The Passenger Mentality

 “From the margins, the world looks different.”

-Kim Addonizio

I have lived the majority of my mobile life with a passenger mentality.

Passenger Mentality n.:

1. The state of mind connected to riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle.

I never really gave a thought or glance to those who drove me or how they drove me (excluding instances of blatant errors or extreme recklessness). It only mattered that they were moving me, that we were going somewhere else. In the meantime, I kept to my windows and the world wandering by them, I indulged in the music and more often than not, conversation. I would ask questions and tell stories, quote concepts I had learned and stray factoids, always attempting to engage the driver in my ceaseless thoughts. Naturally, while blathering on and watching out the window, I would also try to share the sights I saw with these drivers. Of course, that usually merited the exasperated reply of “Lauren, I’m driving.” However, despite the frequency of that response, I have discovered that this state of passenger being also extends to licensed drivers when they themselves become passengers. My brother directs attention to peripheral skies while my mother motions to the shoulder buffaloes and exclaims, “Oh look! They’re out!” There seems to be something infectiously speculative about being a passenger, something so mentally encapsulating that it closes off any recollection of the driver’s seat and its rules.

Passenger Mentality n.:

2. A mental state of being in which a vehicle’s passenger asks the driver to look at, do, listen to, or understand one or more things while the vehicle is in motion, neglecting to recall the complex, involved, and focus-mandating nature of operating a motor vehicle.

What makes the phenomena so fascinating for me now is how thoroughly and even defensively, I embraced it. I knew there was a state beyond it, one more conducive to my natural demeanor, but still I refused to relinquish my seat and the skies that chased it. I am a perfectionist with exactingly specific standards and a near non-existent tolerance for any failure to meet them once they are understood. Yet, there I sat, contentedly absent any control, strapped into a metal cage careening down the asphalt at upwards of 65 MPH. Why was I okay with this? I suppose it comes back to fear, to a carefully crafted cowardice. Initially, driving was the adult thing, and like a job, I had no need to worry about it let alone do it. But gradually, it became a peer thing, a thing I was required for the sake of normalcy to do. Then suddenly, kids almost a decade younger than me were doing it, and their eyes quietly questioned me when my baby brother boated me about. But still, I did not want to do it, I could not do it; I did not want to give up the soothing psychological block, I could not give up the protection of my passenger mentality. If I wasn’t the one driving then nothing bad could happen, not when someone else was in control, not when I didn’t have to act or think. Like my parents who had made my world move for years, like teachers and babysitters, like engineers and civil servants, the Driver was an infallible guardian angel with safety net wings and unblinking eyes.

Passenger Mentality n.:

3. A state of denial in which the passenger loses touch with the realities of riding in a vehicle and relinquishes complete control to the driver.

The human brain is impressively fond of clinging to superstitious delusions for comfort. A locked door will only ever be unlocked by family members late at night. Sirens are never used by bad guys. Doctors know all the answers and never miss the mark. The driver of your car knows what he’s doing. What’s truly impressive in my case, is that this protective barrier of passenger belief survived one rear-ending, two black ice spinouts, one mirror-mangling sideswipe (with my window down), and countless collisions with snow banks. I clung to my uncharacteristically firm faith in The Driver like an Old World talisman. That is until, after a hundred visions of death and dismemberment, a thousand excuses, too many years and too little practice, I passed my driving test on December 7, 2012 and was forced to transfer that foundationless faith to myself. Needless to say, something that intangibly fragile did not survive the move. It dropped and cracked open, exposing how hollow it had always been.

Passenger Mentality n.:

4. The antithetical state of being of a driver.

It did not help that the test was dangerously simplistic. No driving on the highway, no U-Turns, no navigation, no parking (let alone parallel), no advanced maneuvers of any kind. After a two and a half hour wait (with an appointment) it was just ten quick minutes down the street, into a neighborhood and back again. I was as relieved as I was appalled. In a generational age of constant phone calls and tenacious texting, an age absent Driver’s Ed. in schools or adequate parental instruction outside of them, this was all the D.M.V. tested would-be drivers on? This was all it took to gain a license to operate high-speed, multi-ton machinery on a road with hundreds and thousands of other drivers every day? No wonder so many advocate defensive driving; the highway has become a battlefield of well-armed but poorly trained soldiers and friendly fire abounds.

Driver Mentality n.:

1. The belief of a driver that no one around him or her knows how to properly operate a motor vehicle.

Paradoxically, I have managed to take this in stride (mile markers). I have begun applying the same exacting perfectionism and control to driving as I do to the rest of my life, ritualizing it into reflex. Open the garage door, slip into the car, place purse on the passenger seat and phone in the cup holder. Turn engine on and simultaneously put seatbelt on, check gas level and tire pressure while releasing the emergency brake, and if it’s night time, turn on headlights. Glance in the mirrors and over a shoulder before backing up and continuing to look in the mirrors. Shut the garage.  A dozen tiny tasks woven repetitively into a fluid blanket of habit.

Driver Mentality n.:

2. The mental state of making a machine’s movements match the driver’s.

Practice breeds perfection. I am not a great driver, but I am a good driver who is getting better. I still can’t parallel park (even with a co-pilot), backing up is like going through the looking-glass in a hall of mirrors, and I require a two-car-sized cushion of empty space in front of me at all times. The tension is ebbing, though and it’s getting easier. I don’t make thoughtless mistakes that would make mother’s gasps turn to taut shrieks. I don’t forget the little things, like turn signals and checking both ways. I don’t grip the wheel so tightly that my fingers pulse when I finally release it. I don’t turn the wheel when I check my blind spots. But most of all, I don’t hate it. I actually like driving alone, thinking and moving alone. So long as I know the roads and which way to take them home, I don’t panic, I don’t fear, I don’t feel any differently that I did before I buckled up. Time is eroding my passenger mentality, making it into something more tangible, more fluid and adaptable, turning the rigid rocks of false belief into soft sands that can roll with the tides.

In a way, I think it’s fitting that my first completed goal, my first learned life skill, was obtaining my driver’s license. After all, driving is all about movement, about momentum, about going forward and controlling the car and yourself. So here’s to having the drive and knowing what to do with it.

Driver Mentality n.:

3. The mental state in which a driver takes control of the vehicle and uses its momentum to move towards his or her intended destination.

Driving Me Crazy

Almost a decade ago when I was 15 years old, all my friends were getting their driver’s licenses and permits. Naturally, wanting to stay up with the in-crowd, I bounded over to my parents tail-a-waggin’ and asked if I could get my permit. The answer, contrary to what they say now, was a resounding “NO.” I asked more than a few times before eventually losing interest. After all, my best friend had just gotten hers, so, ultimately, I had little need for one.

The years slipped by unnoticed and suddenly I was 18 and Dad was demanding to know when I would drive. This was a couple of years after I had begun consciously collecting phobias. I thought about his question for a moment and realized just how thoroughly the concept terrified me. I had been so removed from thinking about it that the mere idea had me hiding behind walls of aggressive dismissal.

How could I, a girl who barely controlled her mood swings, let alone her life, be expected to control a ton or more of moving metal at high speeds on highways and back roads, bullied by the traffic teeming around her? It was too much.

But why did it scare me?

There’s a car downside up. There’s a girl half outside it, half in. There’s a girl, her insides half outside. She’s a puddle on a low tide beach of glass cubes and gravel, shining in a sunset of flashing blues and reds. It’s harder to hear than to feel. Everything muffled by her pained pulse. There’s a man, his edges indistinct, blurring into the blinding lights behind him. He doesn’t understand that she doesn’t understand.

He asks again, touching her. Did he ask if it hurt? Stranger danger! The childhood chant summons itself into the hollow hole of her mind. She wants to laugh. There’s not enough air to laugh. Why? What was on top of her? A glance up gained comprehension. The door was on her, off its hinge. The door was off its hinges, in her.

“Miss, you’ve been in an accident. Try not to move.”

Why does driving scare me?

Because my brain never stops writing. But rather than be a one trick pony, my innovative little brain started writing excuses on top of its frightful fiction, each as logical as the last.

“I’ll get a license when I go to college.”

“I’ll practice this summer when the roads are clear.”

“I can’t drive the Jeep while she’s using it to get to work.”

“I can’t practice if you keep loaning the car out.”

“I’ll get it when I have a car.”

Between 18 and 22, I drove a grand total of ten times. I hated it. It set flaming nails to my nerves and pounded them in with each passing car. How could I be expected to survive? An irrational fear that I would die in an accident at 23 (spoiler alert: I’m 24) tightened the tension and my grip on the wheel.

Fear mixed with a wounded pride when my brother got his license at 16. My brother is four years younger than I am. Worse still, was the discovery that of all my teachers, he was by far the best when it came to driving. Despite our fights and differences of opinion, we somehow managed to click while driving. It was a Goldilocks kind of thing. My mom was too hot, gasping, grimacing, gripping the door, and crying “Careful!” at every move I made. My dad was too cold, disinterested, ambivalent, and inattentive whenever we drove, more focused on his phone than the road. But my siblings were just right. My sister calmly corrected and talked, pointing out that I was doing fine and my fears were unjustified, though perhaps she was a touch too supportive. My brother was laid back but impressively aware, keeping up conversation while course correcting and offering advice I’d never heard before (“Don’t turn the wheel back into place, loosen your grip and let it slide back on its own so you don’t overcorrect.”). However, no matter how “just right” the meal is, it can’t last.

Eventually, our different mindsets brought our conflicts to the road as well. Like my dad, my brother lacks the ability to empathize with my worldviews. He doesn’t understand why I don’t just drive down and get my license. His logic (or lack thereof) is “Just do it.” Those words still make me cringe, regardless of what they’re referring to. Just do it. What on this planet or any other is that simple? More to the point, how could someone tell that to a person who was quite literally prone to anxiety attacks at the thought of driving and expect said person to not be offended? Offended is putting it lightly; I was livid. Nothing frustrates me quite so much as being misunderstood, and for him to think that it was so simple proved that he had misunderstood a great deal.

That said, months later I now stand on the verge of “just doing it.” As of August 25th I have my own car and drive to school with Mom almost every week. I’ve conquered driving back roads and highways, I’ve mastered not turning the wheel when I check my blind spots, and I’ve even parked in the garage next to Mom’s car without hitting it. Parking in general and backing up still pose a bit of a problem, though they are far from the monoliths they once were. Admittedly, I’ve never once attempted to parallel park. Presently, my issue, the last lap keeping me from the awkward photo-finish that is any form of identification, is yet another concept: driving alone. I’m comfortable driving now, to a degree, but so much of that has to do with the person in my passenger seat, the person who saves me from mind slips and calls out “Red light!” or “Blind spot!” the person who plays the pivotal role of failsafe, of safety net. I know that when I’m finally forced to do it alone, the anxieties will return, the unsteady lack of confidence that can be all too fatal.

I promised them the test at the end of October. I promised them the test when I got my car. I promised them so many things so many times. I promised myself. I feel the excuses behind me, see them pointing out exit strategies and pushing me towards the escape hatch.

But I have a lot to do.

But it’s Halloween next week.

But it just snowed.

But I am busy.

But I can’t do it right now.

But I can’t parallel park.

But I can drive.