Driving, Trauma and Limitations

CW: In addition to talking about driving, this post also talks about suicide. Please proceed with caution.

I don’t have a driving license. In the countryside, where I grew up, this is absolutely unheard of – because you can’t get anywhere of substance without being able to drive. Want a job? You drive. Want to go food shopping? You drive. Or at best you move to a town or city, at which point you might as well not be in the countryside – but if you want to go anywhere with friends, you probably still need to drive anyway.

But I had a mental breakdown when I was 17, and went to university in central London when I was 18 – so I never learned. It was always my intention to escape the countryside. I didn’t like it there. I didn’t like feeling dependant on people. At this point, my dad had driven me to and from sixth form for two years; it was 40 minutes from where we lived. I was tired of being so needy all the time.

At this point, I wasn’t afraid of driving – but I was about to become afraid.

Because when I was at university, I experienced two suicide attempts. They were not the sort that you conjure in your mind when you think of such things. You don’t get stories about people who almost stepped in front of a train. Or almost stepped into traffic. But those experiences still affect me, ten years later. I can remember that feeling, that desire and intent, as vividly as if I was still walking up Borough High Street in the rain.

Since then, I’ve never felt the same in a car.

It’s not that I can’t travel at all. I’m able to get into cars with people and be driven to places. It’s just always, always anxiety inducing. It doesn’t matter who’s driving, or where we’re going. The speed we’re going makes a difference, and what sort of place we’re driving around, but it never entirely negates the anxiety I feel.

Sometimes it’s bearable. Sometimes I’ve come close to having panic attacks before because we’ve had to drive along a cliffside road. Or if I realise we’re going fast – like on a motorway – I will find myself gripping the armrests. It’s always there, and I don’t normally mention it, because there’s not much I can do to avoid it.

But, because I’m also unfairly nonchalant about my trauma, we moved to the countryside.

“It’ll be fine!” I said, confidently. “I’ll learn to drive and then it won’t be a problem.”

Shortly after we started planning to move to the countryside, I was put on my in-laws’ car insurance. My very kind and exceedingly patient mother-in-law took me for about three “driving lessons”. These each lasted half an hour at the absolute most, because I came out of all of them feeling like I’d had to give a speech to a thousand people.

I could do the mechanics. Those I picked up easily. What I couldn’t do was cope with my anxiety during it. All I ever did was drive up and down the road we lived on. It was a residential street, and as with a lot of residential streets in greater London, it had many parked cars along it. There was tons of space between them; it was a suitably wide road. You could’ve gotten two cars passing inbetween the parked ones.

Did this help my anxiety? Hell no. Every time I drove up that road my mind was going I am going to crash I am going to hit one of these cars. When traffic came ahead of or behind me, I was terrified. So terrified that I lost my grasp on what I was meant to do mechanically.

At one point, trying to pull away at the top of the road, I stalled seven times. There was a queue behind me. They started honking their horns. Eventually they passed me. I managed to pull away and get round the corner, but that was it for me.

Now, a few years later, I’ve got a problem.

And that problem is this: the university that I have gotten into, that I am going to in September, is 40 minutes away if you’re driving.

You can get there on the train. It’s over twice as long to get there, but you can do it. Now in terms of that time, or taking trains, I don’t mind it at all anxiety wise. What triggers my anxiety about it is this: it will cost me £1200 a term for a journey that isn’t at all direct. Trains aren’t cheap or well organised here.

For that £1200, I could completely pay for the cost of learning to drive. When you bear in mind I’ve also got a second term at this campus, and bring it to a potential £2400, I could also pay for the insurance and fuel. It starts to get really hard to say no to it.

But since I realised this and made the gung-ho declaration of “It’s fine, I’ll just learn to drive by September”, I’ve started to feel really, really horrible. It isn’t that I don’t want to be able to drive. I would love it. I would love not feeling that I can’t go anywhere other than the town we live in without it costing £30 at a minimum.

Most of all, it still hurts that when my brother was sick, I couldn’t just get in a car and be at the hospital in two hours. It took six hours on the train, from door to door.

But I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I can push through this trauma.

I’ve not said this out loud to anyone yet, so this is really hard. It feels an awful lot like I’m letting people down. I’m probably not, but it feels like it all the same. Every time I have to admit that I cannot do something feels like a tremendous failure.

But the truth is that there is not a single day that I go out of the house and don’t remember that urge to step in front of traffic. I religiously cross roads only when the lights are green. When I’m crossing somewhere without a crossing point, I can’t chance it. I have to wait until no cars are anywhere nearby at all. When anyone with me walks right along the edge of the pavement I feel sick.

I don’t feel that urge anymore. I don’t want it. The fact that I don’t have the ideation that I once did is a huge relief. But the thought is there, every time. And every time I get in a car, whether I’m driving or there as a passenger, that memory feeds into my ever-present anxiety.

I don’t want to have to face that every day.

The limits anxiety puts on us are hard to see, sometimes. It doesn’t mean they’re not there.

This, more than anything, is why I personally tend to call my mental illness a disability. It stops me doing things. There are things that, because of it, I cannot do. And every time I have to accept one of them it’s horrible.

It leaves me feeling inadequate, and awful. It means I have to now face different anxieties instead: the anxiety of spending money on travel. The question of whether we should, at some point, move back into greater London where I could actually get cheaper public transport.

But ultimately I think that these anxieties are less painful than the trauma of remembering the time I almost died.

Maybe one day I will be able to face that trauma. To work through it slowly and carefully. This isn’t the right time, or the right way. Doing it on a deadline will never work for me. If I manage it, when I manage it, it will need to be slow and steady – and, honestly, probably involve proper therapy alongside driving lessons.

For now, it’s a limit, and one I have to accept.

If you found this blog helpful to you, I’m really glad. I have a lot more posts about my experiences navigating mental illness here, and I’d love it if you’d check some more of them out. Please always remember that this is not a substitute for professional help, and that if you are experiencing mental health problems, you deserve that help no matter how that illness makes you feel.