‘I was too frightened to drive’Comment on this story
London, England - As I circled the huge roundabout at the end of the motorway for the fourth time, my throat started closing, my stomach was gripped in a vice, and my arms were so shaky I feared I might lose control of the steering wheel.
I screeched at my eldest son, Daniel, in the front passenger seat, to help me make sense of the satnav.
“Is it really telling me to turn up the M1?!”
When Daniel, 12, confirmed it was, I knew that despite the excited chatter of my younger children and a friend’s daughter in the back, our trip to the Air Force Museum was cancelled.
“Sorry kids,” I barked. “We’ve got to go home.”
Aware of my anxiety on unfamiliar roads, my children knew better than to make a fuss - but my friend’s daughter, whose mother was due to meet us at the museum, sobbed. My guilt at being so hopeless compounded my feelings of deep shame.
Despite passing my test 22 years earlier, I was in the grip of a severe driving phobia - just like an estimated one-third of the population, the majority of whom are women.
In my circle of friends, I know six otherwise highly competent women who have a licence but are too scared to drive, and others who are too nervous to even learn.
But in that moment at the end of the M1, I resolved to do something about my fear.
I could not continue to allow myself to limit my family’s enjoyment.
I recalled a conversation a few months earlier with another mum about Drive Therapy, a course taught by driving instructor Carmine Mastrogiacomo, who is also a life coach and practises cognitive behavioural therapy - a psychotherapy to help reverse negative thinking. His course is tailored for people who have passed their test but are nervous about driving.
I plucked up the courage to call him a year ago, and he recommended weekly sessions where I’d drive with him for an hour at a cost of R800. I would also have to do homework - driving to unfamiliar places alone between sessions.
He asked what my goal was.
When I told him it was to drive anywhere I wanted without dreading the journey, he assured me that was entirely achievable.
The first session was conducted over the phone with Carmine asking about the roots of my phobia and what aspects of driving I feared. I didn’t need a psychology degree to work out that the trauma of seeing my eight-year-old sister knocked down and killed when I was nine had given me my unhealthy fear of roads.
We were holding hands on our way home from school and walking across a zebra crossing on a dual carriageway when a car came down the inside lane and hit Jane at speed.
Her death devastated our family.
As the slightly older sibling, I blamed myself and it was years before I came to terms with her loss. So, it is unsurprising that I was reluctant to learn to drive and only did so at 24 because not having a licence was hindering my career.
I passed first time, perhaps because I refused to take my test until I’d had lessons for over a year. But I lived in fear of being sent on journalistic assignments to unfamiliar places. If I was, I’d experience symptoms of acute anxiety - palpitations, sweating, difficulty swallowing and extreme nausea, sometimes to the point of vomiting before getting into the car and venturing into the terrifying unknown.
Motorways were particularly scary.
But my big fears were getting lost - my sense of direction is poor, and my map-reading skills poorer - and becoming so focused on finding my way that I’d stop concentrating and cause a terrible accident.
Fortunately, my husband Dillon would happily drive me on longer trips, his work permitting. But my ineptitude was a source of immense shame to me.
My first Drive Therapy task was a short drive along a busy dual carriageway that runs within a couple of hundred metres of my front door, with Carmine at my side.
He said driving phobias could take many forms.
“For some it’s anxiety about dealing with other road users, feeling rushed by vehicles behind, dealing with complex junctions and roundabouts or driving at night. Symptoms include heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, intense sweating and wanting to escape the situation. These lead to avoidance, which makes the phobia worse.
“Causes can vary but usually result from a traumatic experience, such as a car accident - feelings about which are triggered when you encounter something similar.”
My homework was to do the same journey alone.
I was gripped by fear as I drove down the slip road - panicked that the other drivers wouldn’t let me in, then terrified of increasing my speed to 80km/h in case I lost control, then sick to the stomach that I might not be able to change lanes in time to leave at the exit.
But I managed to calm myself using commentary driving, a technique Carmine had taught me, which involves describing aloud all the things you can see on the roads and pavements as you drive. The aim? To prevent your mind running wild and imagining all sorts of alarming scenarios.
“Coming up on my right is a supermarket, followed by a big stadium; lights at the pedestrian crossing are changing, I’m slowing down, letting the man with the little girl on the scooter cross; the furthest vehicle I can see is a blue van . . .”
I talked to myself constantly.
I didn’t care that I looked mad. My fear of driving was receding, and when I arrived home I had a huge smile on my face.
Over the next few months, I mastered several longer routes - including to a local shopping mall. I’d commentate the whole way, and Carmine would ask what emotions I was feeling at different points in the journey.
He told me to focus on the feel of the steering wheel in my hands, the seat beneath me, and the sights, sounds and smells around me.
I drove to these same places week in, week out, in between our sessions to build my confidence.
Finally, I cracked the big one - the journey to the Air Force Museum. However, it took several trips with Carmine before I plucked up the courage to go alone.
He told me to study Google Maps beforehand to get an idea of the route, so nothing would take me by surprise. Recognising landmarks was a huge help.
Having conquered the museum, I felt ready to hit the freeway. In April, eight months after starting Drive Therapy, I took my first trip to a major shopping centre, with Carmine at my side.
It felt like a miracle - before, just traffic reports about the freeway would send me into a cold sweat.
I was amazed to find that I was perfectly comfortable and in control bombing along at 120km/h - commentary driving and reminding myself not to grip the steering wheel too tightly. In fact, in comparison to navigating the narrow suburban roads, freeway driving felt like a breeze.
My next challenge was the M1. At first my legs felt shaky on the pedals but I suddenly became calm and in control.
Finally, I knew I had seen off my demons.
My last session with Carmine was three months ago when I decided I was ready to go it alone. He told me: ‘I knew you were more than ready from that first session - which is true of most of my clients. You just had to discover that for yourself.’
Since then I haven’t been able to get enough of driving - whizzing my family to and from the airport, to visit friends and family in the country.
I’ve also spent so much money at the shopping centre that my husband rues the day I discovered Drive Therapy.
This weekend we’re going to visit friends in the country. I’ll be driving, of course. And if I start talking to myself, I know he’ll understand.