Facing your fears at 40Women on both sides of 40 talk about the joys, challenges, and surprises that come with this milestone birthday.
By Emily Listfield
What mature 40-something is afraid to drive? Um, that would be me.
A few months after my 17th birthday, I was in a horrendous car accident. I wasn't driving, and it was no one's fault — but on a dark, rainy night on an unlit country road, my boyfriend and I descended a 40-foot ravine upside down. Luckily, except for concussions and some stitches, we were both all right. For months after, I shook just getting into the passenger's seat. I had already gotten my learner's permit, but the prospect of driving now terrified me.
Over time, the fear hardened into a real phobia. Driving, such an integral part of the American lifestyle and psyche, seemed completely beyond me. After college, I moved back to my native New York City, where it is easy to navigate by mass transit. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed not only by my inability to drive but also by my failure to conquer the fear that was at its root. To a large degree, that anxiety informed my self-image. (Hi, my name is Emily, and I don't drive.) The fact that I couldn't bring myself to attempt getting behind the wheel surely represented a weakness in my character.
At 30, determined to vanquish my fear of driving, I took lessons. With my instructor by my side, I crawled through the streets of New York, never going faster than 3 miles a hour — and even then I was white-knuckling it. Still, I managed to get my license. Three months later, I got married — and my husband (at my urging) did all of the driving for the next decade.
A few weeks before my 40th birthday, I got a writing assignment that required me to go to California. Though I had traveled on business alone before, I had stuck to cities where cabs were available. (Never mind necessity; fear is the true mother of invention.) This time, the person I had to interview could be reached only by driving. I asked my husband to join me and tried to sell it as a mini vacation (my mom would watch our daughter), but we both knew what I was really angling for: a chauffeur.
Though he was swamped at work, my husband agreed. (He had, over the years, tried with a heroic degree of patience to encourage me to drive, until finally, to my relief, he gave up.) I felt guilty — and worse, childlike and ridiculous. I had never imagined that I would be so dependent at this stage in my life. I had to conquer this fear once and for all. I decided the best 40th-birthday present I could give myself was another round of driving lessons. My instructor assured me that he'd had "cases" like me before and had gotten them over their drive-o-phobia. I so wanted to be his next success story.
A week before my birthday, my husband and I flew to San Francisco. We had agreed that he would stay in the city visiting with friends while I drove the 25 miles north to do the interview. As I took the rental-car keys from him, every cell in my body was urging me to say, "No, please, I can't do it, you drive." But I was determined to enter the next decade of my life free of this absurd fear. As I made it over the Golden Gate Bridge, a wary optimism began to settle in. I blasted the radio, feeling very powerful, very "I am woman, hear me roar." The future opened up before me, mine for the taking.
That should be the end of the story. Victory. Driving lesson learned. But if it's possible for 50 miles on a sunny California road to leave you with post-traumatic stress disorder, that's what happened. Once I got back into town and parked the car, I broke into a cold sweat. All those cars speeding down the highway, all that potential loss of control — I never wanted to do it again. I limped into our hotel lobby and ordered a (huge) glass of wine while I waited for my husband to return. Yes, I had done it — and the fear was now stronger than ever.
I had imagined the evening would be a celebration of my newfound freedom. Instead, all I wanted was to crawl into bed and hide from the world. This, of course, would ruin both my and my husband's night. I realized suddenly that I had a choice, not just about the evening but about my life. Yes, the wine was kicking in, but that doesn't make the realization any less valid: I could continue to allow my fear to eat away at me, or I could accept it as just one component of my personality, put it in its place, and go have some fun.
In that instant, an enormous weight lifted and the fear lost all power over me — for in the moment of accepting it, I was fully accepting myself for the first time. Can't drive? So what! I'd rather laugh off this foible than grant it dominion. At 40, I had earned the right not to try to fix everything about myself, not to hide or be embarrassed by the idiosyncrasies that make me me. Sitting there as dusk began to settle, I understood that real confidence would come not in conquering every last challenge in life (an impossibility anyway) but rather in accepting myself in all my multifaceted, silly, and flawed humanity. I had won over the fear after all. The future really was mine for the taking. It always had been. And that truly was worth celebrating.
Next: REDBOOK readers reveal what scares them most.
Our fears, ourselves — REDBOOK readers reveal what scares them most.
"I first experienced a fear of heights six years ago, while perched atop my parents' garage, replacing some shingles. I was pregnant and had my first taste of vertigo and haven't been on a ladder since. I feel a little sheepish about having an irrational fear, and I don't want to pass it on to my kids. So I fake it when I can, like the time I went on a lighthouse tour with my son's Cub Scout pack. On the other hand, I feel it's a sign of maturity for me to have human weaknesses. I'd love to be able to do it all — but for now, that's not going to include taking my feet off the ground!"
Beth Seiser, 43, Eastham, MA
"I have a terrible fear of driving. I didn't get my license until I was 20, when I had a young child and needed to get around while my husband was at work. I've driven only locally and have panic attacks when driving on a busy freeway or into a big city. I have ways to deal with my phobia in town, like memorizing routes and never straying from them, and going far out of my way to avoid busy streets. It's frustrating because my limited 'comfort zone' curbs my involvement in great opportunities in my nearby city of Houston. I know I'm missing out."
Stacey Nerdin, 35, Katy, TX
"After I saw Jaws 3-D with my younger brother, I became frightened of sharks. I worried they'd get dropped in the pool while I was swimming, I hyperventilated from the fear while scuba diving, and Bruce from Finding Nemo sent me into tears when he was on the screen. I have yet to find a way to conquer that fear, but I did move to Colorado to get away from the ocean. My friends joke that even though I live in a landlocked state, I'm probably convinced there are mountain sharks, just waiting for me to put my guard down! I won't discount that theory."
Suzanne Bastien, 35, Aurora, CO
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