Getting my driver’s license was the biggest task I’ve ever procrastinated on. I got my license this year after beginning the process in my sophomore year of high school, which means it took me a painstaking three years when it should’ve taken one. I know, it’s shameful. Essentially, I took a break for two years in the middle of the process because the thought of driving repulsed me. I was not only terrified to get behind the wheel, but I was incredibly anxious just thinking about taking the driving test. So, I put it out of my mind until I ultimately had to force myself to get it over with since it was creating too much of an inconvenience to get places. It’s not that I’m a terrible driver, but something about being in control of a whole moving vehicle frightens me. When you think about it, driving requires an incredible amount of self control, awareness and responsibility. Everyone on the road and your own passengers are depending on you. Having so much power was something I couldn’t get myself to accept. For one, I was only 14 years old when I started to learn how to drive. At the time, I thought I was an adult — a notion I now laugh at. Driving a car was the biggest responsibility I had, and while it is definitely a nerve-wracking task, I hadn’t yet realized it would be obsolete compared to everything thrown at me as I grew older.
In a way, I equate responsibility with growing older, just as I do with driving a car. It’s not that getting my license made me feel significantly older, but I saw it as a parallel to aging because it was one of my first milestones. It was my first recognition by society that I was slowly exiting my childhood. I quickly learned that this would not be my last uneasy introduction to adulthood: flying alone on a plane, graduating from high school and leaving my hometown (and only town I’ve ever lived in) are a few instances where it felt like society was acknowledging me as an adult — no longer accepting the excuse of being young and naive. And while I’m older now, growing up is still a concept I haven’t been able to adopt.
Things have changed since I was 14. Then, all I was really ever focused on was, frankly, myself. All of my problems seemed world-ending, and I felt like everything around me had a direct impact on my life. Yes, I was selfish. And I know I’m still very young, but at least my illusion of the world revolving around me has shattered. I know I no longer have the confidence to make everyone my friend like I did in preschool. Sometimes I feel like I am more aware of how I think others perceive me versus how I see my own identity. I’ve experienced emotions I never even knew existed when I was a child: grief, anxiety and loneliness. Growing older doesn’t make me sad as much as it makes me frustrated. I can’t seem to grapple with the fact that aging is inevitable and I’m not sure how I can let go of my youth because I seem to find a new reason for why it was the best time of my life every day. I’m lucky enough to have fond memories of my childhood. My days consisted of competing on who could rise the highest on the swings at recess, playing outside every day with my neighbors, going to the park or library with my dad and counting down the days until I visit my cousins every Christmas. You don’t realize time passes when none of the neighborhood kids come to play outside after school anymore, when you start caring about how you dress or how many friends you have or when you’re too busy to go to the library with your dad on the weekends. You enjoy living in the knowledge that you are young and practically invincible. You live in the bliss of ignorance that you are shielded, that you have not really experienced much of anything and that your youth should be cherished.
All of a sudden, you’re 14 and sitting in segment one of driver’s ed about to drive a whole vehicle. You’re scared and unsure how anyone can trust someone as young as you to be on the road. You realize that no one cares about your age, your fears and certainly not your innocence. Now, the thought of how it was once your last day playing with your neighbors and you didn’t even realize it makes you cry. You can’t watch home videos without tearing up. You get angry when you have to leave home to come back to school because you can never understand why everything in adulthood requires you to be uncomfortable. You don’t know what you want to be and suddenly you don’t know who you are. You miss when home-cooked meals were just meals. It seems like everyone around you expects you to have the capacity to handle all the sudden changes around you. What if you don’t know how to adjust? You miss not caring about if your style is unique but not too noticeable, about if you were on track with your career compared to your peers or about every other little detail of your identity. When did you start caring so much?
Now, at the age of 19, you’re independent (or at least you pretend you are), but you wish you didn’t have to be. You miss when it seemed like everyone believed in you. You miss when you believed in yourself. You wish you could go back to when you could walk into a classroom and there was at least one person who was guaranteed to know who you were. How can someone feel so perceived yet so unnoticeable at the same time? You miss when you were 14, afraid to drive but unaware that you will soon become extremely familiar with being behind a wheel.
I put so much pressure on myself at this age because I’m simultaneously trying to make my younger, innocent child self proud while making my future self content. I neglect my dire need to take breaks and end up overworking myself because I’m convinced that people, mainly myself, have high expectations for me. On top of that, I wonder what it was like to never experience this type of pressure when I was younger. I think we as a society generally accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of being a child. We say that “they don’t know any better” and collectively agree that children are new members of society and therefore learn through experience. Now, I am at this weird age in between adulthood and childhood, wondering when this threshold of forgiveness disappeared. Yes, I’ve learned through experience, but navigating uncomfortable situations is still new to me. Some days I’m not sure how I can be the best daughter, friend or student that I can be. I feel the weight of my words and actions on everyone around me and I often feel like the bar I set for myself is constantly rising — that it is just another thing I will never be able to attain, something that I will never be able to reach. I wish society adopted the idea that adults need accountability, but they should also be granted grace. But I realize that I cannot ask for something that I’m not even willing to provide for myself. I want to work on understanding what is enough for me. I want to learn how to accept myself for the way I am, not for who I want to be for other people. One day, self-acceptance will be something guaranteed for me, not earned.
You learn that yes, everything has changed, but you are the same. On days when you think that you are behind in every aspect of your life, you will remember that your younger self, even the one from just a year ago, would marvel at all the things you are able to do. She would be so proud to know that you were able to stand up for yourself when you were micro-aggressed several times in your class discussions when your classmates and instructors refused to acknowledge your input and even the proper pronunciation of your name, when you got through the most isolating time in your life (freshman year of college), or even when your humor (her favorite part about you) never changed since you were a kid. You’ll learn that your productivity does not, or at least should not, define your capabilities. You realize that community is something you create for yourself. You realize that you deserve to make space for yourself — that not belonging is something you are no longer willing to accept. You’ll realize that people have relied on you all along in ways you did not notice. You will grow an unwavering faith in yourself through your cumulative experiences with grief, anxiety and loneliness, because you will understand that you are the only person you can fully depend on. You will realize that sometimes you won’t be able to adjust, but that your resilience will somehow show up for you every time.
You’re still scared to drive, but you get your license anyway. You do it because it brings you joy to drive all your friends to weekly hangouts the same way they did for you for so many years. You do it because driving in silence with Frank Ocean playing makes you feel safe. You do it because you accept that you can’t control anyone on the road but yourself, and sometimes that has to be enough.
So yes, it took me an embarrassing amount of time to get my license. Three years to be exact. Three years of telling everyone that I was putting it off because I was bad at parallel parking, I couldn’t do left turns or get myself to properly do a Michigan left. And yeah, maybe those things are true. But, at the end of the day, I wanted to hold on to every bit of security and youth that I could. I ended up taking my test because I realized that there were going to be plenty of times when nobody would be able to drive me around, and I would only have myself to blame for that moment of helplessness.
Ironically, I love to drive when I visit home on the weekends. I drive to my favorite ice cream place where I spent almost every day with my friends during the summer before college, only now I’m alone and use the drive-through (a thought that would have horrified me a few years ago). I drive to the park I used to go to with my dad every weekend. I drive past my elementary and preschool and wonder how the playground equipment looks so tiny now when it seemed huge 16 years ago.
I don’t think I will ever not cringe at the thought of where I will be in 10 years. It’s not so much that I’m worried about the decisions I’ll make, but that I can’t predict what’s going to happen. But I undoubtedly know that I will end up where I need to be. I always do.
MiC Columnist Sahana Nandigama can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.