Why is learning to drive so hard?
In this episode, I share why I still don’t have my license in my twenties; my anxiety-ridden driving journey; and what I’ve learned about adulthood through driving.
Full transcript and show notes at tiredtwentiespod.com
Nick: Mhm. Mirrors?
Melissa: All right.
Nick: Can you see through all clearly without too much effort? Like you’re not leaning or turning too much?
Nick: Okay. And you feel comfortable holding the wheel?
Nick: All right. So whenever you’re comfortable, we’re just going to roll around a bit.
Nick: So whenever you’re ready hold the brake.
Melissa: Oh shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot.
Nick: That is not the brake.
Melissa: Oh gosh.
Nick: [laughing] So which one is the brake?
Melissa: This, this one is the brake.
Nick: That one is the brake.
Melissa: Oh my God.
Melissa: I’m tired of learning how to drive.
And maybe, I’m also a bit scared.
I’m 23, and I don’t have my drivers’ license. I feel like getting your license is one of those milestones you pass in your teens, not in your 20s. And not reaching that marker does feel a bit frustrating.
I think my reasons behind not having my license are partly practical and partly my anxiety. But I’ve also realized that this huge task of learning to drive may also be a reflection of how your 20s can feel.
Let’s get into it.
This is Tired In My Twenties, a podcast about figuring out adulthood one episode at a time. I’m your host, Melissa Lent.
Listen, why is learning to drive so hard?
I really just want to have my Olivia Rodrigo Drivers’ License moment. You know, without the mourning your past relationship part.
I actually got my permit around the end of high school. The hour-long experience at the DMV was really worth it to have that little card ushering in a rite of passage in this journey of adulthood.
But….and this is embarrassing, but I don’t know if you know this…permits expire. And last year, mine did.
And that meant– I had to go back to the DMV.
Dun dun dun!
I don’t know about you, but the DMV feels what purgatory would be like to me. You walk through two sets of large doors at the entrance, and suddenly you’re in this wide open space with no windows to the outside and blank white walls. Everything feels blank. You get a ticket and wait for your turn. The wooden benches you sit on are like church pews, but they’re just a little too hard to sit on comfortably. You hear the drone of random numbers being called, and it feels like an eternity. And get this, all of the numbers are freaking out of order– so you never know when it’s about to be your turn! It’ll go 27. 52. 3. 104D. Yes, they throw letters in there too!
When I went to get my second permit, it was like a walk of shame. So thank you DMV, for always filling me with dread.
Nick: Just follow their tracks.
Melissa: Oh there’s another car. Oh there’s three cars!
Nick: So here’s the thing. We’re at a stop sign so we’re meant to stop anyway.
Nick: Just make like a soft left and we’ll go towards that exit. We’re not gonna leave but we’re gonna go towards the exit.
Melissa: Okay. Oh, oh he’s moving too.
Nick: It’s okay. Just roll.
Melissa: I had always known learning to drive may take me a little more effort than most people. My first time behind the wheel was in my aunt’s car in Florida the summer after I graduated high school. She wanted to judge if I was going to be an anxious driver. I took some deep breaths before hitting the gas on her white SUV.
Yeah, just kidding. I rolled the car five miles per hour, in a street with no cars, for about five minutes. And what she determined from that, was that I would be good to drive.
You wouldn’t think it from the adventurous spirit I showed that day, but I did feel some trepidation. And now, here I am in my 20s without a license.
Hear me out, though. I do have some practical reasons for not driving. First, my family doesn’t own a car. We haven’t owned a car since I was about 10 years old. My dad and I got into an accident, and afterwards he thought it wasn’t worth it to buy and maintain a car if we had public transportation. That’s the second thing.
I live in New York City, ten minutes away from a subway, and within walking distance of a few buses. My childhood was spent on the 7 train, with my knees on a hard plastic subway seat, my elbows leaning on the small sill of the window, watching the neighborhoods from Corona to Jackson Heights whiz by. In high school, I woke up at 5:30am every morning to get ready to take the bus that would rock me back to sleep for a nap before I got to Middle Village. My mornings in college were spent cramming for Mandarin quizzes in the yellow light of the 6 train. I’ve always felt like I could get to where I wanted to go. When I lived in Manhattan in college, I had zero need for a car. So I just put off even thinking about my license. I had other things to worry about.
But after 2020, when I came back home to Queens at the start of the pandemic, I started to think about it a lot more. My partner Nick offered to take me out in his car. He was hesitant to take me out on the street before I had any official lessons, so we started driving where he learned how to drive.
Because who are you going to kill in a cemetery? I’m only half joking. We go in the daytime, which means I don’t have to swerve past any zombies or anything, but I do have to contend with visitors. It’s usually pretty quiet though. The one we go to has a lot of wide roads, hills, stop signs, and roundabouts that are really good for turning. I don’t just attempt left or right turns, but also U turns and K turns.
Nick: So now, I want you to try to make a K-turn to get out of here.
Melissa: All right so, all the way left.
Melissa: And then out. Oh no.
Nick: It’s okay.
Melissa: And then stop here.
Nick: A little bit further.
Melissa: A little bit further, here.
Nick: Stop, yeah. All the way right.
Melissa: All the way right. Oh crap, there’s a-
Nick: It’s all right. Take your time. Put it into reverse. You’re still in drive.
Melissa: Put it in reverse.
Nick: Yup and then roll. You can give it a bit of gas because you’re in an uphill but it’s fine.
Melissa: Okay. And then go left again?
Nick: Yup. So-
Melissa: In drive?
Nick: Yup. Make sure to turn all the way. You don’t have to be all the way though. You just have to be not turned to the right. Because we’re going to pull up to that stop sign and just keep driving around.
Melissa: Okay and then I straighten out.
Nick: And get on the right side of the road. Yup.
Melissa: And get on the right side of the road. All right. How was that?
Nick: Pretty good.
Melissa: Okay, let’s go…
Melissa: I did have one particularly stressful experience though. Nick and I were on the cemetery road, when I had to make a sharp turn. There were a lot of things I had to do at once. Signal, put more gas into the turn, turn the steering wheel much more than I was, look in my mirrors. I got overwhelmed, ended up putting too much speed, aaaand…ran over a headstone.
Yeah, I ran over some poor old guy’s grave, may he rest in peace. To be fair though, he didn’t just have a regular headstone. His grave was mad boujee, he had a statue and also along with it a huge headstone, and the grave also had a covering made of solid stone. That guy was good, okay?
And as Nick says, They’re already dead. You can’t kill them again.
We also go to a parking lot in a big park in Queens called Forest Park. That’s where I practice speed because usually it’s pretty empty. I also practice parking there with cones or next to other parked cars.
Nick: All right, ready?
Melissa: Uh, what, what are we doing?
Nick: We’re going to back up.
Melissa: We’re going to back up?
Melissa: Okay…wait there’s cones there.
Nick: I know.
Melissa: You put cones there?
Nick: Yeah you’ll see why in a minute.
Melissa: Ahhhh, okay. Wait, should I hold the brake?
Nick: Hold the brake.
Melissa: How am I supposed to see the cones?
Nick: They’re not in your way, don’t worry.
Melissa: Sometimes I’ve spotted a few other people there learning to drive; imagine us all going at 15 miles an hour in a circle for half an hour. It’s thrilling, really.
I’m always wondering; where are they on your driving journey? Are you also trying to learn how to roll over a pothole? But one by one, their cars leave the lot, and I’ll never know. Godspeed, brethren.
I feel that I am a bit anxious when I drive. I ask a lot of questions; I need constant reassurance and guidance from Nick. I tend to move slower, and stop often.
Nick: It’s better to keep a steady pace than changing your speed too much.
Melissa: Oh, okay. Um, how’s this?
Nick: Good. You wanna try going a little faster?
Melissa: I’m already at 10. How much faster do you want me to go? [laughing]
Nick: As fast as you feel comfortable going.
Melissa: This is as fast as I feel comfortable going!
Nick: [laughs] Okay so we’ll pull out at this point and then we’re gonna switch around and we’re gonna do the other way around.
Melissa: But I don’t think I’m extreme. Nick says he’s seen more anxious drivers than me, which I’m shocked by. He thinks I’m a more “protective” driver, which is apparently like a defensive driver but a bit more fearful.And I can see that.
Look, if I was on a road with no other cars and no other people, just me, I would not even be one bit scared to drive at all. I know I can get better at turning and parking. Anything that I feel like I can control, I have no problem with, even if I’m not an expert right now.
It’s the things outside of my control that make me feel anxious. I feel nervous when pedestrians walk across the road, or when there’s a car driving near me. And then I think about how packed the city’s roads are, with some really reckless drivers, and busy intersections where multiple things are happening at once, with people trying to go straight, or turn, or merge, or wait for pedestrians, and a bunch of other things. And that’s where I feel scared.
I don’t know what other people are going to do. And then what if I make the wrong move, and then I crash? I’m afraid of not being fully in control of what happens to me on the road.
I started to think about that more, and it made me realize that learning to drive is a lot like being in your 20s. You’re on a journey. You have agency over your own actions. But you don’t have that over other people’s actions, or random events that may happen. While you’re driving, just like in life, you have to react to the conditions of “the road.” In the winter, ice may make the road more slippery, and that means you have to be cautious. Rush hour means you have to move slower. Aggressive drivers near you mean you have to be more guarded.
But driving is one of those rites of passage that further your independence. It’s a great skill to have because you never know when you’re going to need it. It also gives you that degree of freedom where you have more options on where you can go, how you can get there, and what you can do. You could take a cross-country road trip. You can get your errands done more easily. Or if you’re like me, you think about how if there’s a zombie apocalypse, you’ll have a way to get away from all of the zombies faster.
What I’m learning about driving and what I’m learning about being in my 20s is the same: you have to let go of some of that control and believe that everything will turn out all right in the end. And the more you get behind the wheel, the more you experience, the more you’ll be able to handle what comes your way.
My boyfriend is a good driving mentor. He is very patient with me, and explains the same things to me over and over in great detail, which I appreciate. Sometimes we are learning the same lessons again and again. But he tells me that he was just like me starting out–driving slowly, overchecking his mirrors, messing up his turns. He’s shown me what he’s learned and how he’s been able to become a better driver. I feel like we should all learn from each other in general in our 20s, and help each other fill in those gaps. But also help each other feel a little less alone.
Melissa: Am I straight now?
Melissa: Okay. [laughs]
Nick: So keep going. Now turn right. Not too much. Still more right.
Nick: If you wanna make adjustments you can do a little shimmy shimmy but just let yourself roll into it. And try to get close to that cone in the front.
Nick: Don’t hit it but. Okay, park. All right, let’s see.
Melissa: All right. [exiting car] So, I got pretty close to the cone.
Nick: So you lined up great. You got just enough space to come out and if you close it [closes door] you got just enough space to maneuver in. Perfect distance, perfect distance. You’re slightly this way, but that’s fine.
Melissa: Yeah, I see that.
Nick: The bigger concern is that.
Nick: There’s, whenever driving there’s five things to watch at once. So it’s just, if you’re ever feeling like you can’t handle all five then just go slower so that five becomes four you know what I mean? Like just take your time with it. It’s okay to go slower as long as you’re being safe.
Melissa: I hope you give yourself permission to, literally and metaphorically, learn to be in the driver’s seat at your own speed. There will be bumps, accidents, frustration, and anxiety.
But there is also glorious, glorious freedom.
Also, I know getting your license is seen as one of those coming-of-age experiences, mostly in your teen years. But I want to tell you it’s okay if it’s taking you longer. It’s actually okay if you never get your license at all. It’s an arbitrary marker we assign to signify stages of life or maturity. The fact is, learning to drive has nothing to do with how mature you are or how much of an adult you are. Trust me, I’ve seen these aggressive drivers on the road. Your growth as a person is not, and should not, be tied to a piece of plastic in your wallet.
I want 2022 to be the year I get my license. If these wild drivers in New York City can get their license, why can’t I? But if it takes me longer than that, that’s okay too. It's a process, one that takes time, and one that I want to embrace.
I hope you join me in taking your time, and getting to your destination at your own pace.
Melissa: All right so, mirrors. I will put my foot on the brake.
Melissa: And then I will put this in drive.
Nick: Mhm. There you go. Are you comfortable?
Melissa: Yeah, I am comfortable.
Nick: Okay. So set off and start rolling.
Melissa: I’m rolling.
Tired In My Twenties is an independent podcast produced, edited and hosted by me, Melissa Lent! Get detailed show notes at tiredtwentiespod.com and subscribe to my newsletter at tiredinmytwenties.substack.com.
Music and sound effects for this episode come from Artlist. Or they were recorded by me. Special thanks to Isabel Gouse, Nicholas Lume and Jaxson McLennan.
Thank you for listening to Tired in My Twenties, and join us next time to keep figuring it out together.