobia?" Then the answer is yeah, probably. People are funny about driving. It's such an every day thing to so many people that they can be callous when they encounter a person with a genuine phobia of driving, in a way that you just wouldn't see if your phobia was of heights or whatever. So, no, he's not being helpful and you're not wrong for finding him unhelpful.

That said - if you think about it for a bit and decide your question goes beyond that, I am also a person who lived in the Bay Area with a big fear of driving. At the time, various aspects of my life required freeway driving so I ended up having to deal with it. Please feel free to memail me if you want.
posted by superfluousm at 1:07 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would say that you are both a little right, and both a little wrong.

You are absolutely correct, your fear is real. Any emotion you experience is a genuine emotion. Your fear feels overpowering, and you're frustrated by the limits it's putting on you and you are not sure how to manage it. It sounds like there are possibly other stresses in the background that make this feel bigger now, too. You're in a new and relatively unfamiliar place, you haven't set up a close social circle yet, and there is an activity that means a lot to you but it's difficult to get to it now.

Not knowing your uncle, what he is saying is a little right too. This is not necessarily a rational fear, there are things that people do that are very effective to address irrational fears like this, your mom probably had limitations placed on her by her fear and he doesn't want to see the same thing happen to you.

To me it sounds like he's coming from a good place, but may be a little ham-fisted about how he's expressing that. What might help is telling him what would be helpful rather than focusing on what he's doing that feels invalidating (e.g. "You know uncle, I know that this probably is related to mom and her fear, but it's sort of overpowering right now. Could you just give me a few minutes and hear what I'm feeling, then we can talk about what to do about it")

It sounds like you've come to a temporary solution of taking public transportation and that's fine. It's important to balance your emotions, time, frustration, etc. If you are interested in addressing this at some point in the future, there are absolutely driving instructors and therapists who specialize in working with just this kind of thing.

Good luck to you!
posted by goggie at 1:09 PM on September 20, 2011

My question is: do you think that my uncle was being too harsh and misunderstanding when it comes to my driving fears, even if he did mean well? Or am I being too sensitive?

The truth may be a little bit in between, to be honest.

What I mean is: your uncle could have indeed been a lot more sensitive. However, what I don't know is what YOU said prior to that which MADE your Uncle say what he said. Not that this justifies what he said, mind you -- it's just that I'm not 100% convinced that your fears are a full-on clinical "phobia" as such.

The reason why I'm making that distinction is that I think YOU need to make that distinction too. I'm also uncomfortable driving in heavy traffic, for much the same reasons you are. But if there is no other option, I suck it up and do it; otherwise, I plan around it. I still refuse to drive in Manhattan -- but I don't dither when I tell people that, I just say "nope, not gonna do it." Or, I figure out a way to do it that won't panic me. (I think I drove a car about 10 blocks up 1st Avenue a few months ago, but I went at a pace I was comfortable with and made sure I felt safe.)

What I'm seeing is that your uncle was harsh -- but that you are also blowing up your fear into something bigger than it really needs to be, as well. Your uncle could do better at respecting your fears, yes. But you could also work on DIS-respecting your fears, in a sense -- not giving them too much power.

If you really are sent into a state of panic at the thought of driving on a freeway, then you shouldn't be even looking into doing that and should be seeing a therapist, if you want to do something about that. If you're not, though, then...just don't, and don't make a big song-and-dance about it, is all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:09 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

My father was a police officer who has seen too many serious car wrecks. As a teen, she scared the ever loving sh*t out of me about the dangers of driving to "protect me". I am still working on getting over the phobia that he created in me to this day.

First, do don't ever try to ask someone who has never had a driving phobia (phobia, not "I was a bit scared, kind of") to give you advice unless that person happens to be a trained professional. The problem is that since driving is no big deal to them, they tend to treat your fear as a "your just a bit frightened to try something new and will quickly get over it" issue. even if they have the best intentions, downplaying your fear will not be helpful.

What I did when it came to freeway driving was to start really small and practice when I had no where to go so I didn't feel rushed. I would get on the freeway, stay in the right most lane (the slower lane), drive at the appropriate speed to coincide with traffic, then get off at the next exit. Honestly, it will be stressful, so after you exit the freeway you may need to pull into a restaurant or gas station and calm down, which is totally OK and a good thing to do.

Basically, this is not the kind of fear that you can solve by taking the "just do it" approach that the confident drivers love to suggest. It is something that you need to do a little bit at a time at your own pace. Rent the zip car and drive as far and as much as you feel comfortable with, even if it is only around the parking loot once or between two exits on the freeway, it is a start. And if you can force yourself to do it once a week, it will help tremendously.

Also, call the DMV and ask them to mail you a copy of the rules of the road (drivers manual or whatever they are called in your state). This way if you get confused or forget how to handle a specific situation safely, you can pull over and look it up. It helps a ton!
posted by Shouraku at 1:11 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

"do you think that my uncle was being too harsh and misunderstanding when it comes to my driving fears, even if he did mean well? Or am I being too sensitive?"

Somewhere in between. Maybe your uncle doesn't quite get it, but he's not saying any of this to hurt you, he's trying to help you. But obviously his 'but everyone else is doing it' method of reassurance is not working for you, and only making your more stressed out. I don't think you'd be out of like telling him, "I know you mean well, but the way you're saying is making it worse. It would be helpful if you did X instead."

But on the other hand, a phobia, while being a very real thing, is not insurmountable. And a fear of highway driving is one that you really probably should work on instead of letting it put limits on your life. I used to hate driving, terrified that I was gonna screw up. And I still don't enjoy it, but when the only job I could find was an hour away I HAD to get over my fear. I don't think my fear was as strong as yours, though, so it might be worthwhile to look into real therapy.
posted by Caravantea at 1:11 PM on September 20, 2011

I've recently moved to the Bay Area

I think your fears of driving in and around a new city are completely normal until you become familiar with your surroundings, the driving and parking customs of the locals and the vehicle(s) you use to get around.

Having not had my own car for over a decade, I still know my way around Boston, but I too moved out to SFO and aside from renting a moving van to get over to Ikea once, didn't bother much with the roads. And I say that as someone who done a lot of interstate, freeway, backroad and numbskull driving.

Just take your time and you'll do fine.
posted by jsavimbi at 1:12 PM on September 20, 2011

i was terrified of driving. i also have some passed down fear and anxiety issues. long before i drove, i had terrible nightmares about driving. i still do. i'm getting short of breath just typing about those dreams.

i didn't drive at all until i was in my mid 20s. then came this time in my life where i was told that i had 2 weeks to get a drivers license and be ready to work 50 minutes away (all but 7 minutes on 2 different freeways) and get almost double what i was making, or be fired. the stakes were finally big enough that my fear had to be faced.

i don't think anything less than that would have done it. it had to be something big enough, something important enough. is this choir that thing? only you can answer that.

i will say this though, i love driving. i love being alone in a car. i love, love, love big open freeways with no traffic. i now wish i had figured out a way around my fear a decade earlier. there's so much i missed, so much i cut myself off from just because i had to rely on others to get places.

should your uncle have been kinder? of course. but i don't think being pushed into overcoming this particular fear was harmful to me.
posted by nadawi at 1:14 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm sure the majority of people have had phobias that they've beaten at one stage or another, I was terrified of spiders until I got into the habit of telling myself "you're an idiot, it's a spider" when I saw one. So when they, or I, meet someone with a phobia, I can simultaneously feel empathy for them, and also think that it is irrational, and they can and should overcome it.

I had a friend who was scared of driving, and so I said, look, you know and I know this fear is irrational, it's weighing you down, and limiting your freedoms/happiness, but, BUT, I then offered to help them out.

I took my car out at a horrifically early hour, to a quiet spot without much traffic and showed that if I drove slow (in the slow lane) it wasn't a big deal, the car would change lanes if they were in a rush, I put my hazards on and pulled off to the side to show there's 'escape' routes if they got too scared (not sure if that's legal, but hey..)

And we built up slowly up from there. You know that highway driving is the safest place to be, mile for mile. I think it's just the fear of jumping into the deep end, so, if you can, make it easy for yourself to dip your toes in and experience the road outside of the hustle and bustle of busier times.

Your phobia is restricting your freedoms and with the right help and support, there should be a future when you can drive on the freeway and unlock those places, events and experiences that are currently out of reach. Find some help.
posted by Static Vagabond at 1:15 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

two things to say:

First, people who don't have phobias.. don't understand the fear of having one. They don't understand that it's not something you can control. They don't understand how, if you know it's not something to be afraid of, then why are you afraid. You are not alone in the frustrations of being phobic. All the rest of us that have phobia's hear you loud and clear. This is not a sensitivity issue. Something in your brain is hardwired wrong.

Second, I don't drive. This is because driving is a Big Deal and a Huge Responsibility. I could kill someone, I could get killed. I have no fears of driving, I just don't like putting that mantle on my shoulders. It's taken me the majority of my 20's to get to the point of actively seeking a driver's license. The thing is, to so many people, driving is not a big deal or a huge responsibility. It's a part of their normal every day lives.

Couple the kind of person to whom driving is perfectly fine with the don't-understand-phobia-fear type people, and you end up with someone who seems extremely critical and harsh.

I agree with everyone that your Uncle meant well. All he's guilty of is just not really understanding you. That doesn't invalidate your emotional response, though. You feel the way you do because that's the way you feel. Try and look at it from your Uncle's perspective, he just doesn't get it. Forgive him, and forgive yourself.

(my phobia is not driving. It's bugs.)
posted by royalsong at 1:15 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Can you take a few driving lessons, and then maybe practice with a trusted and patient friend? I was utterly petrified of highway driving until I took lessons from a good instructor who set me at ease. Eventually I realized it was actually easier (for me anyway) than driving on smaller roads since you're only dealing with traffic flowing one way.
posted by medeine at 1:16 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I used to be afraid to drive in NYC - a fear that is actually fairly justified. Then I got a job that required me to drive in the city, both surface street and freeway driving.

One thing that helped was gradually easing into it. I started by moving the car between parking spots. Then I took it on a few errands around the neighborhood on quiet side streets. Then I took it a little further afield, but stayed on surface roads. Finally, I graduated to freeways. At first it was really scary. The more I did it, the more comfortable I got. Now - after about 2 years of needing to drive for work on and off - I'm pretty much over the driving phobia.

Could you do something like this? Could you rent a zipcar for an hour and just pull out of the parking lot, drive around the block (maybe to some reward not easily accomplished on foot?), then back? Then maybe once you feel comfortable doing that, you could try going a little further afield. Gradually build up your driving repertoire until you're OK on the freeway to the choir practice.

Also, why not short circuit the whole thing by giving yourself permission to take surface streets to choir practice, even if it means it takes longer to drive there or isn't the most efficient route? Most likely nobody will ever know or care.

As for your uncle, who cares what he thinks? Some people are so married to their cars that they think anyone who doesn't drive everywhere all the time is weak. Those people are every bit as limited by their addiction to driving as they think you are for not having a car.
posted by Sara C. at 1:20 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I learned to drive in the Bay area and if it's any consolation, I agree that those highways are terrifying. I had to go on 17 for maybe two exits once and it almost gave me a panic attack. I avoided them for years, until I moved away.

I learned how to drive at highway speeds once I moved to rural Alberta, land of wide empty lanes, even though that scared me too. But there was a concert I really, really wanted to go to and I had to drive to get there so I just did it - took the slower provincial highway there, but it was so late after the show that I took the (still mostly empty) faster national highway. And then I did it again. And once I was ok going that fast, it was less scary to be going that fast with other vehicles around me. So it is possible to get more comfortable with it. I agree that trying out zipcar might be good - go out early in the morning at first, or on more deserted roads, with a non-judgmental friend.

In the meantime, can you contact the choir and explain that you want to join but you don't have a way of getting there? They may have people who live near you who would be able to give you a ride.
posted by kyla at 1:21 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to say you should not necessarily give up on the choir yet. It might be worth going to once to see if there is someone who drives who you could carpool with to get back home or to a BART stop.

btw royalsong is so right about the phobias.

also it's possible that the OP and choir are on opposite sides of a bridge here which would require highway driving if going by car.
posted by oneear at 1:23 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, I do not think your uncle was being harsh. You know your phobia is irrational; asking other people to pander to that irrationality is asking them to come play in Make Believe Land. Your uncle is correct; there is no reason you cannot drive on the freeway except for your phobia. If your phobia is curtailing normal activities, you need to address it. See a shrink or take specialist driving lessons, perhaps the VR kind!
posted by DarlingBri at 1:25 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

Hey! I had a shitty awful fear of driving on the freeway for a really long time! Your uncle is out of line, because feelings are never wrong, and fears are fears, whether they're rooted in objective, present-time factors or not.

I took some driving lessons as an adult, and it literally cured me in three weeks. If you haven't tried that, I would.
posted by KathrynT at 1:28 PM on September 20, 2011

I don't think you need a therapist. I know of two ways to fight phobias: small, progressive steps toward your goal in a way that feels safe to you, or a powerful influence that outweighs even your own fears in your mind.

To fight your phobia the first way, you can get a driving instructor to work with you to feel more confident about driving, and to be in the car with you when you are on the freeway at first, so that you feel safe initially as you build up that confidence. Once you get that confidence in your ability, and have it validated by an objective third party, you will feel a lot less afraid, and the phobia won't take over; it might be there in the background but you will be able to push through it.

The other way is something that is more pushed upon you than something you do yourself. What has to happen is for something you feel really strongly about to go against the phobia and lose. For nadawi, that fear of losing the job outweighed the driving phobia.

It might be a different impetus for you. For instance, I'm scared of driving over really high bridges (goes back to a childhood thing and a recurring dream). But my oldest son was born with dysplasia, and the pediatrician--the one who diagnosed him in the hospital--had his office across a really high bridge from us. I forced myself to drive over that damn bridge to get to the pediatrician's. I'd start sweating and my hands would clench the steering wheel in a death grip, but I did it because I had to. In my mind, my son's needs > my fears, so I could get through it.

And the coolest thing is that then, after seeing that I could do it, I was also able to continue driving across that bridge to get other places, because my confidence that I had done this before > the phobia, and that helped me to push down that irrational fear. And now it is barely a blip on my radar. I'm still not crazy about driving over the bridge, I don't go around thinking, "Yay, bridge!" But I'm not afraid like I once was.

This is how, I think, people are able to accomplish incredible bouts of bravery when someone they love is endangered, because even though they are afraid, the other person's welfare is more important to them than their own life in that moment.

Anyway, the important takeaway from this is that you CAN fight a phobia and win. And what's more, I think it is essential that you do fight this, because the longer we give in to a phobia, the larger it looms in our minds.

Your uncle, though harsh, is trying to tell you, in a different way, the same thing: your fear doesn't have to control you.

He's right, but he could have been more gentle about it, sure.
posted by misha at 1:42 PM on September 20, 2011

On the one hand, your uncle was being a little insensitive and pushy. On the other, he was (perhaps inadvertently) right in that desensitization is how most people get over phobias. There are various workbooks that you can do at your own pace, and there are clinicians who can help you with this in a more formal way, if that works better for you. But that's only if you want to get over your fear of freeway driving. If not being able to drive on the freeway doesn't really impact your life that much, then eh - but only you can figure out if getting past the phobia is worth the time and effort.

(I had tons of driving experience - learned to drive in Boston in high school - and zero phobic feelings about it. Until I moved to SF, and then for two years I practically had panic attacks when I had to drive - surface streets were way worse than freeways for me. But it never seemed to rise to the level of A Phobia for me, and I just kept pushing through it until one day I realized that it had been ages since I'd been afraid of driving - I'd gotten over it and not even noticed.)
posted by rtha at 1:42 PM on September 20, 2011

My mother also instilled in me this awful fear of driving. My first husband never understood that fear and constantly tried to get me to learn to drive. His driving lessons were not a pretty picture. What finally got me behind the wheel was necessity - three kids and a husband out to sea. Yeah, couldn't do that without a car.

What I'm saying is that previous posters are right - anyone who does not have a phobia will not understand that phobia (you should hear what people say about my fear of flying). Your uncle was not being harsh, he was reacting normally to an unknown factor and (to him) a baseless fear. It's harsh to you because your fear is very real, but to him it is not, because there is no reason for it. It's like when someone were hallucinates, what they see is real and there, even if their mind tells them it cannot be there, but they will never convince anyone else it is because no one can see it.
posted by patheral at 1:45 PM on September 20, 2011

I think he was trying to be helpful, but he did it in a way that might have been helpful to him but wasn't helpful to you.

I don't think he should have been overly concerned about validating what you acknowledge as an irrational phobia. So yes, I think you are being too sensitive. He wasn't attacking you personally or even being mean - he was trying to give you examples to show you that you could do something. Sort of a pep talk. Given those circumstances, I don't think he was out of line, but I understand how you could take it very personally and be very upset - since this happened very recently, maybe a little time will help you to feel a little better about it.
posted by mrs. taters at 1:46 PM on September 20, 2011

My partner is like you in the way that she needs to have her fears validated (and as a good spouse I have learned how to listen and react as best I can to support her, even if I don't get it). You guys just have different ways of communicating, and depending on your relationship he may or may not have any motivation to learn how to communicate in your emotional language.

But this cuts both ways. You are focusing on this as an issue with your uncle, rather than opening your ears and hearing how he is supporting and encouraging you. You are lucky to have someone listening to your fears and encouraging you to make yourself happy, and here you are critiquing the quality of the listening and encouraging. Think about it.
posted by quarterframer at 1:55 PM on September 20, 2011

What if, at least to start, you simply avoided the freeway? My garmin, for instance, definitely has an 'avoid highways' option, and so does google maps. Sure, it'll take a few minutes longer, but if its either that, or being too afraid to go do the things you want to do, it's definitely an option.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:10 PM on September 20, 2011

Don't focus on the issue with your uncle. There are I'm sure many people in you life who won't take your concerns (about any type of thing) seriously. People are often bad at the whole empathy thing.

I have a driving phobia (induced by repeated tire blowouts on the freeway) and the only thing that works is to just keep driving. Yes I feel terrified and it's awful but each time I drive and nothing happens I feel better. Look into treatments for OCD and anxiety. Exposure therapy does work; that doesn't mean your fears aren't real but they are now impacting you life which means you MUST deal with them.
posted by boobjob at 2:21 PM on September 20, 2011

Can you get to the choir by public transportation? If so, just do it.

Learning how to drive on the freeways takes practice. You don't own a car so you can't practice. If you have a good friend with a car see if he or she will take you out to the freeway at 3 AM and let you practice.
posted by mareli at 2:37 PM on September 20, 2011

If you do decide to learn to drive on freeways (not that you have to—it's been over a decade since my first learner's permit, and I still don't drive), check out a variety of different driving schools. I had a friend in Southern California who learned to drive as an adult. She found a driving school specializing in teaching people particularly uncomfortable with or nervous about driving, and found that quite helpful.
posted by JiBB at 2:49 PM on September 20, 2011

I second those who said that anyone who hasn't had a driving phobia will blow you off about it. SO true. They won't understand and frequently will be downright rude about it. My relatives sound like your uncle about it-- which reminds me, don't talk to him about this again, it will only make you madder. And Bay Area freeways are scary! I have barely driven since I got my license (didn't get a car to go with it) and the one time I drove on a freeway recently my mother, the passenger, screamed at me the entire damn time about everything I was doing wrong. Yes, Mom, this kind of thing is exactly why I didn't get my driver's license at 16, you're such a help. Also, screaming at someone while they are on the freeway is an awesome idea!

Though in all honesty, driving school is why I didn't get my license at 16 either. Just because it's a driving school doesn't mean that they are all suited to teaching newbies or scared newbies. Be CAREFUL if you are scouting for one. An instructor who hauls your ass on to the freeway in hour one expecting you to be totally fine with it, like mine was, only adds fuel to your phobia.

Anyway, what you need, if you can find it, is a nice friend (preferably someone who's had a driving phobia, but I don't know if you know anyone like that) who will let you use their car and ride along with you on a non-busy freeway time so you can get used to it. I was more used to it back when I was practicing for my license with a former driving phobic, but I got the license and the instructor has been too injured of late, so I'm looking for someone to practice with again who won't scream at me myself. I need to get used to the damn freeway again, plus figure out at what points one moves lanes and when you need to prepare to get off and on and all that stuff.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:27 PM on September 20, 2011

I would strongly suggest getting a driving instructor to work with you on the freeway. Actually, in some ways, freeways are easier; it's just the merging is scary. I very nearly wrote a similar question the week before last while visiting San Francisco! I wanted to drive to Point Reyes or maybe Yosemite.

I was staying in SoMa with my brother, who knows that I have a phobia. He did not blow it off, but kept telling me that the driving was "trivial." (He uses that word a lot.) We come from a rural area where you learn to drive in a field when you are 13 and everyone gets a car at 16. Except me.

For reasons I won't go into (one bad accident, close calls), the prospect of driving anywhere other than maybe my hometown (where no family live anymore, so that's kinda out) drives me nearly to tears. I live in DC and was always a person who drove once a year tops. Before 2011, I drove last in 2004, a bad memory.

Long story short, I drove from Mill Valley to Point Reyes via Sir Frances Drake (narrow, dark, poorly marked). I returned via Shoreline Drive (narrow! twisty!) and instead of returning my rental in Mill Valley, I boldly drove across the Golden Gate Bridge during rush hour and drove all around the City. I still don't believe it. There was some freeway driving in there as well. I got lost in and out of the city, and I didn't even make it to The Iconic Point Reyes Lighthouse, but wandered over to the part with the ranches by mistake.

Still, I did it!!! You can work on this, really! Get a driving instructor. I agree that people who drive all of the time cannot understand how we feel. And SF -- a grid -- is easier to drive in, per my brother, than DC, which I am still leery of.
posted by jgirl at 4:07 PM on September 20, 2011

Part of you Uncle's reasons for telling you these things may be because the way you think about your fear really does make a difference. I feel anxious when I need to make phone calls to businesses for various simple things. I used to get minor flutterings of nerves, and sometimes put off those calls, but if they were important, I'd eventually get to them.

Eventually, I applied a label to it, and decided I had social anxiety about phone calls. And the more I tell myself and other people I have social anxiety about phone calls, the worse it gets. I'm trying to talk myself back out of it again, the same way I talked myself into it, but it's harder in the other direction.

So, please, do try telling yourself you're not terrified of driving on the freeway -- it might be a good first step to not actually being terrified of driving on the freeway.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:30 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hello, I am similarly driving-phobic; I've had my learner's permit for two years now (I live in LA) because I have a lot of trouble making myself practice enough to take the test.

I understand where you're coming from; there's a thin line where the same advice can come across as invalidating instead of encouraging, just depending on tone alone. What helps to make it easier to deal with is realize that while your uncle was clumsy about it, his heart was probably in the right place; it's really difficult for another person to reassure someone without being invalidating if they haven't been through it, especially when it comes to phobias; much of it will amount to "it's not scary because X" and it's difficult to convey that without it sounding like "it seriously isn't scary, at all, and you're dumb if you think it is." You can probably think of another person's problem where you've tried to think of a way to reassure them that something isn't really that bad; remember how touchy it can be not to come across as invalidating? It takes practice, and every person and issue is different. Some people never get much practice, and I tend to cut older guys a lot of slack because some of them were raised in that don't-allow-weakness, tough-love mold. It doesn't mean he doesn't care or doesn't want to help or even that he doesn't understand that you're seriously scared (even if he can't entirely empathize), rather he wants to give you confidence by sweeping all the worries to the side for you. It sucks that it comes across in an invalidating way, but some people you just kind of have to cast in a more positive light and mentally rewrite their dialogue. Don't do that with seriously abusive people, but it goes a long way with emotionally clumsy types.

That being said, I don't blame you for being scared of Bay Area freeways; they're branch off like hydra necks at high speed every several yards, it feels like. They're definitely intimidating, even to my husband and my friend who have been driving since they were 16 (we're all 17). However, I can tell you from experience that it does help me to drive if I tell myself the "millions of people do this every day, so can I" line. Try to remove that idea from the invalidated feeling and look at it purely informationally and not as a judgment on yourself; your uncle may have unfortunately attached some unhelpful associations to otherwise helpful advice. This has helped me with other phobias too, like of spiders or finding awful things while gardening: other people do this and they live. I found a bunch of brown widows gardening and one ran right at me, and living through that and stomping the motherfucker actually reassured me for later gardening sessions. I still avoid freeways but every now and then I get on one and tell myself everyone does it, and it does help.
posted by Nattie at 4:47 PM on September 20, 2011

Er, we're all 27, not 17.
posted by Nattie at 4:48 PM on September 20, 2011

In my experience, urban surface streets are roughly a zillion times more hostile (in terms of people doing absolutely insane things and then you having to try and not plow into them) than interstates, but interstates are better at doing things like, "SURPRISE! That was a left exit! Better luck next time." (If your uncle already knows his stomping grounds like the back of his hand, it could be that he's forgotten about this part and is just thinking of the freeway as the place where the cars all are going in the same direction.)

I think what Mareli suggests is a good idea. Pick times when you know there is not going to be much traffic and get used to the specifics of your routes then. Where the exits are and which on ramps require you to get up to speed quickly.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:56 PM on September 20, 2011

Thanks everybody for the amazing answers and insights. I feel much better about the whole thing, and I'm going to look into driving schools and therapists once I get more settled here. This will be something I'll work on over the long term, at my own speed. Thanks again!!!
posted by starpoint at 6:32 PM on September 20, 2011

Forget your uncle. Three-quarters of my Bay Area friends don't own cars and rarely drive. You and your reluctance to drive are very much among friends here.

Driving IS dangerous so you totally have a point. And as your so-called "phobia" suggests, speed IS a significant factor in accident injury severity and mortality rates. (I will send you journal citations if you want.) And I -- a person who loves to drive and has taken multiple cross-country road trips -- find some of the merges and splits here more difficult than most places I've driven.

I'm not trying to add to your fear -- the odds are still in your favor and you can completely learn this -- but I do want to say that your original fear is very valid. In discussions of risk analysis at grad school, driving was a common example of something that everyone does without much thought despite it being far more risky than many other things that are commonly thought to be dangerous.

What's more, driving on the highway here is largely unnecessary. You now live in one of the top places in the US for being able to not drive. And for the instances when you do need to drive, you can probably get there via surface streets (unless you're going to, like, San Ramon). I avoid the freeways because it's usually just as quick and much more pleasant to take surface streets. On top of that, it costs a barrage of money to own a car, not to mention the exorbitant California registration fees. If you want to minimize driving and avoid the freeways, you have a completely defensible position, and I'd say you are actually on a better path (heh heh).
posted by salvia at 7:42 PM on September 20, 2011

I'm like this! No freeways/highways, but then I live in NYC and haven't driven in years. Totally terrified. People say, "oh but you practice," but it's like...but messing up in practice can kill you and other people, so...

At some point I am planning to work on this with my therapist, but I'm not going to be able to take him in the car with me ( I wouldn't even want to). There are classes here in NY for anxious drivers specifically. I'd look into something like that.

You're not alone! Yea, a lot of people are not afraid of driving, but come on, you have to hurtle a several ton machine down a highway at 70 mph and change lanes and then blind spots and how fast is that car even going and is she putting on MAKEUP right now and where did that truck come from...
posted by sweetkid at 7:44 PM on September 20, 2011

US Centers for Disease Control:
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among those age 5-34 in the U.S.1
Now whose beliefs are irrational again? I'm not saying "omg you're going to die," but there are many things that it is commonly accepted to be afraid of that are safer than driving.

I mean, it's one thing for someone like your uncle to say "the risk is worth it to me -- I'm not willing to limit my life in that way" (but you are!) or "the risk is worth it to me -- I love to drive" (but you don't!). Your choice is safer and better in many other ways, too! So good for you.

If you want help figuring out how to get somewhere, or more validation that it sucks if there is no good transit option to your choir, just drop me a line. You know that Google maps includes all the Bay Area transit routes, don't you? A number of the AC Transit Transbay buses run late at night.
posted by salvia at 8:34 PM on September 20, 2011

I think we've all had moments where someone is complaining so we start coming up with solutions to their problem, and then only realize later that they just wanted to whinge a little rather than actually brainstorm... Best way to treat it next time is to tell your uncle flat out, "I know there are solutions but what I really need right now is someone to listen and sympathize."

Having said that, he's not wrong...

(P.S. What else kills people in the US who are between 5 and 34? It's not like a lot of young Americans are dying from tetanus or the flu these days...)
posted by anaelith at 9:06 PM on September 20, 2011

What else kills people in the US who are between 5 and 34?

I believe the next leading causes are firearms and cancer, not necessarily in that order.
posted by grouse at 9:17 PM on September 20, 2011

do you think that my uncle was being too harsh and misunderstanding when it comes to my driving fears, even if he did mean well? Or am I being too sensitive?

Your uncle is perfectly normal in that he doesn't empathize with someone who has an irrational phobia-- it's almost impossible for someone who doesn't have such a condition to understand.

He's trying to be helpful-- millions of people do drive on a highway and have no problem with it, in the same way that millions of people react to bugs by ignoring them or stepping on them and millions of people are perfectly fine with open spaces and are perfectly fine with all those other things that people who don't have irrational phobias about stuff are perfectly fine about.

I think you're expecting too much out of your uncle. He's not a psychologist; all he sees is your fear of driving on the highway and treats it in the same way you might regard a grandmother who's fearful of having her credit card stolen if she gets an e-mail address.

I think you need to realize that outside of other people with phobias and mental health professionals, very few people are going to empathize with you if you talk about how you fear driving on the highway... and if they do, they're going to sympathize/empathize with "I have a condition that produces an irrational fear" not "I fear driving on the highway." Maybe if you couched it in terms of looking for solace about your irrational fear rather than hoping for an understanding ear about the highway, specifically, you might get more sympathy from your uncle.
posted by deanc at 9:18 PM on September 20, 2011

My advice: Don't go to an adviser for validation; don't go to a validator for advice; don't validate a phobia. Sure you feel what you feel, but what you feel is screwing up your life and can be changed; why would you not?
posted by flabdablet at 4:05 AM on September 21, 2011

I used to be phobic about big hairy spiders (thanks, popular culture) and big fluttery moths (thanks, Mum).

The first time a big hairy spider fell in my lap as I adjusted my car's sun visor, I figured out that being phobic about big hairy spiders could actually kill me (I was lucky that it happened while stationary at a stop light, not at 100km/h on the freeway; jumping out of the car while hyperventilating and screaming is not a good look at high speed).

So I trained myself out of it. Got a friend to catch me a big hairy spider in a jar, named it Fritz for no particular reason, kept it on my desk at work and fed it fresh-killed flies through the holes in the lid for a couple of weeks. Studying Fritz repeatedly at close quarters magically turned him from abstract boogey-monster fear machine into the beautiful creature he actually was, and I eventually got to the point where I could let him crawl up my arm and not totally freak out.

Emboldened by the story of another friend who had once lost a service station driveway job for letting a big hairy spider crawl around in his hair while pumping petrol for customers, I started practicing being the guy who would pick up the big hairy spider by hand and take it outside. A few months of that, and I no longer suffered from being certain I was about to get bitten every time.

And this has in fact paid off. Two months ago, while driving home at 100km/h on the highway, I adjusted my sun visor and a big hairy spider scuttled off the visor and down my arm. I just kept driving. I think he's probably still in the car somewhere.

Phobias are fixable. Yours is limiting you. You don't need to hang onto it, and you'll be happier with it gone.
posted by flabdablet at 4:40 AM on September 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

jenfullmoon wrote: I have barely driven since I got my license (didn't get a car to go with it) and the one time I drove on a freeway recently my mother, the passenger, screamed at me the entire damn time about everything I was doing wrong. Yes, Mom, this kind of thing is exactly why I didn't get my driver's license at 16, you're such a help. Also, screaming at someone while they are on the freeway is an awesome idea!

FYI, passengers tend to STFU when you pull off onto the shoulder, stop the car, and ask them to please take over the driving duties. (I've used "I'm sorry my driving is not meeting your expectations, how about you take over?) It's impossible to concentrate on the road when there's someone screaming in your ear.

As far as the Asker's driving phobia goes, if it's something that is impacting the Asker's life, the Asker needs to do something about it. Otherwise, there's absolutely nothing wrong with choosing not to be a driver! I grew up driving without a license, but that didn't make me any happier about driving on the freeway. Merging can be scary, especially in heavy traffic, and most especially when people illegally refuse to give way. (at least in my state, people on the highway must make room for you if possible) It doesn't help when people trundle up the on ramp at 20mph under the speed limit, making it even harder to merge.

I got over that fear the same way I got over not being able to talk to people on the phone and only having the courage to utter one word replies to people: Doing it. It was terribly uncomfortable, but it worked.

Some suggestions specific to cars: Find a parking lot without a lot of lighting or other obstructions. Accelerate to increasingly higher speeds and then slam on the brakes. This will get you comfortable with your car's ability to stop itself and what you need to do to keep it going in the direction you'd like it to go while it is stopping. At a reasonably low speed, make increasingly sharp turns. See how the car reacts. As long as you're doing this in a wide open area with no other vehicles around, you won't hurt anything, including yourself.

If you can only do a little at a time, that's OK. What does it matter if it takes a year for you to get comfortable? Once you have done all this and feel how cars react to these sorts of inputs, you'll hopefully have a little more confidence in the "controlling the car" side of things, even if you are still worried about other people trying to kill you.

One other thing that really helps: Look farther down the road, at least 3-5 seconds in front of you. This will significantly reduce the feeling of everything rushing past at super-high speeds. I still occasionally get freaked out when I pass under a bridge or something else that makes it clear how fast I'm really going.

Also, if you have a newish car/access to a newish car, be aware that the vast majority of them (at least the ones bigger than a Fit or a smart car) will keep you from being seriously injured even in ridiculously high speed crashes.
posted by wierdo at 12:07 PM on September 21, 2011

In your previous driving history, did your car(s) work properly? I have a sick fear of driving (phobia is quite accurate) because the car I learned on had some truly dangerous bugs. I won't even say what they are because I don't want to trigger you, but suffice it to say I GET IT. When you have to give it another try, see if it's possible to get access to the newest, most modern car.

I also hear you re: your uncle. My relatives in my hometown condescend quite a bit and chalk up my not driving to my just being generally weird & crazy. The latter may be quite true, but it's separate from not driving!
posted by skbw at 6:17 PM on September 24, 2011

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