Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Facing my fears? Splendid!

I was raised in a small town.  (Cue the John Mellencamp.  No, wait, please don't.  I hate that song.)  My hometown has approximately 5,000 people (97% of whom are caucasian according to Wikipedia), seven stop lights (four blocks in a ROW in the center of town), and not a single road that's more than one lane in either direction plus a center turn lane (there aren't even one way streets).  The nearest interstate is 15 miles away.  I didn't even drive on the interstate till I was a sophomore in college!  Why does this matter?  Because growing up in a community like that turned me into a big ol' scaredy cat behind the wheel.

I remember the first time I drove into Urbana.  I took a state highway instead of the interstate because I felt safer.  As I came into Rantoul, the road widened from two lanes to four.  This was a big deal for me.  Driving on Lincoln or University Avenues was treacherous as far as I was concerned, and both should be avoided at all costs.

That was ten (seriously, ew) years ago.  Of course, I've gotten so much more comfortable in my adopted hometown since then.  I think a lot of this is due to me having my car for my first summer on campus.  I was able to learn which streets were one way and in what direction, and it meant not getting stuck in the circle of doom (you know: Green/Sixth/Armory/Wright/John streets) anymore.  I'm a pro at using  I-74 like everyone else in town: as a way to avoid University when going from Champaign to Urbana.  I've even mastered downtown Champaign.

No matter how comfortable I've gotten in Champaign-Urbana, though, I still hate HATE HATE driving in/around Chicago.  I avoid it if at all possible, begging my travelling companions to drive and bribing them to do so when necessary.  Part of this apprehension is due to my geographical ignorance about the suburbs.  In my head, they're all 15 minutes away from each other (I know this is false).  Also, I don't know how anyone knows where they are at a given time because the towns touch.  Where I come from, you know you're in a new town, because there are fields, a curve, and railroad tracks between each town!  If not for the best Christmas gift ever given to me by my boyfriend, a GPS we call Samantha, I would be truly hopeless in the suburbs.

Last week I had to face my fears.  My college roommate invited me to her place in the city for the night, and I was going solo.  Until then, the only time I had driven in the City of Chicago was to drive my parents home after my dad's open heart surgery last year, and that was a big freaking deal for me.  That trip included the following rules:
     1. There will be no yelling at any time.

     2. There will be no use of an invisible emergency break at any time.
     3. There will be no vocal intercessions to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (Mom's favorite while
     riding along) at any time.

     4. I will retain total control of the radio.
     And number 5, which had to be added at the last minute after Mom proudly documented
     my driving prowess: There will be NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY AT
     ANY TIME.

The offending photo

I planned so see my mom for lunch on the way back this time, so taking the train wasn't an option.  I met with my travel consultant boyfriend to go over the route a couple nights beforehand because Samantha and I do not always agree on the best way to get somewhere.  And sometimes she forgets to tell me what lane I need to be in.  And, okay, sometimes I disregard her instructions and do what I want in a fit of defiant independence.  He and I decided on the simplest route, and I was ready to hit the road.  The day I left, I had major anxiety.  I mean sweaty-palms-throat-constricting-verge-of-tears anxiety.  It was as if I was going into battle.  I was going to fight my fear of city driving in the third largest city in the United States.

Before I left, I posted a self-indulgent Facebook status lamenting my impending journey, and I was so touched by the amount of support I received from my friends.  I got a lot of encouragement and some excellent advice.  (Cousin Katie wins the Advice Award: stay in the middle lanes and always check your blind spots.)  Armed with Samantha, backup instructions, my host on speed dial, and a large Diet Coke, I hit the road.  The first hour of the drive would typically be easy for me, as that's how I get back to my parents' house, but this day was different.  Even that first hour had me tense, with both hands on the wheel, spaced at 10 and 2 like I was taught in Drivers Ed.  As I made my way north, I started to stress a lot more.  I had to breathe slowly and deliberately to calm myself down.  Thankfully as I made my way onto the interstate that would take me into the city, traffic didn't seem so bad.  I thought I might even beat the rush hour traffic!  Then I needed to exit for Lake Shore Drive...

The signs on the road assured me that the right two lanes would exit for LSD, so I was pleased to already be in one of them.  As traffic started to exit, I notice the far right lane was incredibly backed up, and I was happy that I wasn't one of the schmucks over there.  Then I realized that the sign telling me my lane would exit LIED!  Well, sort of.  The two lanes do exit, but then they immediately merge.  So I felt smug for about 4 seconds until I realized that I had to rely on the kindness of one of those schmucks to let me into their lane.  Thankfully I was the recipient of some nice midwestern driving hospitality, as a young woman allowed me in front of her almost immediately.  I almost tore my rotator cuff courtesy waving to that woman.  As we wound around McCormick Place, I remembered my cousin's sage advice and tried to stick to the middle.  White knuckled, I didn't even notice Soldier Field enough to make a Doctor Who joke to myself about how it looks like a Raxacoricofallapatorian space ship crashed into the stadium.  I had not missed rush hour.  Not at all.  And I was stuck behind a bus.  I was not going to be able to drive in stop and go traffic for nearly 10 miles behind a bus.  Ain't no way.   

I was able to get around the bus surprisingly easily (it was a surprise to me, anyway), and the rest of the drive was mostly uneventful, thankfully.  I was able to navigate around a bunch of one way streets to pick Rachel up before heading back to her apartment.  The drive back the next morning was fairly simple as well since I successfully avoided morning rush hour traffic.  Of course Samantha failed to remind me that I should stay to the left on 90/94 to remain in the express lanes, but other than that, the trip back was fine.

You guys.  I was so proud of myself.  I had done something that I really didn't think I would able to ever do.  I did not give in to the anxiety.  I didn't even almost get in any accidents!  I faced my fear.  So what did I learn from my experience? I learned that most of the other drivers don't want to die in a fiery car crash either, so they'll usually try to avoid getting in one with you!  Not only did I face my fear by driving in Chicago, but I also put myself out there by asking for encouragement from my friends.  And I learned I have a lot more support than I sometimes realize.  I know that clicking the Like button on my silly little Facebook status doesn't mean all those people would go into a real battle with me, but I felt comforted knowing they were pulling for me.

P.S. While I was at her apartment, I helped Rachel set up her blog.  She's doing summer stock theatre in Door County Michigan this summer, and she's going to blog about her experience.  Find out what she has to say in I Carried a Watermelon.

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