I’ve had many conversations about my mental health problems over the years, not always because I intended to. Sometimes the subject comes up in connection with something else. One question I get asked a lot is, ‘So why don’t you drive, then?’
It’s a pain, not driving. Spontaneous journeys are problematic, because you have to work round public transport timetables – and there are some places you can’t get to at all, because you also have to work round public transport networks. Where you have to travel off-network, you become dependent, on taxi companies and on other people’s good will. This is particularly true once you have a child. I’ve lost count of the number of lifts my son’s taken, with or without me, to and from swimming, cubs, and all the various other things I don’t want him to miss out on, just because his Mum doesn’t drive. And it shames me, having to ask for favours I can’t return in kind.
So, why don’t I drive, then? Because I’m too anxious. I have OCD as well as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and nothing could be more calculated to bring them on than the thought of being at the wheel of something that could run someone over kill them – or crash and kill me and my passengers along with whoever we happened to crash into. Road vehicles are big, heavy things that move fast; statistics show – to me at least – that they are responsible for huge amounts of death and injury. Yes, they bring independence and convenience, but when I’m crossing the road and I see one coming towards me (or ‘barrelling’ or ‘hurtling’ or ‘bearing down upon’ – these are the words that come into my head), its headlamps and radiator look to me like the mad eyes and snarling mouth of some great beast in a stampede.
At least, that’s how they look when I’m under-medicated, or at my most anxious. My fear of traffic reached its height when my son was very small; it took behavioural therapy, a Homestart volunteer and a lot of patience from husband, family and friends to get me to a point when I could cross a road without panicking. At my worst, I could not even cope with pushing the buggy alongside the busiest ones, because every time a bus or HGV went past, I would be unable to stop myself imagining the two of us getting pulled under: in my anxious state, it was as if these vehicles had a gravity strong enough for me to feel.
Things are better now. Thanks to the help I received – and which I had to speak up to ask for - I can now cross roads when I have to. But I still can’t think of getting behind a wheel. I am quite sure that my anxiety would scramble my perceptions just as it used to when I thought about crossing a road. While I was driving, I would be hyper vigilant, hesitant and dangerously slow, someone who drives with her foot on the brake and uses it far too often. Even when I wasn’t driving, I would be spending precious time and energy ruminating about all the moments during the drive when it might have been possible for me to have killed someone. OK, sure, I can see that if I concentrated on nothing else for many months, I might be able to break through my block and get used to driving, but this is hardly a practical proposition.
So this is why I don’t drive. It makes me too anxious, and although I may seem suspiciously calm and reasonable when I stand in a room and explain this to someone, if that same person could see me when my anxiety and OCD have been triggered – by a long journey, the prospect of crossing a busy road, the need to use a big knife, a steep staircase, proximity to deep water, a lift shaft etc. etc. – they’d know I was telling the truth.
Or find out how talking tackles discrimination.