Fits and Starts: Getting to Grips with Short Drives

It has been a beautifully fantastic summer in the UK, and the autumn is proving to be just as magnificent. Huge blue skies, bright sunshine and cheerful birdsong have all set the scene for idyllic outdoor happiness.

Sky-500x375It’s been the sort of weather that most drivers must relish. During an afternoon walk, the twins and I counted five or six convertible cars cruising around our neighbourhood. Middle-aged men in driving gloves. Young tribes of mates pumping out music and laughter. Dogs enjoying the wind in their fur, ears and tongues flapping in the breeze.

Of course, we were observing this all from the safety of the footpath. My recent efforts to overcome my fear of driving have come to a standstill for a number of reasons (in some cases, excuses) and so the twins and I had found ourselves demoted to the rank of pedestrians once again.

However, despite a few set-backs, there has been some real progress.

Each of my chosen destinations had one thing in common: utterly hassle-free parking. Despite being the furthest away, the flower farm was the most appealing option because the car park was a large open field with no bays to contend with, just the odd cow-pat.

After an anticlimactic failure to start my pathetic car last month, a breakdown engineer was called to bring it back to life. He was adorned in heavily stained bright yellow overalls, reflecting his jolly yet edgy demeanour, and adopted a slight penchant for sexism.

‘You aware you got moss growing?’ he told me after a pointless examination of the car’s bodywork, given the problem was a flat battery. At first I thought he was referring to the very dead tree under which the car had been parked for so long, but I soon noticed the spread of green spores framing the car’s windows. I felt a pang of sympathy for the neglected vehicle, followed by a sting of embarrassment.

I offered to make the mechanic a cup of tea, my ‘go-to’ solution in moments of unease, and left him to his work and whistling.

£200 later, the car was now fully functioning with a brand new battery, correct pressure in the tyres and oil in the… place where the oil goes. As the mechanic drove off, I made a mental note to swat-up on basic car maintenance during all that lovely free time that I was hoping to magic out of nowhere. My free time ‘to-do’ list looks a bit like this:

  1. sleep
  2. learn basic car maintenance
  3. clean moss off car
  4. drive the bloody thing

Whilst items 1 to 3 have yet to be addressed in any real sense, item 4 has finally been put into action.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘Let’s do it.’

Motor-500x333

There is a really interesting post about driving phobia written by Anxiety Care UK that I wish I had discovered before setting off on my first drive. As well as some fascinating insight into how a driving phobia is sometimes part of a wider ‘anxiety cluster’, there is a useful list of suggested ‘self-exposure’ steps to take when tackling it, ranging from the first stage: ‘sit in the car with the engine running‘ through to the final step: ‘take a long trip on roads that you are unfamiliar with.

My own approach has been a lot more haphazard. I have had to grab the opportunities to drive as and when they arose from the pandemonium of looking after my tiny little twosome. It has involved:

  • the odd drive around the block alone, pootling along at 20mph, smiling and waving at other drivers with a shaky hand
  • a two-minute drive to the local pub with my dad and the twins (no no, there is a soft-play area and they serve tea)
  • occasionally driving to the kids’ new preschool
  • taking my mum for a slightly more chaotic 15 minute drive to a nearby flower farm for a family day out (which involved a broken down bus and a slight panic attack in someone’s driveway)

Each of my chosen destinations had one thing in common: utterly hassle-free parking. Despite being the furthest away, the flower farm was the most appealing option because the car park was an open field with no bays to contend with, just the odd cow-pat.

Car-500x333

As well as my apparent aversion to any type of parking (I need to work on that), another unfortunate fact soon came to light. The car is horrible to drive. It is loud and revvy. The gear-stick is stiff and scrunchy. I can’t find a comfortable driving position however much I adjust the seat. The few skills that I had felt reasonably comfortable with (clutch control, turn in the road, hill starts) now all feel tricky and troublesome. None of this is conducive to keeping my stress levels in check behind the wheel.

I long for the quieter, smoother ride of my driving instructor’s car in which I launched myself up and down the motorway back in the spring – a brief (if a little turbulent) romance that gave me a taste of life in a pretty new car.

My current feelings about my own car are like those you might experience in a new relationship when you suddenly suspect that you may be totally wrong for each other. Faced with the decision about whether to call it quits or to persevere (just in case some of the annoying little things become more bearable over time), you tolerate each outing together in a state of low-level confusion and slight resentment.

And so, I find myself less and less inclined to take this dumpy little car out for a drive. My husband drives it more than me now, despite agreeing with me about the controls but clearly giving less of a toss about that sort of thing.

Perhaps it’s time to clean off the moss and give the car a good wash and polish. A bit of grooming and pampering may help me learn to like the scrappy old thing and strengthen our bond.

I suspect driving through a car-wash would feel like a ride in the house of horrors, so I’m off to buy a new bucket and some extra j-cloths.

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.