Face Yo Fears, Etc: Learner’s Permit Edition

by Maxwell Tielman


Like any good overly-neurotic male of the homosexual persuasion, I have a lot of irrational fears. Some of these fears—like my inability to keep windows open in the summer on the off-chance that a bat might fly in and give me rabies in my sleep—are so outrageous and incurable that I’ve pretty much resigned myself to living with them. Others, like my slightly more logical fear of flying on small planes, are more rooted in reality and thus, to some extent, able to be faced. Of all of my theoretically conquerable fears—the fear of needles, the fear of public speaking, the fear of Julia Roberts’ teeth—the one that has continued to haunt and cripple me throughout my post-adolescent life is my perpetual fear of driving.

There are a number of reasons why, a good ten years after I’ve been the legal driving age, I have yet to get a driver’s license. One is the fact that I have very generous, patient friends. Another is the frequent, panicked dreams I have in which I drive off the road into a ravine and wake up shaking and screaming.  Then there is the fact that, having lived in the greater New York City area for the last eight years, I’ve really had no reason to own a car, let alone drive. Also—let’s be real. I’m just lazy. Wait in line at the DMV? Ha!

Part of me likes to take the high road in this situation and consider my heretofore lack of a driver’s license as a public service. Indeed—anybody who has ever seen me operate heavy machinery (e.g. my coffee maker or the remote to the Apple TV) knows that my lack of attention span or manual dexterity does not a winning driving combination make. So—for the past decade, I have been able to mindlessly, blissfully convince myself that my inability to drive is not just not a problem, but also a sign of my selfless generosity towards mankind. I’m basically the Angelina Jolie of vehicular restraint, you guys.


All of this was fine and dandy until I unwittingly agreed to move upstate with my fiancé—to a tiny town in the Hudson Valley. I’m not sure how I managed to continue this I-Don’t-Ever-Need-To-Drive charade for so long, but our sudden lack of pedestrian-friendly accommodations found it crumbling faster than our home’s water-damaged plaster walls. Not only did my lack of license prevent me from having any independence whatsoever—it also drove my fiancé (bless his heart) absolutely crazy. “Hi, honey—I know you’re covered in sawdust and you’ve been slaving away on our house all day, but can you drive me to the mall? I want a smoothie.” You can see how this wasn’t going to work.

So—after a good six months of prodding and procrastination, I finally dragged myself to the Ulster County DMV to sign up for my learner’s permit. And you know what? IT WAS SO EASY. I understand that most DMV experiences are akin to wading through the fiery lava swamps of Hell, but if small towns are good for anything, it’s easy-breezy DMV experiences. Kingston DMV FTW, y’all. I walked in, walked up to the counter, took a five-minute multiple choice test, got my picture taken and BAM! Watch out world—Max is ready to hit the road!

And hit the road I did! At first, I had a normal level of new-driver trepidation (much to my poor fiancé’s dismay). I refused to drive any faster than 20mph, I stopped suddenly at anything that looked remotely like a red light, and I hugged the right side of the road like an overly clingy baby. This trepidation, however, was quickly erased as soon as I managed not to kill anybody after one day behind the wheel. Soon, with my confidence inflated way beyond my actual ability, I was zooming all around town—from Starbucks to Home Depot to Sam’s Club for bulk toilet paper. Although each of these stops would have been absolutely mundane and even burdensome under normal circumstances, the thrill of driving lent a certain excitement and even danger to these otherwise quotidian tasks. I was not just going to the grocery store; I was traveling to the grocery store behind the wheel of a TWO TON DEATH MACHINE. This newfound, unbridled independence and the notion that my own life was in my hands made for a potent, intoxicating combination—one that was both exhilarating and wildly empowering. I FELT ALIVE and NOBODY was going to get in my way.

Granted, being drunk on power is little better than being actually drunk—no good for driving.  Luckily, I have the self-awareness and wherewithal to slooooow myself down (I am a self-proclaimed neurotic, after all). Now, I have more or less settled into my new driver ways—still a little bit apprehensive but getting more and more comfortable with it every day. The lesson? Fears: they can be conquered. And when they are, you usually become a better (and AWESOMER) person. —Max

Here—I made a cute little graphic about it:

Design*Sponge | Fears: They can be conquered!

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  • In addition to today’s “Biz Ladies” profile (with the awesome Amelie Mancini), I really enjoyed this as well! Thanks for sharing your story with the readers of D*S, and for reminding us all to embrace seemingly scary opportunities.



    Ps. Don’t freak out, when the day comes that you’re the one behind the wheel and you get into a fender-bender. When that moment comes, as it happens to almost all of us, just breathe and remember:

    “If it won’t matter in five years from now, it doesn’t matter.”

  • Ugh I have a fear of giving blood and my New Year’s resolution year after year has been to do so. And then I never do. Maybe this will be the year!

  • I am supposed to get my learner’s permit this spring and I’m turning 36. And what became a standoff with my father back in the day, turned into a “no time” issue and now, I’m a total inconvenience to myself! Congrats!!

  • Ahh I am in the same position! I did try taking my driving test when I was 17 and was so nervous I didn’t pass and then never went back! Part of it had to do with living in cities where public transit was excellent so I never needed it or a car. It has, however, turned into a full-fledged fear. I plan on getting my permit before my 28th birthday this October. Fingers crossed!

  • I also have a fear of flying in small planes. And driving in general. I’m a bad driver and don’t like driving big cars. Then we moved to the Hudson Valley as well, and Mr. Brinson bought the BIGGEST SUV EVER for all his photo gear. I’ve driven twice in 4 months. The only good that will come out of the BIGGEST SUV EVER is I can cram a bunch of antiques in the back. Congrats on driving!! It is kinda nice (if you don’t have a big SUV). You’ve inspired me. Next hardware store run, maybe I’ll drive?

  • When I was in my 20s, I always said I didn’t need to know how to drive…but that I’d definitely get my license before I turned 30 just in case. Well, now I’m 38, and I still have NEVER driven a car. I’m terrified, and it sucks. It just gets worse and worse the longer I wait. Well done, Max. I’m really proud of you. xx

  • Just wanted to comment and compliment you on your wonderful writing. Very easy and fun to read. I actually failed my driver’s license exam 3 times before passing because I was such a scared driver, but the day I got my license I started driving with a lot more confidence! (In the Netherlands there is no such thing as a learner’s permit, you are only allowed to drive with an instructor in a clearly signed car, so each lesson was kind of a performance exam in my mind – which did not work well for my nerves.) Good luck on your driving adventures and looking forward to reading more posts!

  • Oh I can totally relate to this post! I called driving My Last Real Phobia :p Part of me thinks it’s because I was taught to drive in the hellish country mountain roads in Puerto Rico, but even after I moved to FL it took me 6 years to get the courage. But I’ll tell you, since then, as trite as it may sound, I believe I can do anything if I want to learn. *happy dance*

  • Congrats!

    I learned to drive at 14 in a junkyard. Sounds totally country bumpkin but it wasn’t at all. My step-dad brought me to work with him one day, handed me the keys to some big ol’ Lincoln boat and basically said, “Have at it.” The rows of junked cars weren’t very long so I could only get up to about 20 MPH but then I’d slow down and just crash on purpose. It was a really great learning experience. I’ve had the pedal to the metal ever since!

    Just remember confidence is key and a nervous driver is a lethal weapon. You can’t always trust that the person you just slowly meandered out in front of, will be paying enough attention not to slam into the back of you. Brake when you need to brake but also give it gas when you need to get goin’!

  • I’m in this exact situation, learning to drive a good 5 or 6 years after most of my peers learned to. Unfortunately, I’m not lucky enough to have access to public transportation, so my need be able to freely go where I choose is really starting to hit the desperate level. I’ll try to follow by your example! Getting out there and running errands sounds like an adventure to me.

    (But really, between this essay and the OCD essay, you seem to be my neurotic brain twin.)

  • This post… it speaks to me. I like knowing I wasn’t the only crazy non-driving 20-something out there. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 27; I live in a city with decent public transit and was completely afraid of driving. Bless my husband for teaching me 90-degree backing.

  • I’ve always had a fear of driving, too. The only problem for me was that I grew up in a teeny tiny town that was 30 miles from anything other than a grocery store and a gas station, so having a license WAS a big deal. Because of my fear, I didn’t even start practicing until I was 16 (which was unheard of!) and got my license at 17. Even now, after 8 years of daily driving, I keep a fearful reverence toward my “two ton death machine” in the back of my mind. It makes me a safer driver, at least :)

  • Forget the driving part. I’ll never open my windows during the summer again!

  • the next hamish bowles right here! obsessed with you! keep these coming!

    want to hang out??

  • I’m totally afraid of needles too… Congratulations on conquering a fear! Thank you for sharing your experience with us, your writing is really a pleasure to read! :D

  • This was refreshing! I’m 27 and though I’ve been driving for 12 years, I am terrified of driving in the city… and I live in a city now. I’ve recently been taking small trips, and it’s really freeing to conquer my fear! I’m glad to know It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who preferred to be chauffeured :) Way to go Max!

  • Congratulations, sir! I lived in S.F. and East Bay, where public transportation was easy and parking not so, and didn’t get my license until age 24, then hardly used it until I moved to the California’s Central Valley around age 30. So, to all of you on the fence, you can do it! I think the best part is to be able to travel 0n my own to more remote locations without having to beg a ride. The worst part: parallel parking in front of an outdoor cafe with patrons watching.

  • I’m about to start learning to drive too. I have my first lesson tomorrow afternoon and I’m trying not to think about it too much. I need to get a license for work and my boss keeps helpfully (and mostly humorously) pointing out times when it would be convenient for me to know how to drive.

    Congratulations on facing your fear. You’re awesome.

  • I’ve kind of started to concur my fear of snakes! I took baby steps by going to the pet shop & being in the same room as one – I was really freaked out but I did it (and one didn’t escape and come for me!) and even though I dreamt about them that night, I feel better about it and myself! Well done for facing your fear! :D

  • Bravo! I grew up in suburbia and knew I would be heading to the city right after HS grad – so no need for a license! Several cities later and several attempts (full on panic trying to learn in So. Calif.) at trying to learn to drive I finally mastered it when I moved to the Catskills age 30. I was a mess but pushed thru it – it is a great freedom to have, just jumping in the car. I still get scared driving to new places but continue to push thru it. Congrats to you and like the previous readers posted – you can do it!

  • hahaha! too cute! i started driving the NYS Thruway when i was 16 (22 years ago!) and i’ve never killed anyone! good luck, max! by the way, the best radio station for cruising around the hudson valley is 100.1 WDST FM, because david bowie is PERFECT for curing the boredom on Rt 9 from saugerties to kingston! good luck and happy trails to you!

  • I just got my license six months ago after not having one for fifteen years. I wanted my realestate license- so had to get my drivers license first. My experiences were similar + we only have a stick shift in Seattle… passed the driving test by the skin of my teeth! Cheers to independence!!

  • I was deathly afraid of driving too and then I found out that I wasn’t alone which was comforting but as you accurately described, it was not a long-term solution to have my husband drive me everywhere. I actually got my license and was going to buy me a car but I freaked out at the last min and didn’t actually do it till years later when I asked myself, if we had kids and there was an emergency, how am I going to take them to the hospital? So I told myself, I can do it. We went and got me a small car, I started just driving around the area, going to the grocery store and slowly expanding further and that sense of freedom was awesome! That graphic you made is spot on and pink is my fav color. Is there any way I can use it as a screen saver on my computer?

  • HAHA, you are hilarious! I can totally relate to everything you mentioned– particularly Julia Roberts’ teeth (scary right?) I grew up in a small town, so I had to face my fear of driving early on. Much to the town’s terror, I got my license when I was just fifteen. But it’s funny, because my parents had such confidence in me, which helped me have confidence in myself now that I look back on it. Anyway, best of luck!

  • I live in Dallas and I never heard of someone not getting their drivers license until their 30’s. People here get their license as soon as humanly possible. Dallas is a scary place to drive but once you learn the ropes it is an exhilarating experience to zoom by others in the glittering lights of downtown. But i agree with the others, nervous drivers are the most dangerous. Drive cautiously but confidently, and please at least drive the speed limit! – my pet peeve.
    Good Luck!

  • YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH I NEEDED TO READ THIS! I, too, have a huge fear of driving which is why I’m 30 years old and still only have a learner’s permit. I have also managed to avoid driving since living in cities most of my adult life, and my boyfriend constantly (but gently) reminds me that I should get on it. I’m really moved an inspired by your story and it’s also one of my goals to get my license this year so THANK YOU!

  • Your prose in this essay is delightful and hilarious. I also sympathize because I learned how to drive in high school, but then went to college in Chicago, and now I’m in grad school in a relatively walkable city and alas, haven’t regularly driven a car in nearly 7 years! Ooops. I really need to get on that. You have given me some motivation to visit the DMV!!

  • Max-your post could not have come at a better time. I’m getting my license tomorrow. I’m 30 and on my third permit. Fear and laziness prevented me from following through. I can’t wait to accomplish this goal and celebrate my independence.

  • I’m turning 25 next week and can count the number of times I’ve been behind a wheel on one hand. This is pushing me to not make it such a big deal and just buck up and get it done :)

  • Thanks for writing this. It makes me feel better. After living in NYC my entire adult life, I never learned to drive. Now I live in atlanta and it’s ridiculous that I don’t drive. My fears have really gotten in my way and I wish I had done it years ago. I’m afraid of driving and the actual drivers test! Ugh, I hate tests, especially with someone judging me. I used to have a fear of needles the same way, major phobia. Then I found out the only way I could have kids was to inject myself with a needle every single day while pregnant! My desire for children helped me overcome my fear and I even learned to do it myself. You mentioning your other fears helped me to see that connection and put it in perspective. Thanks for sharing. I really plan to get my license this year (I’m much older than you:). Good luck!

  • Max,
    Thanks for an amusing and honest piece about facing your fears. I can relate, having spent my 20’s in Manhattan where there was no need for a car. In my early 30’s I hired a series of the most quirky instructors to teach me how to drive, among them a sweet lady who liked to sing along to tape recorded songs from her homeland while I navigated an empty parking lot, and another who made me drive through the rough parts of my city while telling me tales that suggested he had a side business as a “coyote.” On the day of my third attempt to pass the test, the tail light on my third instructor’s car went out and the tester almost refused to let me leave the DMV lot. But, in the end, I got my license and now have a long safe driving record. Congrats on your road to independence!

  • BRAVO! and drive safe!!! p.s. love design content on d.s., but LOVE the new personal posts ; )

  • Thank you for that post Max. I like it when I am reminded that there are others who don’t drive, like me at 36! I always feel like such a failure admitting the fact in public and have always made out that my circumstances have been the reason (living in different countries etc. Learning to drive in Kuwait? No thanks!) but there has always been the element of fear/laziness. I recently found myself stranded, with a two year old (and a perfectly useable car) up a mountain in the middle of New Zealand when my husband was airlifted to hospital after a snowboarding accident. It was scary and humiliating enough to spur me into action and I am now almost ready to take my test. Choosing to learn in an automatic was a turning point for me…SO EASY compared to manual. A am looking forward to feeling like a ‘real’ adult! Good luck, fellow fuck-up!!

  • This made me giggle-snort. Great read. And good luck behind the wheel. I also think you might owe your fiance some flowers… he sounds like a very patient man.

  • I am totally agreed with “Erin”. As for the fear of driving, i also have the same case when my family got shifted from one province to other, i was used to drive in quite and hustle free mountain road with only one or two cars passes per hour, but when we came in a busy city, i couldn’t drive in between hundreds of cars and it takes me about three years to restart driving :P

  • Thanks for sharing this post! This is so relevant to everything in life- if you don’t go for it and be courageous then you lose out on some opportunities.

  • I haven’t driven in 8 years, and am about to relocate from a walkable city with public transportation to a city where there’s no way around driving. I’m literally having nightmares and panic attacks.

    Ray Bradbury got away with never driving. What do I have to do to get myself a driver, hm?

  • This is hilarious. You are awesome to share. Everybody at D*S is brave with their personal stories; so appreciated.

  • Well heck yes, you go, Max! I just sent this brave, charming, and amusing post to my at-university daughter, who dutifully took driver’s ed in high school, passed the written exam, was accumulating drive time… then quit. Driving made her too anxious. Familiar? She can get around by public transit now, but the day likely will come when she needs to be able to drive a rented car or a friends’ wheels on occasion for true independence. Thanks for sharing. (You and Daniel have different voices but beaucoup wordsmithing prowess each.) Two thumbs up. :)

  • The fear of driving is, I think, totally understandable and _rational_. The fact is that driving is throwing ones body across space – at high speeds – in a bit of plastic, aluminum foil and glass. It’s NUTS. There is a reason we are afraid of it.

  • Fun essay, Max! And interesting to learn how much more common non-driving is than I’d been aware. As a fellow WNYer, most of the kids I knew sought a license as soon as they could.

    I’m also curious to hear from you, as an artist and designer, what you think of the new NYS license design. It is supposed to be highly tamper resistant, but I find it a very different “art in the everyday” experience compared to the old design. The inflexible material, black and white, the hologram–any feedback on when you compare with friends’?

  • Thanks for this story and for all of those commenters sharing their fear of driving stories! I am 30 and I also have a huge fear of driving. I (reluctantly) got my driver’s license when I was 16 because I grew up in a very small town and I was the first of my friends who could get a license. So, because they needed carted around everywhere, I bit the bullet. For a number of years I had no problem with driving at all. But then, after a few years of living in NYC and not driving ever, I developed a complete driving phobia. Now, I live in a city with sort of decent public transportation and I have a husband who is fine with driving and so I always find a way out of getting behind the wheel. But, as other commenters mentioned, I worry about if we ever have a child and the child needs to go somewhere — I can’t expect my husband to always be the one available for that. And, it also makes me feel bad about myself that I can’t get myself to the places that I need/want to go. So, I am going to try to be inspired to conquer this fear!

  • I am 36. I am scared to drive. I feel like there should be a support group for us, because from the comments it seems like we are many! Well, minus one now. Congrats!
    (I especially loved reading the all caps “IT WAS SO EASY”. Also “TWO TON DEATH MACHINE”…HA! To make fun of fear is the first step in conquering, I believe..)

  • I feel you! I got my permit 3 times. The first time was at the appropriate age and I continued to let it expire without practicing my driving at all. I was a passenger in more than once accident and was really scared of driving. Plus I was spoiled by living in city with public transportation and also living and spending most of my time with my boyfriend who has been driving my ass around since high school. I finally forced myself to take action when it became clear it was the only thing holding me back from being able to start looking for houses outside the city. What worked for me was to pay an actual driving instructor for road lessons! Once I was committed to the lessons I just forced myself to get in the car and let her instruct me. It worked! I got my license and just went under contract on a house :)

  • So much like my own story. THANK YOU for writing this. (I’ve driven now for four years… and I’m ok. I’m even good. But it was a long ten-year road too).

  • This is hilarious! You are such a witty writer.

    I grew up in a small town. I miss the days of the DMV lady letting me take my picture again because the first one wasn’t attractive enough. :)

  • I love everything you write. And if it makes you feel any better, I used to know this little old lady who didn’t get her driver’s license until long after she had retired, after her husband died. And when she finally did, she was like a new person, and was constantly going places. It’s ok if you’re a little later than average. The good thing is that you faced one of your fears and conquered it:)

  • Great article! I can’t relate, though. My Dad taught me to drive when I was 10 (we lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere) and after that I became a (free) helping hand on the farm. Now talk about a fear of trains, and I’m there.

  • Same as Julie here, my dad had me driving around a hay field as soon as I could see over the wheel, while he & my brother loaded the truck up. When I took driver’s ed one summer at school the instructor got me behind the wheel once, then said ‘you’ve driven before’ and I spent the rest of the summer in the back seat. I was 17 when I went to get my driver’s license. During the driving portion of the test, the cop looked at me, said ‘you’re 17?’ signed the papers and then asked me if I wanted to drive.

    you gotta love small town America! :D

  • This really made me smile. I thought I was the only one without my license. I’m 38! I do have a boyfriend with a license and a car, though. We call it “Driving Miss Lazy” on good days and “Driving Miss Doofy” on not so good ones…

    Living in Manhattan really enables my driving procrastination in this respect. Perhaps I need to take a little time upstate, til I can drive myself home, triumphant. : )

  • I understand completely–I just got my driver’s license last year, age 28. I was really freaked out by driving for so long, but moving to a rural area and not wanting to a feel like a burden was also what finally got me behind the wheel. Getting lessons from a professional made me feel a lot better about it, since I knew there would be another pair of brakes if anything went seriously awry. Congratulations for getting started, you can do it! :)

  • Thank you so much for this Max! I am nearly 24, and all my family and friends are appalled I still haven’t learn how to drive. I got my learners permit recently but have been slow to take lessons and still find it anxiety inducing. It was never a huge issue because I lived in the CBD of Sydney, but now I have moved to suburban Texas, I am so reliant on my girlfriend to drive me places, it is driving both of us insane! Thanks for giving me the motivation to keep learning. I am printing out your graphic and sticking it in my scrapbook!