With all trauma-based disorders there is an element of anxiety and at times driven anxiety. One of the significant areas of anxiety for me since 30 June 2003, has been a particular anxiety. Driving.
My driving doesn’t cause me anxiety. I know my limits, I know the limits of any vehicle I drive. I thoroughly enjoy driving on the open road, I lift at the challenge of navigating the curves and bends, the twists and turns of the hills and can’t think of anything more fun that off-road challenges. I love off-road driving and were I to have someone to share it with; my weekends would be filled with off-road camping adventures. I am the lunatic who stands at the top of a steep, rocky descent, walks it, gets in my vehicle and tackles it grinning from ear to ear while others baulk. And I’m the same lunatic that cannot drive downhill on the freeway without a person in another vehicle talking me down the road on a two-way in case my brakes fail, or someone else’s does, or a truck rolls over, or loses it’s brakes or a million other disastrous options occur.
My anxiety when in a vehicle is caused by not knowing the competency or concentration level of other drivers or the state of their vehicles. I am the world’s worst passenger because of it.
I just do not trust other road users.
In the UK at the age of 23 driving a brand-new hire car, my mind filled with thoughts and dreams of a new life, a new future at the other side of the world, I lost concentration. I turned right when I shouldn’t and was slammed into by an oncoming vehicle. Two other vehicles then also hit the other driver’s car.
Everyone was ok, but my car and at least one other were wholly written off.
Six days later I was living in Adelaide. The cars were bigger, more powerful; the roads were wider. In the UK, there were single lane roads, dual carriageways and motorways. Here most roads appeared to be dual carriageways. Everything was bigger, stronger and faster.
I settled, I learned, and all was fine until my eldest son obtained his licence. He was one of those P platers that all parents dread. A boy with more confidence than skill; a level of daring that was a danger to himself and others. Minor accident or infringement after minor accident or infringement. I learned quickly to hate traffic reports on the radio for, at times, he would be involved. I dreaded the phone calls from police letting me know my precious child had been in an accident. I feared for his life at all times. The stress grew and magnified out of all proportion. I learned to hate traffic. I started to fear drivers and driving. I could not and cannot listen to radio stations that give traffic reports.
On 30 June 2003, a wild, wet and stormy night I came across the mangled mess of a sole vehicle. As I slowed to pass it, I recognised it. It was my son’s.
He wasn’t there. I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t contact him. That feeling, that horror, that fear has never left me.
From that moment on, I developed full-blown anxiety about vehicles and other drivers. Living in the suburbs was a nightmare. My own accident came back to haunt me. That feeling, that fear, the jumping out of the vehicle, grabbing a three-year-old and running and hiding, taking cover from a distance, throwing my child down and laying on top of him waiting for the car to burst into flames. Because vehicles explode into flames on TV.
I could no longer turn right unless it was at traffic lights with arrows. All intersections became terrifying. I could not approach roundabouts. I would not and could not drive through an intersection even if the lights were green; I would slow, my heart pounding, my breath shallow and quick, my body dripping sweat at every intersection and force myself to crawl through to the other side and gasp for breath.
I could not drive for more than ten minutes. I would have to pull over and ground myself. I would find a quiet side street and recover with a cigarette. I would have to drive with gloves because my sweaty palms could not hold on to the steering wheel. I would take the long route, the back streets wherever possible and tick-tack around trying to avoid the slam of another vehicle into me from the person who would run a red light.
I just could not traverse an urban environment.
I would (and still do to a degree) watch for driving patterns. When are the busiest times for the route that I must travel? When are the quietest? What roadworks are planned? I would view the entire route using Arial shots from google and prepare the best point in which to change lane days in advance of having to do so. I would write down alternate routes, street by street so that I always had a safe way to go. If my destination involved left turns, then great. But that would mean right turns when departing. This I could not do, so I would park a distance away and walk. If things got too hard, I would park in a side street, walk to the nearest main road and get on a bus and walk at the other end too.
There were times when I could not avoid major intersections so I would carefully wait until there were trucks. I would place myself in a lane between large trucks so that I would be shielded by them. I knew I might be crushed, but I couldn’t pass through without a shield.
Not once over all those years did anyone try to understand. Not once did anyone try to help.
I exasperated people. I was told my behaviour was ridiculous. “Why can’t she do this? Why can’t she drive properly? How ridiculous! What’s wrong with her?” No attempt to understand. No effort to help. Just condemnation and exasperation.
Away from the city, the suburbs I am fine, driving is a pleasure, a joy and I can relax. I congratulate myself now as I have been back to town and been able to drive ok in this environment on two occasions in almost three years. I know now that I can, provided I am well prepared and in the right mindset. I have driven to the northern suburbs several times, a region that previously terrified me. Because I can get there on glorious, winding country roads. I can manage the last little bit. I am proud of myself for this.
The message behind this is don’t condemn people for behaving oddly. For struggling to do what everyone else does with ease.
There is always a reason for this behaviour, and it means that people like me need your understanding, your compassion and your assistance and support to get the help we need.
Don’t tell us we are ridiculous.
Anxiety is not ridiculous. It is treatable. Help us.