My Driving Phobia
And Why I No Longer Try to Conquer It...
Attempting to drive this car in the snow would be my nightmare scenario. However, driving along the motorway or round the mountain tops would be even more of a nightmare for me.....
I have suffered from a severe driving phobia ever since I passed my driving test 27 years ago. Strangely, whilst learning to drive I was not aware that I was going to have a problem. Maybe the safety of a competent driver next to me, basically telling me what to do, delayed the onset of this serious problem. Would it have been better if I had never learnt to drive? If I had suffered these severe panic attacks during my driving lessons, I might just have given up. As it is, I can and do drive to a limited extent. This does sometimes confuse my friends, who assume that if I have a phobia of driving, I'll have completely given up. Not so!
Let's go back to the beginning... I passed my driving test at the age of 25, after 4 attempts over a period of 4 years. At the time I thought it would be the ultimate freedom to drive; I was married to a man who did not drive. Eventually he learnt to drive, but he preferred me to drive, so that he could have a drink or two... I'll leave that there, as this is not his story.
I bought a car, and almost as soon as I drove as a qualified driver, the tension and the panic attacks started. I was convinced that something was wrong with the car, and that I was going to be tipped over the edge of every hill or bend. I soon established that I was more comfortable with narrow, single-track roads, so motorways and dual-carriageways were a no-go area for me. For many years, I managed to drive everywhere I wanted to go by avoiding motorways; I could deal with major A roads. I even drove from Folkestone to Birmingham, and from Folkestone to Torquay. Mind you, that trip did involve an over-night stay in a B and B. A couple of times I braved the motorway, as I could deal with it on a good day when feeling positive about life. I have to add here that I have never suffered from any form of depression or mental illness.
Whilst living in Folkestone and being married for the first time, I did get frustrated and try to over-come my phobia of motorways. I tried beta-blockers and talking to a psychologist. I then tried hypnotherapy, and after that had a really nightmare journey from Maidstone, where I worked, back home to Folkestone, I think I gave up driving to work after that, and had to start taking the train.
After having a baby, I sold the car, as by then my husband had lost his driving license through drunk-driving. Skip forward a few years, and I was in a new relationship with a partner who loved driving. We married after a few years, and no longer did I have to worry about having to drive. However, Paul did buy me a car, as it was useful for my short journeys to work and to the shops and school.
For some inexplicable reason, from this time onwards (I met Paul in 2000 and we married in 2004) the driving phobia became progressively worse. It took Paul a little time to come to understand it completely, and sometimes he did try to help by devising routes for me to get to places which avoided all roads which made me panic.
I have not really explained exactly how the panic manifests itself, although I am sure many people are familiar with the concept of a panic attack. When the fear takes over, I feel as if I am going to tip over the edge of a hill, and have the desire to drive onto the verge or as close to the left-hand side of the road as I can. On some occasions this has resulted in my taking the wrong road, because of an inability to pull over to the right. I become physically incapable of keeping my foot on the accelerator and just slow down to a ridiculously low speed. In a manual car, I change to a low gear. Eventually I just have to stop the car and put my head in my hands. I have been known to ring Paul and get him to come and rescue me —this can be complicated, as he has had to bring another driver with him.
A few years ago I wrote off my car by not looking after it properly, so Paul suggested I just use his automatic car if I needed to. An automatic for me is much better, as there are no gears to fiddle with! It did not cure my phobia though.
The list of roads and conditions which set off my panic attacks has grown over the years. Add to motorways the following: dual-carriageways, big roundabouts (most roundabouts are big in my estimation!), hairpin bends, big bridges, wide roads with no over-hanging trees, the dark, the rain, snow, sleet, drivers who tailgate me, getting lost, closure of a road on my chosen route to my destination... If you add to this list the possibility of driving in Europe on the wrong side of the road (no thank you!) then you can see that there are not many roads to suit me!
The roads I like to drive on have a 30 mile an hour limit, and are best of all if they have road humps! I do drive on a couple of local roads with 60 mile an hour limits, but not for long enough to get up to more than 40.
My fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I make up my mind to have a slightly challenging drive, I'll spend the previous 24 hours thinking about it and visually taking myself on the route. I'll lose my appetite too. Those who know me well know that I love my food, so this is not normal! The last challenging drive I had was attempting to get to a rehearsal for Iolanthe in Taplow village hall. I gave up, parked the car by the river and ended up walking the rest of the way in the dark!
A few years ago, I just put my foot down (not on the accelerator!) and said no more! Now I drive to Waitrose (very important!) on occasions, as I have a special route with lots of road humps! However, Paul and I usually do the shopping together. I can drive to my old school and I can drive to my parents' house, but not in the dark of winter! Driving is no pleasure for me; being driven by others is sheer joy, as is taking a taxi or catching a train or bus. Why do something which makes me utterly miserable? It is not freedom at all; for me it is something which would trap me and make me dread every day. Accepting my phobia and learning to live with it rather than overcome it has been a very liberating experience.
By the way, the baby Jessica mentioned earlier on was always really understanding about my fear. We paid for her driving lessons and she has grown up to be a competent driver and another chauffeur (currently in New Zealand so not available!)
The next stage for me would be the driverless car—would I ever have a go in one of these? Who knows?!
I'd like to dedicate this article to my amazing husband Paul, my equally amazing daughter Jessica, my parents Monica and Richard (also great drivers who have helped my out of tricky situations) and to all of my friends and family (too numerous to name here) who have ever given me lifts in their cars!