Scared passenger with crazy driver

The Smell of Burned Rubber

For many teens, obtaining a driver’s license is the ultimate rite of passage. But sometimes life throws a few curve balls…

By Adrian Giorgio

 I remember feeling alienated, hearing them all individually deliver the good news. Gleefully rolling up to the front entrance in their mom’s sedan or SUV. It’s a given, right? Certainly, nobody else thought twice. 16 is a special age for a variety of reasons — none bigger than experiencing the sweet freedom of the open road. 

This wasn’t new for me. I was already someone who didn’t indulge in the typical teenage pleasures: alcohol, drugs or even just parties. I would occasionally attend a jam, observe everyone else throwing back shots, beer and whatever other concoctions they could consume. I’d be sure to stay quiet for most of the night before checking out early. Sure, there was the odd drink spaced out over the course of four hours, but it was methodically calculated and panic would still set in at the first feeling of intoxication. Weed use was rarer, but scarier. Ironically, cannabis would go on to become the product that most helped to subdue the condition responsible for all of my party anxiety: epilepsy. 

All in all, I was a low-key teen who was used to being extra-disciplined, responsible and level-headed. When the first opportunity to deviate from that norm and become more free-spirited presented itself, I leaped. I certainly wasn’t underage when it came to qualifying for a set of wheels. It wasn’t until the age of 18 that the opportunity to even perform the written portion of my driver’s test arose. In Ontario, completion of the G1 alone doesn’t allow you to drive without an experienced passenger. Until requirements were met for G2 eligibility, I relied upon friends to pick me up and drop me off. 

I envied their liberty and nonchalant attitude toward navigating the city. They didn’t have to try a series of different medication combinations or frantically hope to stabilize their situation — they didn’t have to languish just to go six months without a seizure. Though that number seems so small and insignificant now, it was Everest at the time. Constant close calls, near misses and medical skepticism restrained me to the point of rage and depression which–you guessed it!–caused more seizures. The lack of control bred the very triggers I was trying to avoid.

In the summer of 2012, it finally happened. Three years of agonizing delay and uncertainty were coming to a close. I sat nervously, sweating with heart palpitations as the examiner approached. Driving school was complete and there were no more do-overs. It was time to pick up my friends for a change and travel north for the May long weekend. I pulled out of the parking lot into the intersection, merged and checked my blind spot; the light switched from yellow to red simultaneously. Turning back, I froze and stuttered to clear the intersection. The rest was just a formality. What hurt most were the words of “consolation” from my examiner: “Look kid, you clearly know how to drive. I can’t pass you because of that early mishap, but just enjoy your long weekend and come back soon!” Even though there was only a minimum of a week’s wait to schedule another test, all I could think about was yet another delay and obstacle to freedom. I went home fuming, feeling like all the progress I’d made had been in vain and ended with a cruel irony. 

A rollercoaster of emotion followed when I passed the second time around. I went from the deepest anger to almost being ecstatic, as I finally had the opportunity to drive my first car. That summer stands out for multiple reasons as being one of my favorites, but cruising in my 1973 Pontiac Firebird takes the cake. Having a considerate dad who’s obsessed with American vintage has its perks. I enjoyed the next few months of prime muscle car weather until returning to school for my third year at the University of Waterloo. 

The semester started off with a bang: I excelled at the necessary language courses for my degree, made some great new friends in my program, adopted some new extra-curricular activities and most importantly, hadn’t had a single seizure. The trend continued, onward and upward. Before I knew it, it was winter and finals were impending. There was immense pressure from considerations other than grades: roommate compatibility, relationships and volunteering for student causes, to name a few. However, I persevered and was able to maintain my composure. This gave me an extreme amount of confidence, being able to withstand all of these stressors at the same time and at the right time. That determination and some hope pushed me to get through my classes.

It wasn’t until a few days before my 20th birthday that things took a turn for the worse: symptoms of an upcoming seizure. I sat in class, clutching my head as it felt like it heated up to 100 degrees. My brain started to hurt and my changing perceptions caused panic. I gathered myself, focused and completed the task at hand. 

Not 30 seconds after submitting my exam, I passed out in the hallway corridor. Soon after, I returned to Toronto and made an appointment with my neurologist. He promptly adjusted my medications, recommended me to another specialist and revoked my license. 

Everything I had worked so hard for, all the sacrifices, strict self-discipline and unfailing resolve became meaningless. I lost my freedom as the ‘bird went back into the garage, under lock-and-key. Eight years later, I am more stable but still unable to drive. The summer nights still roll in, the weather clement as ever and the roads rife with GM, MOPAR and Ford beauties gripping the tarmac. I may not be handling shifters, but I still catch myself subconsciously analyzing fenders, marker lights, bumpers, fins and bezels. What year is that Chevy? Why are Beaumonts so much rarer than Chevelles? If she were freed from her cage, my Pontiac would smoke those overhyped Camaros! Maybe one day that theory can best tested; for now, daydream drags will have to suffice.

While that may be the case, I no longer feel the alienation in quite the same way. It would be a lie to say the lack of freedom is irrelevant to me, but age and its accompanying priorities have a way of rearranging your values. My friends respect my use of transit systems and commitment to walking distances that would seem at best curious, at worst, stupefying. More importantly, rather than looking askance at my careful behaviour, they support it. 

We may no longer call them jams, but the get-togethers still occur and involve some of the same activities and experiences. It’s truly gratifying to know that I can attend them anxiety-free and with a reserved passenger’s side seat at the end of the night. A future my nerve-addled teenage self would have deemed impossible.Adrian Giorgio is a writer and editor with a passion for language, philosophy and the social sciences. He is returning to school to study Neuropsychology. He has contributed to mental health, spirituality, historical, political and cultural organizations. 

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