Lone Driver: Life After Refresher Lessons

‘You either take a (BEEP) or get off the toilet,’ my sister told me on the phone. We had been discussing my recent refresher lessons, my neglected car and whether I could bite the bullet and drive it just once around the block.

I knew it was time. I had just returned from the supermarket with another puncture in one of the buggy’s tyres and, with two growing twins and a load of shopping, it had taken a gargantuan effort to push it home. The wind was against me as I walked along the main road, leaning into the side of the buggy so that it didn’t veer off the pavement. I could almost hear the pity coming from every vehicle that drove past us, as if they were gossiping about me in a secret automobile language.

When we finally got home, I was ready to collapse. My little Polo was waiting for us under the tree, with a fresh blob of bird poo on its roof and a collection of dead leaves around each of its wheels.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘Not now. Buggy’s blown a tyre.’

Tyre-500x332

I had taken five refresher lessons in the end. The cocksure part of my character had imagined (or, perhaps, hoped) that I would only need three, but my instructor and I decided to go heavy on the motorway driving to try and conquer my slip-road discombobulations. During my last lesson, I must have joined the motorway a dozen times, coming off at each exit so that I could turn round and practise joining it again. I wouldn’t have managed this alone or with a friend or relative. My instructor, Stephanie, was great at giving me emotional space and, more importantly, clear directions.

The story goes that it takes 21 days to break a habit. I only had a one-hour lesson to convince my brain that motorway driving was nothing to be afraid of. Whilst I had no idea whether I was heading north or south, joining the motorway did begin to feel a little less terrifying. But let’s not get carried away; a low-level residual panic could still throw my gear-logic out the window every time I fretfully fumbled my way into the flow of motorway traffic.

Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities, and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick.

I didn’t expect to feel ready to pack a bag and embark on a road trip up to Scotland but, after the final exhausting lesson, it did occur to me that the time we had spent driving back and forth between two motorway junctions could have been spent driving to my sister’s house or even half way to the coast.

Surely I could take my own car out for a drive around the block?

twins 2-400x267twins 3-400x267

A few days later, on a bright Sunday afternoon, I picked up my cars keys and casually told my husband that I was going for a drive. He was busy in the garden watching the twins as they frantically threw themselves (and each other) down the slide. He must not have heard me properly over the squeals of joy and screaming tantrums, because he just said ‘OK’ before rushing to moderate a very heated disagreement about the correct direction of slide-traffic.

As I left the house, feeling jittery and tense, I could hear the garden dispute escalating into hysterics. I opened the car door and sat at the wheel, regaining my composure by humming a song from ‘Moana’ (the kid’s current favourite movie).

Once I had closed the door and fastened my seat belt, it was just me and the stillness of the car. I took a deep breath and, grinning at my sheer gritty determination to get going, I turned the key in the ignition.

It was therefore a huge disappointment, but perhaps also a slight relief, when the engine failed to start. Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick. But I’m no fool – I knew it was the battery. It was as flat as the buggy’s tyre and my now deflated mood.

And so I returned to the house, immediately gravitating towards the kettle and adopting my wistful pose at the kitchen window. It was only then that I noticed the tree, under which the car had remained parked for so long, had completely and utterly died. Perhaps the car’s neglect had spread to its roots and it had tragically failed to bud into life, just like the devastating darkness that spread across the ocean and infected the coconut groves on Moana’s island village after the heart of Te Fiti was stolen by Maui (I might have seen it too many times).

And so, as the kettle gently simmered, I began to channel my inner Moana and thought it could be an appropriate moment to break out into a stirring song about triumph in adversity, overcoming self-doubt and set-backs. After all, what she wanted most in life was to be a voyager (yes, I’ve definitely seen it too many times).

But instead I made a cup of tea and looked up the number of the breakdown service.

Tree

Starting Point: Forced to Face the Fear

I see her every morning through the kitchen window. The sight of her – small, old and in urgent need of a wash – flips my stomach with dread every time I fill up the kettle. She waits patiently positioned under the same tree day after day, her large bulbous eyes staring, unblinking. I wish I had never agreed to take her on. She can’t speak, and yet I hear her loud and clear:

‘Are we going for a drive today?’

Polo

I ignore her, occupying myself with mugs and tea bags. Before long, the business of the day has started. One of the twins appears at my side and wipes her nose on my pyjama leg. The other marches in to register his breakfast preferences with punctuated demands, as if reading from a list of bullet points (‘Toast! Nana! Spoon! Biscuit!’).

I load the washing machine and turn on the radio. I switch on the kettle for the third time. Snot-twin is now trying to climb up my snot-smeared leg, whimpering for a cuddle. Breakfast-twin has started emptying the bottom kitchen cupboards, foraging for food but finding only empty Tupperware.

There’s enough noise now to drown out the silent disapproval coming from outside the kitchen window. The dishwasher unloading begins, and with help from the twins, its contents are distributed across the floor of every room, including the hallway. I can’t find my cup of tea (did I make one?) so I pour another, only to find it moments later in the microwave. The twins are adding cars, puzzles, building blocks and play dough to the landscape of pots and pans that has evolved over the living room carpet. I am carefully venturing into it to retrieve whatever I can to prepare breakfast when one of the kids rushes past me out of nowhere, leaving behind a potent pong.

I scoop up the little creature before the tip of her crayon touches the wall. Deafened by screams, I perform a nappy change in record time. Her brother has wandered over to investigate. Just as his finger plunges into the pot of nappy cream, I’ve scooped him up and changed him too. Desperate for another drink, I make a mad dash out the front door to the bins with two steaming hot parcels of morning poo. As I slam the lid down, I can feel her watching me. I’d forgotten she was still there.

She is a 14-year-old black Volkswagen Polo and she used to be my mother’s car. She came to us shortly after my husband and I left London with the twins and moved to a small town. My mum hardly drove her anymore, so she thought we’d jump at the chance to pay for the road tax, insurance, fuel and general upkeep of a car that I’d never want to drive. Not because she’s an old car (‘She’s never let me down, darling!’), but because there is one life-skill that appears to come so easily and effortlessly to everyone on this planet except for me: driving. I am totally terrified of it.

I once arrived at a mums’ group out of breath, sweaty and dripping wet from a sudden downpour, just as everyone was zipping up coats and getting ready to leave. In their CARS!

Driving Phobia

Until recently, I didn’t know that ‘driving phobia’ was a thing. In her book How to Overcome Fear of Driving, author and recovered driving-phobe Joanne Mallon points out that there is no fancy medical word for the fear of driving. Other anxiety disorders are more familiar to us because of the well-known terms used to describe them. We all know that claustrophobia is a fear of confined spaces and that arachnophobia is a fear of spiders. I looked them all up, there are names for even the more obscure phobias. Pogonophobia is the fear of beards, for example, but nothing for driving. So, is it really a phobia?

Phobias are often described as irrational fears because they are usually triggered by things or situations that present no obvious danger at all, like beards. At the source of them may be a traumatic event, but they can also develop over time if left to propagate in the right atmosphere of life’s stresses and anxieties. The symptoms of a phobia include feelings of panic, nausea and dizziness. The usual coping mechanism adopted by phobia sufferers is to avoid the source of their fear at all costs.

I can’t deny that the symptoms are there, having had several episodes of hysteria in the driving seat and thereby successfully avoiding driving for many, many years. But to me, driving is terrifying because the associated danger is so obvious. You only have to witness the aftermath of a terrible car crash to understand what you’re dealing with when you’re at the wheel of a vehicle. Instead of an actual phobia, isn’t the fear of driving just a healthy reticence to throw yourself into the path of crazy drivers?

‘This is where driving phobia is trickier than other phobias because sufferers can genuinely convince themselves that driving is dangerous,’ writes Mallon, ‘… but driving can also be fun. It can bring you freedom and opportunities. It can support your life, rather than fear dragging you down.’ I’ve heard it all before. I have family and friends who say that they enjoy driving, that it even helps them relax. Oh please! This notion couldn’t be more alien to me. Driving instils in me nothing but feelings of abject terror.

Throughout my years of driving turmoil, I was often just referred to as a ‘nervous driver’. Naturally, this was the title I began to accept for myself. Being a nervous driver didn’t sound so bad. I knew plenty of nervous drivers, especially in London. A busy metropolis is the perfect place for a driving phobia to go undetected. Surely nobody really enjoys driving in a mad city. I knew very few people in London who owned a car. We all travelled on the underground or hopped on and off the buses. I even owned a bike for a short period of time, taking my life into my own hands and cycling from Hackney to Wood Green to attend classes and rehearsals at drama school (my enthusiasm for this cycle ride was pretty short-lived as anyone familiar with this particular London route will understand).

So, it wasn’t until this old Polo came into my life that the need for driving reared its ugly head again and forced me to recognise how petrified I really was. Moving to a new town with two little ones to cart about meant my old excuses were starting to wear thin, and yet I stuck by them. ‘I love walking, I’m a walker… I need to keep my fitness up anyway… We don’t need to be a two-car-family… The best way to explore a new town is on foot anyway…’ Mallon has been there, done that. ‘Yeah, right,’ she writes, ‘You can fool everybody apart from yourself.’

Pram
No licence required. Convertible.

Of course, she’s right. Searching out local parent groups and kids’ activities soon threw up obvious problems. Many were too far to walk to, and the local bus service seemed sparse and illogical to me. We did manage one trip to the supermarket by bus but, as it turned out, this small victory was a total fluke. All my subsequent attempts to board with my double buggy were thwarted by crowds of happy OAPs with walking frames and trolley bags, and it was just so much easier to back out and walk than to navigate their wheeled paraphernalia.

Walking with the twin buggy can be a fun activity in itself. As well as benefitting from some fresh air, the kids can excitedly look out for loud trucks, dribbling dogs and stinky bins (‘these are a few of my favourite things’). And it actually is a great way to explore a new neighbourhood, but not a whole new county. My heart would sink when kind and welcoming mums on local social networking sites would suggest playdates in locations just too out-of-reach for this pedestrian and her mammoth buggy.

Our social options became limited to a local weekly playgroup, toddler tales at the library, an indoor play centre in town and, of course, frequent (tedious) visits to the playground. This may sound like a nice manageable list of things to do with two toddlers, but some of these outings involve a very brisk 25 minute walk there and back – in ALL weathers. It’s great for my fitness levels, but not so much fun when deprived of sleep. And let’s not forget it can sometimes take me an hour and half just to get the three of us out of the house. When we first moved here, I once arrived at a mums’ group out of breath, sweaty and dripping wet from a sudden downpour, just as everyone was zipping up coats and getting ready to leave. In their CARS!

So, enough is enough. I can’t sustain my current situation as a full-time mum if I am too scared to drive. There may soon come a day when I need to be somewhere in a hurry, the doctors’ surgery or even A&E. And I certainly don’t want to pass on this fear to the twins. As far as they’re concerned, I know everything and I can do anything. I’d like to string this illusion out for as long as possible, because soon they’ll be older and wiser and be able to see right through me. The first thing to do is to dig deep and explore where this fear came from, and then figure out how to get back into the driving seat. And so, my journey begins… (ok, too many driving puns).

Fear of Driving Mallon

 

 

 

 

‘How to Overcome Fear of Driving’ by Joanne Mallon is available to buy on Amazon.