The Road To Nowhere
Driving phobia, driving anxiety, fear of driving – whichever way you choose to phrase it – is a product of our time. Astonishingly, there are no official statistics to show just how prevalent the condition is, but who doesn’t know someone who says they ‘don’t drive in the city’ or who steadfastly refuses to go on a motorway, ever, or who brands themselves as ‘not a confident driver’?
The problem with any phobia is that it is life limiting. In this instance, all the freedom and possibility that being able to drive confers is wiped out, replaced by invisible barriers that the sufferer builds around him- or herself, ranging from an absolute refusal to drive, to a bizarre set of conditional journeys ie ‘I’ll drive to the shops but only on a Tuesday, when the roads are quieter, only after 10am, once the commuter and school traffic is gone and only if I’m back by 11.30 to avoid the lunchtime rush.’
While to others this seems regimented and restrictive, to the person with the problem it’s a logical approach: i] reduce the journey time (ie exposure to the cause of the anxiety); 2] reduce the risk of other traffic (ie eliminate as many variables as you can); 3] have a clear plan for route and timings (ie be as in control of the situation as possible).
How do I know all this? Reader, I’ve been there…
While not everyone can pinpoint what triggered their condition I know that mine developed after I was involved, through no fault of my own, in a five car collision. I saw my GP, who prescribed rest and pain relief for my neck and back, but offered no advice on dealing with the mental fallout of the day’s events.
When my car was returned to me a few weeks later, therefore, I got straight back in it and went for a drive – urged on by my husband who said that the best thing I could do was to get back in the driving seat. Literally, on this occasion.
At first I put my jitters down to the crash, sure that they’d dissipate the more I drove. Sitting ramrod straight, clutching the wheel for grim death, sweating and continually checking my rear view mirror for potential danger, I was clearly anything but okay. The merest hint of a mistake from a fellow driver, especially one that could put my safety at risk, resulted in my screaming at the top of my voice, gesticulating and blaring the horn.
Avoidance was my next tactic. If I could take a bus, a train or a taxi then I would – however lengthy, complicated or expensive it made the journey.
Moreover, it didn’t just happen when I was driving. As a passenger I became, to put it politely, a complete and utter nightmare. As well as phantom braking – where I’d involuntarily put my foot out as if to hit the brake – I’d grab at the sides of my seat, the door and even the dashboard; I’d twitch, jump and yell and constantly check my side mirror to see what was coming behind us.
This went on for years until the doctor I was seeing for my ongoing back injury discovered that the accident was still also affecting me mentally (after my throwaway comment about getting to the clinic by train rather than car), and recommended referral to a specialist. I’ll forever be grateful to him for picking up on what I said and asking me to expand on it: the first step in taking back control of my life.
Most people shy away from revealing mental health problems, either through embarrassment or because fear of what the treatment process involves. I was no different. I approached my first session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with some degree of trepidation.
I needn’t have worried. Both simple and painless – primarily involving me talking – the sessions proved fascinating as I grew to understand why I was had such extreme symptoms. Apparently, my brain had never fully processed the accident so every time I got in a car I was reliving the experience.
That’s not to say that I was cured overnight. I had exercises to do at home and challenges to undertake between sessions but the results were amazing. In a short time I was calmer in the car, willing to undertake different journeys and happier to be out and about.
Seven years on, I’ve never looked back and have clocked up thousands of miles at the wheel. If driving fills you with dread and motorways reduce you to a quivering mess, it might just be time to seek out professional help.