It’s a sunny day, four days before my sister-in-law’s wedding. I have spent the morning practising for the piano piece I’m playing in their ceremony. I am absolutely, completely terrified of the fact that the wedding is this week. Frankly? I am grateful for this fear.
Because in a couple of hours, I’m going to get in a car. And I’m going to learn to drive it. So honestly, thinking about playing the piano for over a hundred people is comforting, if you can believe it.
Those who are regular visitors here will know a bit about my struggle with driving.
I’m turning 32 this year. As someone who grew up in the countryside, the fact that I did not learn to drive the moment I turned 17 is weird. Really weird.
In fact, most of the people I knew growing up were so keen to learn, they started lessons on their 17th birthday. But I knew I wanted to go to university in a city, so instead my dad drove me to sixth form every day for two years – and then, after that, I just took public transport.
It wasn’t until we moved to a more rural town, out of the bounds of greater London, that I started to really wish I knew how to drive. That was two years ago. But by that point, I had endured a lot of suicidal thoughts and experiences, most of which involved the idea of walking into traffic of some kind.
In cars as a passenger, I get anxious if we’re going too fast. Too fast isn’t always a number. Sometimes it’s just a feeling. We can go 30mph round a corner entirely safely, and I’ll feel nauseous because the bend is sharp. I tried very brief lessons with my exceedingly patient mother-in-law, but ultimately just got incredibly stressed out and honestly triggered by the idea of trying again.
Until now, apparently. Because it’s now 1pm, and it’s time for my first proper driving lesson.
I’ve made an agreement with myself: six hours of tuition. If I get to the end of those six hours and the experience has been traumatic, I don’t have to do it again, and I can truly accept that I have tried my hardest to do it. If they go well – great!
I do not expect them to go well.
I’ve underestimated, however, the power of people. Because when the text comes through that my instructor’s there to collect me, I quickly find that I have picked the best person for me. My driving instructor is experienced in nervous drivers. One of the first questions he asks me isn’t what my experience is – it’s what I find scary. What my triggers are. How he can help with them.
So I explain my anxiety disorder, and that I have some traumatic memories involving traffic, and he listens patiently. He takes me to a place he calls ‘learner land’, and it’s easy to see why. It’s all retirement bungalows – the only cars around are all L-plated. Here, I am surrounded by people as scared as I am.
The first hour flies by. I still feel as nauseatingly anxious as I did before the lesson started, but I’m not catastrophically terrible at it, and my instructor is explaining things in a way I can understand. I don’t feel rushed, and he builds a lot of breaks into it so I can catch my breath and pace myself.
The moment I get out of his car, I burst into tears. Once through my front door, I have the worst panic attack I’ve had in a while. I am exhausted for the rest of the day.
By the second lesson, I’m starting to identify what I’m doing wrong.
This is a good sign, he tells me, because knowing what you should have done is halfway to doing it. When I forget to lift the accelerator whilst changing gear, I can feel it. When I look in the wrong place – which, it turns out, is my biggest problem – I catch myself doing it straight away. Just a few hours in, my instructor stops having to tell me what I’m doing wrong, because I’ve already said it out loud.
I manage to change into third gear. I struggle much, much more with changing down. There is an exciting moment where I turn a corner to find a) someone parked too close to the turning, b) someone passing me when they should be letting me go, c) children running along either side of the road, and d) someone in front of me who’s trying to find a parking space so stopping seemingly randomly.
And by exciting I mean that my instructor had to gently talk me through getting back to the starting point, and when I pull over I’m exhausted. But there are no panic attacks. I’m not as anxious during the lesson. Oddly, I’m more anxious before and after, which is a good sign for not feeling terrified whilst I’m driving for real.
The third and penultimate lesson is where it all goes tits up.
This, and the final lesson, are only an hour long. We’ve planned this deliberately – it’s to see whether shorter or longer lessons suit me more. This is a trial/taster course, after all, so the point is to work out if I can do this and how.
We’re towards the end of July now, and I’m getting exhausted. This whole year, as you might know, has been a lot. It’s catching up with me in this third week. My base level of anxiety is a lot higher than it has been, and I’m very tired. That morning, I’ve had to deal with accepting that I can’t do something because of my anxiety. I’m not in a good place.
This is probably why, less than 10 minutes into (non-continuous) driving, I have a panic attack. In the car. In front of my instructor.
Fortunately, he realises what’s going on before I do. He talks me, again, into pulling over sooner than we’d intended. As soon as I’ve pulled the handbrake up, there are tears running down my cheeks. He says, “You’re having a lot more trouble today, aren’t you.” I lose the ability to talk for several minutes.
Watching someone have a panic attack is weird.
I know this because I’ve done it. No two panic attacks are the same. Two of my own aren’t the same, let alone comparing one person to another. This one is smaller, but in the confined space of a car I feel so very loud. I’m shaking, I’m crying, and of course this has happened the week that I don’t have a handkerchief with me.
My instructor, however, is not scared. He doesn’t tell me to calm down. He doesn’t rush me, or immediately offer solutions. Instead he just says: “Take your time. We’re fine here.” – and that’s what I need to get my breathing back under control. I manage, eventually, to explain that I struggle to speak when this is happening. He says that’s okay too. I don’t know how long this goes on for – it’s probably only five minutes. My panic attacks tend to be short but intense.
When I’m able to speak a bit more, he offers some options, including just taking me home and putting the missed time on next week’s lesson. I explain that I could probably make myself do some more driving, but at this point I wouldn’t get anything out of it. He agrees – that, too, is fine. I believe him, wholeheartedly. This isn’t a placation. He really does not mind that I am crying all over his car.
But I don’t want to fail, not completely, so instead we swap places.
He talks me through what he’s doing and how it’s different to me. He identifies that a lot of it comes from my anxiety. I panic, so I rush things – specifically changing gear. Because I rush things, I get them wrong. I have a lot more time than I think I do. By the time we’re driving home I’m managing to hold a conversation about what he’s doing, and actually taking it in.
I’m exhausted once I’m home, and spend the rest of the day looking after myself, as well as a lot of the next. I feel fragile, and even just telling people what’s happened makes me start crying again. But I get though it. And, in a strange way, I feel a bit more comfortable about going to my last lesson.
The week inbetween, however, isn’t without its own stresses – and so as my last lesson approaches I’m nervous. What if my baseline anxiety is too high again? What if it sabotages my ability to do it, and then I end up feeling like I can’t continue, when I might’ve been able to?
After lessons one and two I was convinced I could see this through to passing my test. After lesson three, I’m not so sure.
Lesson four comes, and with it, the truth about my relationship with driving – it’s probably always going to be complicated.
Because I might have days where I’m so anxious that getting in a car is too much, like lesson 3. I might. But I manage now without being able to drive, so on those days, I can just avoid driving. That doesn’t mean that I can’t drive on the other two out of three days where I’m well enough to manage it.
I know this now, because in lesson four I did several things I’d never managed before. I changed gear more smoothly. I never once looked down at the road, and was always looking ahead to where I was going. I remembered how far in advance to signal without having to think about it too much. In fact, at one point, I drove so fluidly that my instructor stopped having to tell me what to do. That time went by fast, because I was just…doing it.
At one point my instructor catches me clockwatching, but we realise it’s not because I want to go. It’s because there is now enough space in my brain for me to think about things like what time it is. My brain has a little less panic static in it. A little more room to think and talk and, yes, wonder what time it is.
But soon there are only five minutes left. Theoretically, these are the last five minutes I ever have to drive.
My instructor turns to me and says: “Do you want to try driving on the main road?”
My anxiety leaps forward in my brain, screaming to the contrary. Gentle and understanding as my instructor is, he adds, “Or we can just go round the block again one last time.”
So the decision is up to me.
“There’s absolutely no pressure,” he says. “We can practice changing down at the turning again.”
I can go and do the loop around the block, and reaffirm what I already know: that I can drive in safe, secure learner land. Or, I can ask myself whether it’s possible that I can carry on. This decision becomes, suddenly, not just whether I’m going to pick the safe option or the challenging one in this moment. It becomes whether I’m going to book another lesson.
Carefully, I swallow the lump in my throat. “No,” I say. “I can do this. Let’s do this.”
It’s not perfect, and he has to help me when I jump my foot off the clutch too quickly, but I get a solid 80% of everything right. I line up correctly at the traffic lights, I pull away at the right time (just not smoothly), I manage to speed up because holy shit this road has a 40 mile an hour limit – and then I’ve turned off, successfully, back into learner land.
When we’re home, my instructor tells me not to rush my decision about whether to continue. I nod, and thank him, and step out into the rain – knowing full well that I’ve already decided what I’m going to do.
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