On the 27th July this year I managed something I never thought I could do: I passed my driving test.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I genuinely never thought that I'd be able to drive. I used to joke that I would have to become rich and famous so I could always afford taxis or a chauffeur. I started learning when I was 18, and was doing ok, but then a school friend died in a car accident. We weren't particularly close, but she was always nice to me. She was the only driver involved, she wasn't under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it was broad daylight on a road she'd driven down a hundred times. They couldn't explain why she crashed, which scared me more than anything else. Something in my brain said "In a car, you can do everything right and still get killed."
I then went to uni and couldn't afford food, let alone driving lessons, so I got to hide my fear behind my lack of funds. It meant I didn't have to confess to the fact that the mere idea of driving made me feel sweaty and sick. I relied on public transport, but trains and buses got me to everywhere I needed to go, so it all worked out. After uni, I got a full-time job in an optician and rented a flat 20 minutes' walk from work. My pitiful wages barely covered my rent, so again I couldn't afford to drive. However, after 6 months of driving myself deeper into debt just to survive, I got a transfer to another branch of the optician's in Salisbury, and at the age of 22 I moved back into my parents' house.
Living at home I could still get to work by bus, even though it took over an hour each way and cost nearly £90 a month. After a few months I got headhunted for a content writing job, and started working regular hours. After settling in and getting my finances on track, in January 2015 I tried to get back to driving lessons, despite my horrible anxiety. I really struggled to find a local instructor with availability and, unfortunately, ended up with a complete arsehole called Henry. He was ancient, rude, and wasted much of my lesson time smoking. He also called me a "silly bitch" when I made mistakes, which I did a lot because I was so nervous! I was too polite and felt too trapped to sack him. At the end of every lesson I'd try to be cagey about when I could book another lesson but he'd be so aggressively pushy that I felt forced to book more sessions. I didn't learn anything, and the frustration of being called names and making no progress knocked any confidence I had right out of me. Hundreds of pounds of lessons later I was no closer to passing my test and I was absolutely miserable.
By sheer quirk of circumstance I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on a drug called quetiapine, and my doctor told me that, if it made me feel drowsy, I shouldn't drive. I'll be honest, having an excuse to quit my driving lessons rather softened the blow of being diagnosed with a mental illness! I ditched my driving instructor on the basis of my new medication, which then resulted in him calling my mobile and home phones until my mum answered and told him explicitly to leave me alone. I stopped driving for about a year after that, ostensibly because I had to wait for the effects of the drugs to settle, but largely because I just couldn't face it.
One complication of my mental health is that when I'm under extreme stress I start to experience visual disturbances. This can be anything from my vision appearing to "bend" to full-blown hallucinations. During the worst of the driving lessons with Henry I could "see" trees falling into the road when there was nothing there. Luckily since being on quetiapine, I have only "seen things" a handful of times.
A year or so later my mum got chatting to a nice lady driving instructor, and mentioned my bad experience with Henry. Nice lady driving instructor told my mum that Henry had a reputation for being a dick, and that plenty of other learner drivers had been swindled by him and needed extra lessons just to restore their confidence. She even said that, had he not recently retired, she'd be encouraging me to make a formal complaint against him. Hearing that actually made me feel a little better; knowing that I wasn't the only one who had struggled and been so upset made me feel less useless and powerless.
So, on the recommendation of a colleague, I hired a new driving instructor called Dave. I explained my history with driving to him, and told him how nervous I was, and he was really good about it. I had about four or five lessons with Dave, and his laid-back attitude meant that I didn't feel guilty or frightened when I made mistakes. He helped me start to feel comfortable at the wheel, and while I didn't necessarily learn huge amounts in that introductory period, I did start to gain a little confidence. After getting back into the swing I stopped lessons again, but this time with good reason.
I got insured on my mum’s car and started driving with her. A lot. I think I actually spent about a year as a provisional driver, doing drives to and from work and band practice with her in the passenger seat. She was very patient (if occasionally a bit screechy) and allowing me to take small, regular drives really helped. Everything about driving started to feel more natural and less like a deliberate thought process, and while I still needed help with tricky manoeuvres and the roundabouts in Salisbury (three lanes, six exits… why?!) I was finally starting to feel less like I was going to puke every time I got into the car.
When I felt emotionally ready to take my test I then hired my fourth, and final, driving instructor to tidy up my bad driving habits and help me get to grips with those bastard roundabouts. After seven years of believing that driving simply wasn’t something I could do I actually passed my driving test. I mean, it took two attempts, but I did it!
I now have my own car and have been on quite a few biggish driving adventures. I love my car (though I don’t love the £1400 bill I just had for work on him, RIP my bank balance) and the freedom of being able to hop in the driver’s seat, throw on some music and just go places. Do I still get nervous when I’m driving in the dark or in poor weather? Sure. But I figure that’s just self-preservation. If anything I sometimes even get a little overconfident and go a tiny bit over the speed limit - one of a few bad habits that I'm working on.
So what would I tell someone dealing with a fear of driving?
1. Take no shit from driving instructors. They need to keep you safe and teach you an important life skill, and the lessons aren’t exactly cheap. If they aren’t ticking all the boxes then don’t feel obligated. Learn from my experience!
2. Practice, practice, practice. Beg a friend, bribe a parent, anyway you can. Being a named driver and practicing in my mum’s car meant I could take control of when I practiced and which routes I took, so I started to feel like I was truly in control of the car, and it also meant my insurance was slightly cheaper when I got my own car.
3. Think beyond simply driving. Learning to drive is a means to an end. Focusing on the convenience and potential for fun and freedom was key for me. It helped me get back in the driver’s seat and gave me a reason to keep trying.
If you’re learning to drive, best of luck in your efforts! I’m living proof that it really is possible.