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My phobia of driving cost me my job and thousands of pounds

For many, the moment you turn 17 is the time to get that green provisional licence and hit the road, usually via the McDonald’s drive-thru. 

Learning to drive is seen as a rite of passage, marking a long-awaited transition to adulthood and a new sense of independence and responsibility.

Yet, while many of my peers were removing their L-Plates in our late teens, I was doing whatever I could to actively avoid getting behind the wheel. In my case, driving was a terrifying experience, and feeling this way brought a lot of secret shame.

Vehophobia, the fear of driving, affects up to 20% of motorists in the UK, and while it can present as slight nerves while being on the motorway, it can also extend to full-blown panic attacks at the very thought of getting behind the wheel. For me, it was the latter. 

I’m not really sure how my fear of driving started. My parents were confident drivers and I had never been in an accident, but my phobia was huge nonetheless. It first appeared as a teen when my parents offered me driving lessons as a birthday present, with an elderly neighbour even gifting me a secondhand car.

But the car sat languishing on the drive as I continued to have vivid images of losing control and crashing, potentially hurting or even killing people. It felt like in my hands the car was a giant metal death machine.

I tried to talk about it yet found that sharing my fears brought derision and cries of ‘Don’t be so stupid!’ from loved ones. While most common phobias such as spiders and heights often draw empathy from others, there is a real taboo about not being able to drive.

When meeting new people I would joke about how it was all so that I’d never have to be the designated driver after a party, or I would immediately jump on the defensive and claim: ‘I don’t drive through choice.’

I was too embarrassed to admit that I was scared – it seemed easier just to lie about my true feelings. 

After I moved away from London, I realised that I couldn’t always rely on public transport to get me around. Catching the bus to work meant I was regularly late and while a kind-hearted colleague would occasionally give me a lift, there were many days spent waiting in the pouring rain for a number two bus.

As I got older and applied for more and more jobs, I would often find the perfect role but feel my heart sink when I saw the words ‘requires a full clean driving licence’. 

Friends would embark on fun road trips to different parts of the country, even travelling coast-to-coast of America and I would seeth with quiet jealousy. Even driving to a festival for the weekend and not having to navigate lugging around camping equipment on trains seemed like a heady dream completely out of my grasp. 

Eventually, I plucked up the courage to start learning. Since so many people I knew were license-holders, I came to the conclusion it couldn’t be completely impossible. I mean, millions of people drive every single day without dying. Surely I would be able to as well? 

I signed up for lessons but would physically shake whenever my instructor was due. While he said my driving was good, I often felt like a fraud, who at any point would cause a huge accident and people would gasp: ‘Why was that woman allowed behind the wheel?’

My instructor was sympathetic and assured me that all I needed to do was believe in myself. However, as I kept avoiding booking my test he eventually encouraged me to visit my doctor to try and get rid of the physical symptoms of my anxiety. 

After 10 years of lessons, three fails, many thousands spent and a prescription of beta-blockers from the GP, I passed my test. Here was my moment! Now I could go wherever I wanted and was no longer at the mercy of the bus schedule. 

But, with no other person in the car to rescue me in times of trouble, I was more afraid than ever.

Desperate to shake free of this fear, I even took a job that required a driving license to force myself to get behind the wheel. But it didn’t work – my husband had to take several days off work to drive me to rural parts of the countryside so I could do my job. In the end, I quit, which left me feeling like a massive failure.

My vehophobia was causing arguments at home, costing a fortune in taxi fares and my kids were regularly made to walk in thunderstorms because ‘Mummy doesn’t like driving’. I knew then that something had to change, and for good.

Parenting comes with enough guilt as is, but not being able to drive your kids to the beach on a sunny day or avoiding making ‘mum friends’ in case they try and get you to meet them somewhere out of town completely overshadowed what should have felt like a fun and enjoyable time of life.

I had to prove to myself, and my children, that you need to keep trying to overcome obstacles – even if the thought of it is terrifying. 

With that, I booked some more lessons with another instructor, and it was money well spent. She helped me to re-establish my feel for the car. The main difference came from when she gave me ‘permission’ to not let other drivers push me around. It sounds so simple, but I had spent so long worrying about what other people thought of me on the road that I would make silly mistakes and make this tension worse.

By letting go of that vision of failure, I was able to properly focus when in the driver’s seat for the first time. She got me to ditch the anxiety medication and taught me some great breathing exercises for when I started to get flustered. 

Amazingly, I only needed one lesson and from there I started to make short journeys. Bit-by-bit, my confidence rose until I was eventually able to drive for two hours, on the motorway, to the next county by myself.

The sense of achievement was so much I had to phone my husband and best friend to tell them as soon as I parked. It still stands as one of the greatest achievements of my life. 

The thought of continuing to live in fear ended up being a far scarier reality than the off-chance I may scratch the car.

A year later, and while I still get a bit nervous in the driver’s seat, I feel as if I’ve been given a new sense of freedom. I’ve overcome a fear that has dominated my life, and I’m ready to do the exploring that I’ve long set aside.

And yes, I’ve finally made it to the McDonald’s drive-thru. 

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  • Posted on October 11, 2020