This Is Fine. is Broadly's weekly newsletter about the previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing. In this week's letter, Jill Gutowitz writes about the healing properties of long drives soundtracked by Little Mix. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy from Broadly and This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.
Growing up, I was the youngest person in my class, and I felt like I'd never shake the identity of also being the only kid without a driver's license. After at long last I passed my license test, I was bursting with excitement on my first drive. I pulled out of my parents’ driveway in my mom’s black and white Mini Cooper, cramped into its tiny cabin with its knobs and buttons and wheels at my fingertips like Carol Danvers in her cockpit. I popped in a mix CD I had burned—yes, with the tracklist scrawled on its surface in Sharpie—and blasted Girl Talk. When I got to the bottom of the steep hill I lived on, I paused and cried happy tears. Finally.
I’m very independent, bordering on “loner,” and, over the years, long drives have become a constant in my life. There’s something so distinctly isolating, yet freeing about driving—its solitude feels like a recharge rather than loneliness. In every tumultuous or metamorphic period of my life, I’ve also found myself in circumstances that required long and frequent drives—not only practically, but to keep my head together.
During my last semester of college, I was severely depressed for the first time and commuting to school 45 minutes each way. At first, the ride felt daunting—I feared that I was wasting hours of my life. It was true that these hours were important, but that’s because I spent them in the car, thinking. Eventually, I looked forward to those damp and woodsy roads, the way the windshield wipers squeaked across the glass, and obviously, the music I listened to—the best part of any drive, as I knew from the very first one I took.
As a bullheaded pop stan, I can match most major pop albums of the last couple decades to a distinct chapter of my life. Sucker by Charli XCX: a coming-out album. 1989 by Taylor Swift: a breakup album. Pure Heroine by Lorde: a melancholy falling-in-love album. In college, I beat the hell out of Rihanna’s Talk That Talk on those rides. I remember sobbing to “Drunk on Love,” a song about losing control and yearning for what you don’t have. I had just flown home from a semester in Los Angeles, interning at Chelsea Lately—a dream job, living with new friends, beaching and sunning between classes. I had independence, something I had never had growing up, or even in college, when I was either commuting from my parents’ house or living close to home.
When I came back from Los Angeles for that last semester of college, I had no friends, I was living at home, and everything was gray: the soggy way New Jersey defrosts in the springtime matched my depressive state. I had finally gotten a taste of independence, but it was fleeting. Those long car rides to school were the only time I was alone with myself, the person I had come to love and believe in when I lived in Los Angeles. I was free to cry and sing and laugh as loud as I wanted, without fear of judgement. The intangibility of throttling through space felt freeing: Someone might have seen me sobbing or singing or dancing through the window, but by then, I was already gone.
In 2017, I went through a harrowing breakup—the kind that makes you indifferent about the possibility of getting hit by a bus. I was in a career lull, nearly penniless, and living with my parents again. Just like in college, I’d sit in my pop music pod, crank the volume, lower my windows, and abscond into the night, letting the wind weave through my fingers and the Taylor Swift leak into my soul. That series of drives was one of the most transformative epochs of my life. I was shattered, cracked open by heartbreak, stripped of self-worth and self-esteem. Piece by piece, Little Mix song by Little Mix song, I remembered the things that once made me feel happy and whole: thumping pop songs and spending quality time with myself.
Even now, I retreat to my car when I need its restorative impact on my mood. I struggle with my mental health on a daily basis—I’m severely anxious and am prone to panic attacks and depressive swings. On my worst days, I get in the car and drive—to my parents’ house, to a vegan ice cream spot; to a Wendy’s (the closest one is 20 minutes away—fucking bullshit). It always helps.
The fact that my heart is beating at all is proof that I’ve made it out of my darkest days alive, and when I’m panicking, that’s what’s most reassuring. If I can overcome the most treacherous years of my life, then I can pull myself out of a spiral over a girl not texting me back. All I need is Dua Lipa, my car, and maybe a vape. (I’m millennial trash, whatever.) Cars are secluded, insulated, comfortable, and capable of warming your butt cheeks. It’s the one place I can blast music so loud that I feel it pounding in my chest. I guess what I’m trying to say: Here in my car, I feel safest of all. I can lock all my doors. It’s the only way to live. In cars.