I came pretty late to driving by most people’s standards, learning in my early thirties and gaining my license around the time my daughter turned two. One reason was that my first husband couldn’t have been more opposed to it if he had tried. Incandescent with rage was his reaction to my to announcement that I had been taking lessons and, after taking my test without telling him until I had my license in my hand, I pretended the small car my brother gave me was a hand-me-on, not something I had scrimped and saved for to get myself on the road.
I think some (if not most) of his opposition was rooted in the profound fear that he would loose control over me once I had the independence of my own car…and he wasn’t far wrong. That first couple of years of bombing around with my daughter and dog, the pram and all the baby paraphenelia crammed in the back, prepared to drive to Wales or Cornwall, Yorkshire or wherever I got the chance to go, helped make up for years of being at his say so or of having to lug home all the weekly shopping on the bus. I’d been with him since I was 21 – so, barely an adult when my wings were first clipped. I loved being able to drive and there was a definite sense of making up for lost time.
Within eighteen months, I’d quietly saved up for a far better vehicle – one that had windows that actually closed when the rain came pelting down – and the double rebellion this amounted to was like a starting flag for what quickly followed, which was the end of that marriage. By asserting my financial and circumstantial independence, I had finally grown into the adulthood that had previously eluded me and those two events – new car and divorce – are always intrinsically connected in my mind when I look back to those times.
What I had done about getting mobile in the face of such opposition took real courage within the confines of that marriage; I see that now and honour my own bravery accordingly. A willingness to assert what I really wanted and to claim this for myself, against all the odds, had stood me in good stead for what came next, which were the toughest few of years of my life; years for which I had absolutely no road map when I embarked upon the journey. Had I not learned to drive and bought myself that first car, I wonder if I would have ever had the nerve to rewrite the story of my life on the far better terms it has now been rebuilt upon; would I have stayed trapped and miserable in that tight little world? It made me realise just how wing-clipped so many married women must have been in the years before the normality of jumping into their own driving seat and going wherever they chose became more than just the exception to the rule. Even in the most liberal of relationships, the heavy reliance of one person (of either gender…since I’ve seen it happen both ways) upon the other to go anywhere outside of their immediate locality is a distortion of any feigned equality they pretend to enjoy; it can also be a psychological tumour growing at the roots of an otherwise sturdy marriage. I witnessed this with my own parents, seeing how helpless and frustrated my non-driving mother became for so many years of her outgoing tendencies being trimmed back to match the preferences of my father, who never wanted to go anywhere…ever. I see now how close I got to replicating that scenario (as we so often, unconsciously, mirror what our parents did…) but then how I broke free and wrote an entirely different ending for myself. I never take my freedom to drive for granted and never ever will.
The years of health-challenges that have been my most recent decade are, retrospectively, interesting in light of all that because they have, in part, reversed the driving autonomy that came at such a price. There’s nothing like witnessing your health fall apart to make you question whether you are driving your own “vehicle” any more; as your body becomes the battered old wreck that you travel in, its easy to lose trust in its road-worthiness. In lots of ways, subtly and slowly, I gradually handed over most of the driving to my new partner over those years because, just as I no longer trusted my own body to “perform” as it should, I no longer trusted my own abilities to be on the road for anything outside of the shortest, most day-to-day journeys…the most mundane ones involved in school runs, shopping and walking the dog. Chronic exhaustion and pain, mystery nerve symptoms, brain fog, weird eye symptoms and migraine, a whole multitude of physical foibles that were exacerbated by tiredness, sitting too long or extended periods of concentration…all of these things conspired to make me lose confidence in my own ability to drive a car and so, when it came to the long trips, the fun trips, night-time driving or reduced visibility, I abdicated completely. Though my husband agreed to take this role over in a very different spirit to my previous one, wanting only to unburden me of what had become a genuine hardship, the net result was somewhat similar in that I lost the confidence to go anywhere very much, and only ever did so (really) when he was with me. My eyes would often feast hungrily upon the wide open roads of Cornwall or East Anglia on our holidays, wishing I felt better-equipped to take over the wheel but, to some extent, it became the habit that I had backed down from this now and it no longer felt like it was something I “did” anymore.
At the heart of this abdication was the same mistrust of self that was the very stumbling-block of my recovery; one which anyone who has been chronically ill for more than a couple of years will probably recognise in themselves. Once you start to follow the kind of self-doubt that teaches you to mistrust your own strength, your fitness, your capability to do “ordinary” things this becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy of those very limitations, feeding the apparent chronicity of the situation. In the end, you no longer remember if you gave up these things because it was ever proven that you couldn’t do them or because you just assumed that was the case. In the end, the net result is the same and then the less you routinely take on for yourself (to grow your boundaries or even keep them as expanded as they used to be), the more all-pervading your condition starts to feel, like a corset wrapped around your life. In short, you become that invalid-mentality just from thinking it is so.
As my “new” car became, in its turn, old and unreliable, so its unroadworthiness for longer trips seemed to reflect my own inability to tackle them; and so, like it, I too felt like the rather scruffy cost-burden to my family, always in need of yet another “repair” and increasingly likely to break down on day two of the holiday. When, suddenly, that car needed so many expensive repairs doing to it that it was no longer worth the investment, the symbolism of this demise could have gone a very different way for my morale but, as luck would have it, I was already ripe for a change of direction when it happened in March of this year (shortly before we were due to go on this holiday to Wales in it).
As it happened, something had already begun to shift in me and I was already sensing the sweet scent of broader horizons opening up when my car finally gave up the ghost. Interestingly, she gave up that ghost most spectacularly as a burst tyre (the one right under my driving seat) on the morning that I was due to attend one of my most milestone healing sessions to date; like she knew, somehow, that change was afoot and that she was no longer part of my future journeying. You may laugh at the implied synchronicity but it wasn’t the first time my car had physically responded to a healing crisis I was going through; in December, I drove myself, in desperate nerve pain, to an appointment with my myofascial therapist and my car responded by its electrics going berserk, the wing mirrors randomly folding in and out and the windows going down and sticking all along the winter motorway. And, yes, this had happened before when I was in a lot of pain! This time, she went out with a bang when the garage found so much wrong with her that we decided to cut and run on the likely repair bill…just as I came back (from the appointment my husband was suddenly required to drive me to) feeling like something monumental had shifted and that I was now, finally, ready to heal.
By that weekend, we were out shopping for a new car and I surprised myself by choosing, not the sensible option that I might have deemed “enough” for my modest driving needs, but the cross-over outdoor car complete with sunroof and the kind of extras that make driving fun again; something I can take off-road and pack to the rafters for those longer trips to the mountains. What was the tiny detail that gave me the extra shove and made this huge leap of faith seem suddenly feasible? Simply, we went for the automatic gearbox instead of the manual that I had always driven with, taking so much of the physical strain out of driving that my ailments have mostly faded into being an inconvenience rather than an absolute hindrance to my being behind the wheel. In short, I have successfully taken the emphasis off what I can’t do and placed it firmly on what I can!
This holiday to Wales has been the proof in the pudding of that very statement. Starting with the ambitious hope that I would tackle at least some of the driving, I was suddenly resolved to drive us all the way there (that’s three people in a heavily loaded car, a huge dog in the boot, warm waterproof clothing, food supplies etc.) and have, since, continued to do all the driving, day after day. This has included plenty of motorways, narrowest wet-and-winding country lanes, up and over mountains, all sheer edges and across remotest landscapes, in conditions that have included torrential rain and pea-soup mist, plus miles and miles of convoluted (migraine-inducing) cone-edged roadworks. I’ve done this driving for hours every day, then walked for many more hours in between, often over wet and rugged terrain, even stopping at the supermarket on the way home. The kind of day-trips that used to have me dozing heavily in the passenger seat as soon as I got back to the car have seen me singing or chatting at the wheel all the way home then cooking up a storm when I get there; as though the very act of affirming “I can do this, I can get us to places” has buoyed up my self-belief that I can do a lot more besides. Its as though my energy resources have been bottomless this holiday and I keep on going, keep on shrugging off those offers of help and (importantly) keep wanting to drive my own car, more than anything else I could be doing.
Never once have I feared that sugar-crash or migraine, random muscle spasm or loss of sensation in my limbs would endanger me or anyone else on those journeys…because I have come to know the full measure of myself and what I am truly capable of; to admit how strong, at core, I truly am and to TRUST myself once again (and that part is so important). Everything about this experience has been like one giant affirmation that declares to the skies that I believe in me and that has delivered exponential benefits in terms of what I can do, how my body is (rapidly) morphing into a fitter, stronger version of itself and what I find I am now capable of believing I have in store “up ahead” on the life-road of me.
By really going for it this holiday, I have been prepared to feel out the real parameters of my capability and (while I have no doubt that, if there were any misgivings, I would have handed over that wheel) I have been delighted to find there are far more resources in me than I had been giving myself credit for. I had been using fear of “what might happen” to build a very tight “safe” wall around myself; far tighter than it ever needed to be, an “err-on-the-safeside” prison cell of my own making. I am learning, all over again, to appreciate the thrill of being able to drive a little on the wild side, to let my hair spiral around under that sunroof, to push against the wind, to take unexpected turnings and to say “lets go here, I wonder where it leads to” without following any schedule or map and it is all just what I need, just the healing message I find I am most yearning for as all of my horizons start to open up once again. On those Black Mountain winding roads, I’ve remembered what it feels like to be literally on top of the world. Driving them, I have regained the exhilaration of being fully alive, firing on all cylinders, and all the excitement of heading into the unknown…such important experiences to get the feel of if we would like to know these things in the unfolding of our day-to-day lives. Through the medium of a lovely new car, I have reacquainted myself with that feeling of sensing the extent and the sheer, reliable responsiveness off my own inner horse-power and then harnessing and steering it, driving it forwards in whatever new direction happens to appeal to me, embracing every spur-of-the moment impulse rather than sticking to all the known routes that I have worn down to the ground in recent years. So many important sensations to reacquaint myself with; I see that now…and so important to remember that I am always the driver, not just the vehicle (as indeed we all are)!
Its when we get to take back the control of our own wheel that the wide-open road of life has this habit of coming up to meet us, unfolding a little more each day in proportion to our own preparedness to travel along it; as though there are whole stretches that never even bother to show themselves to us unless we display that initial willingness to take the journey of them. It makes me wonder at the vast expanse of road that, likely, never even appears to our senses when we fail to look out for it being there; and how much more endless highway there is “out there” to be explored when we are on the look out for the possibility of more, more, more all the time. Once we are open to exploring that road fully, adventurous, courageously wherever it may take us then, suddenly, life has this habit of opening up wide once again; I’ve demonstrated this truism, monumentally, twice in my life to date and it won’t take a third time of forgetting for me to hold onto it from here now I’ve taken back that wheel for myself.
This is the third post of a week-long series written (by hand, in a notebook…quite a novel experience for techno-minded me) during a week spent in a cottage in Wales. Related posts:
For once, I had left all the wired gizmos at home to give myself a much needed break, I didn’t even pack paper and pens; so the interesting thing was to find that the impulse to write was even stronger than ever, especially on waking in the mornings. As “luck” would have it, the owner of the cottage gifted us a notebook (decorated with unicorns!) and this quickly became my new best friend…along with art materials borrowed from my daughter and a few more art supplies purchased in Abergavenny. My week of “no activity” quickly became one of my most productive…reams got written (some of which I am about to share, in instalments, here) and quite a few sheep sketches came home with me too.
For the record, I continued to do all of the driving throughout our whole week in Wales, including the journey home in pea-soup heavy rain and mist on the Friday rush-hour motorway. I even tackled an hour and a half journey home after the start of a typical pain episode on one of our walks (more about that in another post), surprising myself at just how resilient I am and demonstrating how the body is able to prioritise what you most need it to do in a given situation, even when symptoms feel most severe. My determination to thrive against all odds had been pumped upwards and outwards on this trip in a way that I feel set to capitalise on, going forwards.
Very interesting thoughts Helen, I’m glad you’re back at the wheel! I came to driving late too, but then I stopped again, so I haven’t yet found my wheel in that respect, but we never had a car growing up, so I’ve always been used to wandering around catching buses and trains so that it isn’t really an issue for me 🙂