Words by Kirra, 20 VIC
There are many reasons I could give as to why, at 20 years old, I still haven’t got my driver’s licence. I could blame it on the fact that I live out of home and don’t have a car or tell you that I haven’t been able to go driving due to state-wide lockdowns. But the real and resounding reason I’m still on my learner plates is this:
I’m scared of driving.
The first time I got behind the wheel, I experienced an intense feeling of anxiety. This was not just the nervous jitters one would expect from a first driving lesson. No, this was a full-blown panic attack. As I sat down in the driver’s seat, I experienced an almost unbearable tightness in my chest, coupled with a racing heart and tightly clenched jaw. As I accelerated, my breathing became sharp and shallow, and my mind swirled with images of losing control and crashing the car.
I did not happen to crash or die during my first driving lesson. In fact, my dad said that he was quite impressed with my driving. Despite this, my fear of driving had already begun to grow.
Friends at school, teachers and family members all loved to ask me how many hours I’d added to my driving logbook, to which I would sheepishly reply, “not many”. Whilst this was an innocent question, it played on my mind that I was falling behind my peers in something that was broadly considered to be a rite of passage into adulthood.
As years went by, some of the comments about still being on my L’s became genuinely judgemental. One of these remarks was made on a phone call to a friend, who asked me if I’d got my licence yet. “No, I haven’t”, I said. “Oh,” she replied, before informing me that she was “just someone who likes to fight for their independence.” Like I wasn’t!?
At the time I was managing the responsibilities of studying a bachelor’s degree online and working part-time. I could also cook, clean and manage my own finances. I was an independent person, fully responsible for myself and my actions. The only clincher was I couldn’t drive.
Maybe my friend’s comment was well-meaning, but at the time it hurt. The reason for me staying on my Ls wasn’t because I was some lazy chick who enjoyed bumming off her parents. I craved freedom and independence just as much as any other teen – but driving scared me!
Conversations like this led me to believe that nobody understood how difficult driving was for me, nor how desperately I wanted the freedom it would unlock. Unfortunately, this perceived isolation resulted in an internalised pressure and shame around driving, which increased my aversion to it. I had opportunities to go driving, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Whenever I missed these opportunities, I felt a pang of guilt, believing that I was letting myself down.
It was only this year when I finally managed to face my fears. One of the best things I did was talk about my feelings with someone I knew and trusted. I opened up to my Mum about my driving anxiety and learnt that she too had been terrified of driving in her youth and hadn’t gotten her license until she was 23. My mum helped me to realise that many young people share my struggle with driving related anxiety and desire the independence that a licence brings.
It was incredibly reassuring to discover that I wasn’t nearly as alone or misunderstood as I had thought. Backed with this information, and the support of my friends and family, I was empowered to make 2021 my year of driving.
Something that helped immensely was getting some professional driving lessons. Whilst my parents aren’t bad teachers, it made all the difference to go driving in a car with someone whose job it was to help people like me. I was upfront with my driving instructor about my driving anxiety and she reassured me that my fears were common among L platers. My instructor also encouraged me to take things one step at a time, such as thoroughly learning all the car controls before actually taking off. Plus, most learner cars have dual controls, which gave me an added sense of security regarding my safety on the road.
Another thing I did was listen to some self-hypnosis/meditations for people with driving-related anxiety. Guided by a driving instructor trained in hypnotherapy, these YouTube videos really helped me reframe my mindset around driving. I would go as far as to say that the YouTube channel First Drives was the first thing I found that made me feel at peace on the road.
The most helpful skill I learnt from the First Drives meditations was the ability to call upon a calming memory in times of anxiety on the road. For me this involved visualising how it felt to swim in the ocean with my family on a summer holiday. When driving, I would consciously remind myself of this time and allow my mind and body to remember those feelings of happiness and peace. Over time this simple skill became an unconscious habit that changed my mind’s response to anxiety when driving.
As I write this, I’m still only halfway to getting my license. My driving fears have significantly diminished but, more importantly, I’ve let go of the shame of being licence-less.
If you’re like me and have struggled with driving-related fears or guilt, I want you to know that you are not alone. I also would like to remind you that being without a car or license isn’t all doom and gloom. As I’ve worked through my fears, I have learnt that walking, riding, or catching public transport are all better options for the environment, my health and my bank account.
So, if you’re still on your L’s, don’t sweat it!