I Learned to Drive Stick Shift

Some of you may know that I used to be terrified of driving. I didn’t get my license until a couple of months after my 29th birthday. And learning to drive really only diminished my fear, it didn’t eliminate it. In the intervening nearly 4 years, I’ve hardly driven at all. In fact, I didn’t drive on the road at all until December of last year.

That’s because we only have one car, and it has a manual transmission. Jim tried, right after I got my license, to teach me to drive stick. But, he’d driven stick for long long that it was all muscle memory for him. He had trouble explaining to me what to do. And he loves his car so much that it freaked him out when I keep stalling it out.

So What Changed?

Jim hurt his knee in the latter half of the year, and eventually found out he’d have to have surgery. Not a major surgery, but enough that he wouldn’t be able to drive stick for 7-10 days. So, it fell to me to learn how to drive his car. I had to be able to get him home from the hospital and to his follow-up appointment. A trip to the grocery store would be useful, too.

A good friend of ours, thankfully, knows how to drive stick, and was kind enough to spend an hour teaching me the basics. I can’t stress enough how hard that first lesson was for me. For starters, simply being behind the wheel was freaking me out, and I needed to keep myself fully under control so as not to waste our friend’s time. Second, my constant mistakes made me feel like an absolute idiot. Let’s just say that learning a new skill that scares you and a tendency towards perfectionism do not make good friends.

Luckily, our friend was very patient with me, helping me understand what I was doing wrong and teaching me some tricks. Probably the most important thing I learned was something I hadn’t seen mentioned in the videos I’d watched on YouTube.

Turns out depressing the clutch pedal and depressing the gas pedal are not mutually exclusive. You can keep the clutch pedal partially depressed as you press the gas pedal to make the transition smoother. I’d always thought it was one OR the other; that you had to know exactly when to start pressing the gas and immediately let up on the clutch.

I still let our friend drive back to the house at the end of the lesson, though. I wasn’t ready to get on the streets yet.

More Lessons

A couple of days later, Jim and I set out for another lesson in a parking lot. Unfortunately, the lot I’d used previously was closed off, but, after driving around a bit, we found a mostly empty lot at a community center. That one was much less “open” than the first, and I had to really pay attention to where I was going. I couldn’t just cut across the lot.

Another hour of starting and stopping, this time with noticeably less stall outs had me feeling a teensy bit less terrified. Or so I thought. I knew I couldn’t realistically put off street driving any longer if I hoped to be ready in time for Jim’s surgery. So the next time we went out, I got behind the wheel at our house.

Knowing I had to get out on the streets hit me like a brick. It took me about 10 minutes, and several tissues to calm down from my near panic attack. I wouldn’t necessarily say that was foreshadowing, but it was a pretty good indication of how things were going to go.

I stalled the car several times, and I kept switching to the wrong gear. At one point, I did something that resulted in a horrible noise that terrified me. I only just managed to get the car into the parking lot a few feet up before I completely lost it and asked Jim to “just take us home”.

An Important Lesson

That practice session left me feeling so defeated. I’d given up. And I’d done poorly. Neither are good things for someone with a perfectionist streak a mile wide. I felt useless and moped around for a while. But, after a couple of days, I could acknowledge that my biggest issue was shifting. I needed to learn the gear positions.

I had Jim join me in the car, just sitting in the garage. The plan was to have him quiz me on shifting until I could get the right gear without looking. Imagine my surprise (and chagrin) when I discovered the gear stick “snaps” to center (3rd & 4th gear position) for neutral! No wonder pushing the gear stick to 3rd meant I kept skipping to 5th! Not gonna lie, I was a bit annoyed Jim hadn’t mentioned that when I kept having trouble getting to the right gear.

Learning that I could let the gear stick “snap” to center when I changed gears dramatically improved my performance when we next went out to practice. It didn’t improve my terror at sitting in the driver’s seat, though.

I Can Do This

Not gonna lie, I did still stall out a couple of times. But, for the most part, I think I did pretty well for approximately 1 hour of total road driving time. I managed the full circuit that time, too, getting us back home at the end of my practice.

2 more practice sessions followed that one, one of which took me on the highway. Each time, it was a little less terrifying to get in the driver’s seat. Effectively, I was putting myself through accelerated exposure therapy, and it was working.

I no longer needed to calm myself down before driving. I could handle the nervousness; push it aside to take care of business. I was really starting to feel I was capable of accomplishing this task I’d set for myself.

Go Time

On the day of Jim’s surgery, I was a bundle of nerves when the nurse called to tell me to bring the car around. I was scared that I’d screw up in front of her and she’d forbid me from taking Jim home. But, somehow I managed to pick him up, and the trip home, without a single incident. On top of that, because of a miscommunication, I had to travel to two different CVS stores to get Jim’s post-op medication.

It was stressful. My stomach was in knots. I was sure something would go wrong. I kept to the slow lane so I could pull over easily in the event of any problem. But nothing happened. I did what I had to do, and, while it wasn’t a flawless execution, it was certainly a competent one.

I drove several more times in the intervening 10 days until Jim’s follow up appointment. We went to the grocery store, our favorite Korean bakery, I ran a solo errand, and we got takeout dinner (on different days). The latter taught me that I DESPISE night driving. I felt so disoriented, and lost so much awareness because of lack of visibility. I’ll be leaving night driving entirely to Jim, thank you. It’s not entirely surprising, though, as I don’t particularly like being in a car at night, period.

And Now?

I’ve only driven a couple of times since Jim started driving again. He was happy to take over driving again after getting the OK, and only reluctantly hands over the keys. We’ll see, as time goes on, if I end up driving more often.

Perhaps, with regular practice, driving itself will become less bothersome for me. But, in the interim, I can say that driving stick shift has become, while not “easy,” no more bothersome than driving automatic. That is, it’s no additional burden on me. So that’s something.

I don’t really have a big lesson to end this post. I just want to share my story, because I feel it’s a pretty big accomplishment. Assuming you aren’t old enough to have learned how to drive in a manual transmission car, do you know how to drive stick? Do you like it?

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