Fear of Buses

I don’t know what prompted me to write the following account. I wrote it in the notes app on my phone about a week ago while lying awake in bed at about 4 AM. I’ve edited it a bit since then, but it’s still mostly in the rambling form in which I first committed it to silicon. I’m sure it’s more than a little too self-reflective than many people will be interested to read, but I do think it’s sufficiently removed from my life right now that it serves as a narrative rather than cheap Internet therapy. There’s some Jerry Springer philosophizing at the end, but feel free to skip that bit. Or indeed any other bit. Anyway…

I quite distinctly remember at the age of fourteen being terrified of taking a bus. It wasn’t a fear of the machines themselves, nor of the (sometimes unsavory) passengers I would find aboard, nor of the possibility of finding myself lost far from home. It was because I didn’t know what I was supposed to say to the driver when I got on. I had no idea. Was I supposed to say where I was going to, or just how many stops, or was I supposed to tell him how much i was paying? Should I put the money in the machine before I said whatever it was I was expected to say, or was the done thing to make your intentions known before offering payment? Not a clue.

I had never been taught the correct behaviour. Not in school; not at home; not from my friends, nor teachers, nor family. I hadn’t read it in my books, and I didn’t have access to the Internet to look it up there. I was totally convinced—it didn’t occur to me that it could be otherwise—that there was a single correct way to proceed, like in the complex etiquette of days past. Just as it would be a mistake to eat my starter with the wrong fork, I was sure that any deviation from that one correct way to board a bus would be perceived as an idiotic blunder worthy of scorn and laughter.

I’m sure it’s clear, but I’ll spell it out anyway: I hated uncertainty at that age.

I resented everybody—friends, family, strangers—for somehow knowing how to proceed while I was left mystified by the inscrutable social complexity of the task. How had they all learned the protocol? Had they studied it in school on a day I was absent? Surely not. I had never had difficulty in catching up with missed school. It was the other kind of knowledge—the kind that all of my friends seemed to instinctively possess, but which I hadn’t the beginnings of a clue about. Equations could be solved, science and business could be understood, even language could be learned. But people were incomprehensible. I simply couldn’t figure out the rules for how they operated.

I stood waiting at the bus stop opposite Tesco one day, just up the road from my house. My palms were sweating. I was shaking, verging on tears—a product of my worsening distress at the impending task, coupled with the shame of being so dreadfully deficient as to be unable to commute by the same mode of transport even the dumbest of my peers took in their stride. I steadied my breathing, not wanting to advertise my anxiety to the bus-full of people who were, in my mind, surely listening intently for the first sign of me straying from the script. I mentally rehearsed my lines, my best guess about what to say and do, making sure I could say them even in the terrifying heat of the moment when panic would surely strike.

The bus arrived. I stepped on. I took a deep breath, blinked back a stray tear. I said to the driver, “Bray main street, please” and dropped my exact change in the machine at the same time. I hoped the timing was ambiguous enough that, whatever the expected order of speech versus payment, I would be generously judged to have performed the two actions correctly. The driver grunted and printed my ticket. I took my seat.

I had succeeded. I had taken on the obstacle, without the benefit of whatever secret knowledge all of these othe people possessed. I had figured out the process, and I knew I could replicate it. With that one act of extreme bravery I had freed myself from the terror, and given myself free reign to travel wherever I pleased by bus in future.

For years afterward—even when the event of catching a bus had become the mundane act it always should have been—I looked back on that one day as a means to inspire myself to betterment. One day I went from not being able to take a bus, to being able. Maybe that meant that—even if I couldnt yet manage it—some day in the future I could talk to a stranger without needing a close friend by my side. Maybe I’d even talk to a girl. Or I could make a phonecall without needing days of mental preparation. The world was open to me, and all I had to do was to take a deep breath, and step onboard.

It’s weird for me to look back on this now. To some extent I react to it in the same way I imagine most people would: incredulity at how the situation could have bothered me so much. But I remember it so vividly still that there’s another part of me that can still sympathize. I like to think that it makes me better at accepting the difficulties other people have in whatever situations they might struggle with, even if I can’t understand what makes it so hard for them.

Take care of yourselves. And each other.