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Pyjama Girl gets driven crazy

by Liz Main

18th March 2007

Oh no, just writing this is making me anxious. My hands are sweating and there's a knot of fear in my stomach. I've decided it's time to learn to drive, and I'm terrified. It's not just the typical driving-lessons anxiety thang. This is pathological anxiety. The diagnosable kind.
Anxiety tends to get written off as just something everyone experiences, and of course on one level it is. But it's also the most common mental health disorder, and more often than not it comes mixed with other disorders like depression or my own condition of bipolar disorder. So take your bog-standard learning-to-drive anxiety and merge it with a bit of generalised anxiety disorder and you get a phobia that for 20 years has kept me firmly in the passenger seat.

Maybe I should hold off on the panic attacks, though. I still haven't been sent my provisional licence. And since I came clean and ticked the "history of psychiatric illness" box when applying for it, it might be that I have nothing to fret about. At worst it should just be a hold up while they contact my doctors but you never can tell. And Lord only knows what it will do to my insurance premiums ... but let's not go there.

Since I was 16, I've been procrastinating about getting a driving licence. It's not that I haven't wanted to drive - the freedom gained would have been amazing. It's just this dreaded anxiety. But now I've decided I really want my own wheels. Not least because I want to take Tibbs the demon dog to training classes. He regularly hauls me on an evening stroll past David's School of Motoring, so after weeks of averting my eyes each time we passed, I decided to give good old David a call.

It won't be my first time in the driver's seat. I got a learners' licence as soon as I turned 16. I hopped in the car with my Dad and we pootled off to some nice, quiet, backroads for my first lesson. The only problem with this was we lived in the hills near Adelaide and the closest place anywhere near good for a spot of learner driving was countryside with narrow, steep, windy roads, tall trees on each side and "kangaroo crossing" signs at various intervals.

Over the coming weeks we lurched happily around my home area. It was all going well until the day of the dreaded hill start ... which put my lessons back four years.

Picture the scene. We lived atop a hill with a long steep drive which veered 90 degrees to the left then circled around a slope with a large number of very tall, old, solid pine trees. To make it more complicated for a beginner, the drive also had a high, stone retainer wall on the right.

When I gathered a little too much speed and caught sight of my entire family laughing at me from the kitchen window, I panicked, lost control and ended up with a choice of either veering sharply left or right; either into the wall or the pine trees.

I chose the trees, stood on the brake, flattened the garden tap, and ended up neatly parked between two pines with one wheel still on the driveway. Give me credit - I didn't hit the wall, I didn't hit a tree, the tap was easily replaced. What wasn't replaceable was my confidence or my father's courage. And so that was the last driving lesson. For a little while at least.

Four years later, some bright spark at the newspaper I worked for discovered I couldn't drive and decided it would be a fine idea to do a feature series of learning in later life. "Later life"? I was 20. I think what they meant was learning to drive when you've left home and have to pay someone to teach you.

I was well up for it, until I got fired by the driving instructor after one lesson.

Apparently he had a problem with my aversion to turning right. What I haven't filled you in on yet, is the auto accident I'd been in between these driving episodes, when a car I was in had been smashed into from the right hand side, leaving me with rather bad injuries.

I hadn't wanted to mention the flashbacks to anyone really, let alone a driving instructor, but when he'd told me to turn right, all that I could see and hear was the bonnet crumpling up in front of us, the squeal of brakes and crunch of metal. So in lieu of turning right, I made the perfectly logical decision to turn left around the block and go straight ahead, ending up exactly where he wanted us to be.

I declined to explain the reasoning behind my 'reasonable adjustment' and so ended the lessons. And I never did explain it to my boss - confessing to any sort of weakness was not a good idea in that newsroom, so he just declared me to be a bit loony. If only he knew.

A decade later I tried again, this time in London with a lovely, patient, motherly instructor. I confessed all to her and she held off on the right-hand turns until she'd built my confidence up. In fact she built my confidence up so much she had to keep pointing out my tendency to speed. I was beginning to like this driving thing and I thought I was getting the hang of it. My workload soon put paid to that. I cancelled so many lessons that I was wasting Michelle's time and my money, so I let it go again.

Ten years on, here I am, a right little swot who is not just a back-seat driver but a pedestrian driver as well, ranting to Tibbs about the failings of any passing motorist who breaks the Highway Code. The theory is easy, but will I have the courage to actually get behind the wheel?

Ironically I've just been sent a book "Beyond Fear" to review, which has a big section at the end about how fear and anxiety fuel other psychiatric disorders. But it also tells you how to manage your fears, so maybe I'll have to take time out from the big fat How To Drive book and read the even bigger, fatter fear manual first. I might even learn a thing or two about how anxiety affects the rest of my life.

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