riding my bike and being my friend: rewriting my story when fear has shaped my identity

April 19

Dear Les,

I biked to work today, I biked home, and that’s a big deal.

When I started this blog, I shared an explanation. I said I was working through gender stuff and that I had a fear of driving. The driving fear I’d work on with a therapist. Gender stuff, I’d write to you about. I’m happy I maintain this blog both because the gender binary and gender dysphoria cause me discomfort, and writing is a wonderful form of expression. I’ll probably never have solid answers to some of my questions and musings, or an end to my gender discomforts, but I think I’ve made some peace with that. My gender troubles pale before my driving phobia.

I may be nervous to come out to my parents as nonbinary, but I don’t expect them to stop loving me. With my fear of driving, however, I’ve often been surprised that anyone could ever love me. This fear and self-hatred, which thankfully have both calmed a great deal over the past two years, made me believe I deserved no one’s love or respect. How could I? I’m someone who likes to do things for myself and dislikes asking for favors—to the point of being unable to flag down servers at sushi restaurants to simply ask for menu items not on the sushi train. I learned young how to balance bags on my arms so as to never ring the doorbell or knock for someone to open doors for me. So how could I possibly let a fear govern me? How could I not manage it? Meet it, put it aside, and become a confident, licensed driver?

It’s not that I don’t drive that bothers me. I don’t imagine I’ll ever drive a lot, even if someday I end up loving it—I want to limit my carbon emissions. What bothers me is that I don’t drive because I’m afraid.

Agoraphobia refers to the (irrational) anxiety or dread some folks experience when they face certain situations, activities, or objects, or find themselves in certain places. I didn’t know the word until my employer used it last week when we were talking about driving; his wife had asked him if I drove and when he realized he had no idea he asked me. I used to dread him asking, dread any potential conversation with anyone in which driving would come up and I’d have to admit I didn’t have my license, and say why. I’m now in a mental place where I can casually share that I don’t drive and sometimes laugh about being afraid. Anxiety doesn’t grip me during these conversations anymore. The discomfort is more of a dull pain. Sometimes I don’t hurt at all.

It’s funny how many words there are for fears and how poorly they capture those fears. Words for fears are too loose nets, nylon that snaps, blocks of text away from the on the ground experiences. Agoraphobia as a word can never convey my discomfort when someone who means well asks why I don’t drive yet and hints I should just get my license. Agoraphobia doesn’t share the impact of my heart slamming when I wake from a nightmare in which I’m trapped in a car I have no control over, or worse, I had control of and crashed. Agoraphobia doesn’t share the shame I carry for not living the life I’d prefer: loading up a dusty Subaru every other weekend to go camping or make day trips, going on the semi-regular trip to a national park to then ditch my car and disappear with my framepack. It doesn’t capture the certainty that anyone who knows I don’t drive yet still likes me is deluded, or that anyone who doesn’t yet know is naive and will cease respecting me once they learn.

This great fear is a sickness. A mental illness—a trap I fell into unaware then kept myself in because I’ve lived so long with this fear and shame, it’s difficult to pull out it. Forgiving myself for being afraid and being gentle sometimes feels too good to be true.

But I’ve been working on it.

I haven’t driven a vehicle since I passed my driver’s ed test in Corvallis (beforehand parallel parking successfully on the first try), but I’ve been far more relaxed about my pedestrian lifestyle. Knowing that I am capable of learning how to drive, I can pass a test, and could drive if absolutely necessary eased some of my shame. I want to eventually practice more then obtain my license but I’ve tried to refrain from punishing myself for 18 month break. This gentleness has been important.

I’ve found other was to stretch and grow and take more control of my life. Always afraid of navigating roadways on my bike, particularly downtown, a place I’ve ridden perhaps once before, I’ve never biked as much as I’d prefer. Today I began to change that.

After a couple weeks of discussing it, my coworker and I finally biked to work today. I churned through my tried and true streets to the eastbank esplanade then met him at the Steel Bridge. At 8:15, I followed him across the bridge, looped onto Naito Parkway along the train tracks and industrial section of river, crossed the tracks and cut into northwest streets. It was sunny today, a summer day in spring, and I couldn’t stop looking around, squeezing my handles, readying my feet on my pedals at intersections, and smiling.

I was most nervous about my solo trip back to the river because it was my short day. But after verifying the return route was largley the same, glancing at my map, and eating a snack, I set off. I wasn’t sure where all my turns would be and was a bit anxious about getting back onto Naito Parkway, a large street with some unmarked sections, but I did it.

It was a perfect ride. I was calm and patient while navigating the neighborhood near work and the streets approaching the parkway. I was curious while figuring out a good route, not anxious. I was upbeat and compassionate. I was my friend when telling myself I was doing a good job while pedaling down the wide parkway, briefly sharing a lane with much faster and larger vehicles. I was calm when figuring out how to cross 3 lanes to the sidewalk approaching the river. I made it to the river and beamed at the bridges, the water, the sun reflecting off the ripples, the runners, cyclists, families, and my victory.

I was exactly who I needed to be today. I was exactly the person I needed.

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