I knew from my very first lesson that passing my driving test would be no easy feat. I’ve always had some form of performance anxiety – I couldn’t do certain things in front of people for fear that I was being watched, and possibly judged. I can’t cook a meal if someone is in the kitchen, I freeze up and tell them to go away because I don’t want to be interrogated about what I’m cooking and how I’m cooking it just for them to mock me, tell me I’m ‘doing it wrong’ and have them interfere. At work, I’m terrified of the first floor photocopier because I have no idea how to use it and it’s in the middle of an open plan office, so I avoid it at all costs so I don’t have to know what a hundred eyes burning into the back of my head feels like.
I knew learning to drive would be hard, but when I sat in the drivers seat for the first time it really hit me. I told myself it was normal, and after a few lessons I’d ease up and it’d be second nature to me. “It’s like riding a bike” Everyone would say. Great – I have performance anxiety over riding a bike, too. My first driving instructor was terrible; he often lost his temper and blamed me outright for making simple honest mistakes that a learner would. I felt like I wasn’t progressing at all and what little confidence I had at the beginning had all been lost. I gave it up for months, and that was hard because craving independence in a rural town meant everything relied on me passing my driving test.
After months of searching and finally plucking up the courage I was fortunate enough to find a driving instructor who had a great reputation among nervous drivers. He was very calm, patient, and reassuring even when I had made a mistake. I passed my driving test on the second attempt, after learning on and off for almost two years, which felt like a lifetime.
I thought passing my test would be the end of my performance anxiety, after all, I had nothing to prove any more, I had the license and a car without the L plates, but I still felt inferior. I still felt like I couldn’t drive, so I avoided giving lifts whenever possible; I’d run and hide whenever someone needed to be picked up, I’d rather not go out at all than be the designated driver or have to drive somewhere new, I went back to walking and just told people I “Didn’t want to rely on my car too much”. I felt like a total fraud. If I couldn’t avoid it, I’d have a panic attack over it. If I made a mistake, I’d burst into floods of tears from embarrassment and prepare myself for the incoming ridicule.
Over the years however there were some situations that couldn’t be avoided. Sometimes I would have to give someone a lift, or drive to a new place. Just the idea would send my head in a spin and grip me with fear. I wished and wished for a change of plans that meant I didn’t have to drive. I wondered if spending all that time and money on driving lessons was worth it when I was so afraid to get behind the wheel.
I had to change; I refused to live the rest of my life in fear of my car. I actually offered my brother a lift, to the train station, which I’d never been to or driven to before. What the hell was I thinking? I checked the route on Google Maps, making sure to go down to street view and follow every roundabout, every turning, mentally preparing myself for the journey I was about to make. I confided in my brother that I was nervous, and he was very supportive, which also eased my anxiety about being perceived as incapable and useless and possibly being berated for it.
I got in the car, I didn’t panic, I didn’t mess anything up. Anxiety often has us worrying over nothing at all. I had a pleasant drive to the station with my brother, but I knew the real challenge would be driving home without him – who could I ask for directions if I got lost on the way home? I’m so awful at remembering directions, and when I get confused I start to panic and I didn’t want to be panicking alone in an unfamiliar place. But despite all my fears, I was on the final road to home. All by myself, all without incident. I turned my music up, and for the for the first time enjoyed cruising down a road in my car. In that moment, I felt so big yet so small all at once, and I was overcome with confidence at this great achievement, that today I had grown; today I had conquered.