Memories of Getting My Driver’s License With Diabetes

My oldest son turned 16 last month, and he can now make an appointment to get his driver’s license. However, he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Maybe it’s because I drive him wherever he needs to go, or because he’s worried about his parallel parking, or maybe it’s because he’s not ready. I don’t want to push him, but it’s hard for me to understand why he’s not jumping at the chance to become a licensed driver.

I was at the DMV the first weekend after my sixteenth birthday. I’d been dreaming about my license for months. I’d taken the driver’s ed class, studied the booklet, and spent hours learning how to balance the clutch with the gas without stalling. We lived in Vermont and both of my parents had cars with a stick shift. It felt impossible to master, but my dad was very patient as we lurched along our dirt road until eventually, I got the hang of it.

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Mom picked me up at my boarding school the Saturday morning after my birthday and we drove to the DMV. I was nervous. I’d heard that the test was hard, but I visualized myself walking out of the DMV with my license in my hand, and driving mom’s car home. I imagined myself zipping along the winding country roads, the music turned as loud as mom would allow, and feeling so grown up!

Mom and I arrived at the DMV, and I remember that I had to fill out a form with basic information. There was a list of medical issues, and I checked off Type 1 diabetes. I walked to the woman behind the desk, handed her the form, and returned to my seat to wait my turn. The woman behind the desk called my name. “That was fast!” I said to mom, and took a deep breath. I was ready to take the test. I returned to the woman behind the desk.

“You have diabetes?” She asked, in a loud voice.

I nodded and quickly looked around to see if anyone was listening. I was only two years into my diagnosis, and still very secretive about having diabetes.

“You need a form from your doctor before you can get your license,” she said.

My face flushed. I didn’t have a form. I turned around and looked at mom, panic building in my chest. Mom hurried to stand beside me and asked the woman to repeat what she’d said. The woman explained that I could not take my driving or written test until I had a form from my doctor saying I was in good health. Tears filled my eyes. I blinked to keep them from spilling out. This couldn’t be happening. It was so unfair. I hated diabetes! I ran out of the DMV to mom’s car, climbed in the passenger seat, and released the rush of tears.

I can’t remember what mom said to comfort me, but I’m sure she told me we’d get the form from my doctor and return to the DMV next weekend. Logically, I knew it was a solvable problem, but emotionally, to my 16-year-old self, it was a harsh reminder that I was not like everyone else. Riding back to school in mom’s car, I knew I would have to tell my friends that I didn’t get my license. I also knew they would ask why, and I didn’t want to tell them the truth. I didn’t want them to see me as fragile because I had diabetes. Mom and I returned to the DMV the next weekend with the doctor’s form in hand, I got my license, and I buried the negative experience to the back of my mind.

I hadn’t thought of that day until my son turned 16, and I imagined taking him to the DMV. It’s kind of ironic that he has perfect health, but no interest (yet, anyway) in getting his license. If I could go back in time to that day, I’d tell that woman at the DMV to have more sympathy. I’d remind her that she was dealing with the fragile egos of teenagers and a little empathy could go a long way. I would tell my young self that the woman behind the counter was just the beginning of a series of people in my lifetime who would try to tell me that I couldn’t do something because I had diabetes. I would tell my 16-year-old self not to worry, because we were going to prove them wrong.

Want to learn more about driving and diabetes? Read our articles by Martha Zimmer and nurse David Spero.