How to Develop a Fear of Driving

This started out as a ‘how I’m tackling it’ sort of post, but I realised there’s quite a lot to say on developing fears that change (diminish) your life. So the conquering bit will come next…

Most people take driving for granted. I’m writing this for the handful of people who totally *get* the terror of manouvering a hunk of metal at high speed just inches away from other hunks of metal. Those people who feel so overwhelmed behind the wheel that they talk themselves into a cold sweat just sitting there. This is for you (though you driver-pros: you might identify with some of this if you’ve got your own personal demons… public speaking, heights, whatever).

SO. I passed my driving test half my lifetime ago. It was after a year of eager-to-please driving lessons because I was 18 and it was the thing to do. I never cracked it. I felt like I fluked the test, then went to live in Hong Kong, then York and forgot about the whole deal.

Then everyone got older, stopped being students and started driving. And slowly, slowly, slowly I started to feel less like a grown up and more steeped in shame that I just couldn’t do it. I tried a couple of times, driving round car parks. Nearly crashed into Sainsbury’s trolley park in first gear through nerves. I learned that I couldn’t drive. And I really didn’t want to, or need to, but I didn’t like myself either. Driving was what grown ups did and I didn’t do it.

I spent my twenties trying to brush it off. Richard and I didn’t have a car for ages, which was fine as we lived in a small, walkable city.  I told myself that car non-ownership was an ethical stance, we were happy living without one. (And that would have been great, were it true – rather than being an excuse. An acquaintance of mine once likened cars to guns: “You need to know how to use one, but never want to have to.” Extreme but not even something I could identify with, what with NOT BEING ABLE TO DRIVE.)

When I was pregnant I had refresher lessons, and my instructor was diplomatically but noticeably shocked by how in-pieces I was. Anytime another car came by I would shake and sweat a very distinct ‘about to kill-or-be-killed’ sweat.  I got to 38 weeks pregnant and unconfidently driving on A-roads when we called it quits – he was understandably worried about imminent labour (and, I felt, quite glad to let go of this rather strange client).

So it all went quiet again. Another half-hearted attempt during my second pregnancy, this time with a very nervous Richard in the passenger seat. I had a panic attack trying to park at a Homebase car park (we didn’t even want to go to Homebase, it was just an easy drive).

Why did this happen? How did I become so convinced that I was incapable of doing something that other adults took for granted?

  1. I never wanted to drive. I was doing it for all the wrong reasons: because everyone else was, because I felt I should, because I wanted to please people. So I never took charge of the learning process and got comfortable with what *my* needs as a learner were.
  2. I catastrophised. Everytime I sat behind the wheel I pictured everything that could go wrong, and the worst possible outcome. So turning left became a high stakes game of crash and burn and turning right didn’t happen at all. This froze me. Totally unfixable until I was prepared to face it.
  3. I only noticed the bad. If I drove and everything was fine apart from stalling at a hill-start, well, that was a write-off. No matter that I’d negotiated roundabouts, slow moving traffic, gear changes, tractors, the dreaded right-turns onto major roads and parked cars without incident. I’d stalled and therefore I couldn’t drive.
  4. I credited everyone else with absolute competence. It didn’t occur to me that (at least some of the) other drivers might feel uncertain about what they were doing. And that made the gulf enormous: us and them and I was evidently useless and could never become one of ‘them’. More than this, far worse, I began to sub-consciously associate the ability to drive with competence. And my sense of self-worth quietly eroded.
  5. I was terrified about what everyone thought. Making a fool of myself by not overtaking at the right time, or holding up a line of traffic by not spotting the gap to turn into. That mattered. So much. So much that it kept me off the road. Never mind that to them it would’ve been fleeting irritation at worst. And that, really, if they were that unhappy about someone else’s driving they were seriously in need of a new hobby or some meditation or something.
  6. I didn’t do anything about it. At first it because there was no need, and then it was because I was embarrassed and scared. But I let the rot set in and it grew rottener and rottener.

It was so readily done. Half a lifetime of talking myself out of the ability to do something. I’m working on fixing it (coming soon!).

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