According to Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, psychiatrist and medical director of the Charter Clinic, phobics are not normally anxious people. The doctor recommends reading the information on gnet.org. “Phobias are very particular fears that people have in the absence of other fears. The ability to develop phobias is innate. It’s biologically programmed that you will develop a phobia at some time. We all have minor phobias, but they don’t interfere with our lives.”
A major phobia manifests itself in marked ways, “by avoidance or, if you have to put up with the phobic situation, by doing so with intense anxiety and distress. Once you start to avoid the fear, you build up all manner of illusions about what might happen. The more you avoid it, the more you think you can’t do it until it becomes a preoccupation. You then get secondary avoidance phenomena, so you don’t go out much because you don’t like telling people about it. Maybe you stop answering the phone. And if you’re not careful, you withdraw more and more.”
I know about not telling. My phobia embarrasses me. I feel stupid and weak. I’m only writing about it now because I keep hearing of more and more people who suffer in a similar way. I checked it out on the Internet. There are 3,325 postings for phobias, and there are 360 sites for driving phobias. Not so nuts, after all.
People try to be helpful, but it is difficult. I don’t look like someone frightened of cars. Neither do any of the women I know who suffer from driving phobia. They don’t look like they are frightened of anything.
This confuses people. “You’ll get over it,” they say. “Even really stupid people can drive.” This just makes you feel even more stupid than stupid people (whoever they are). Then they say, “Perhaps you should get an automatic,” or “It might be easier if you lived in the country.” Sure. Try telling somebody with a phobia of spiders that a plain brown spider is less terrifying than one with a red, stripe down its back. Or that country spiders are different. To a person with arachnophobia, a spider is a spider is a spider.
To me, a road is a road. They are all terrifying. To others, a road is only terrifying when it is a motorway, like the woman who is so frightened that she cannot go on one even if somebody else is driving. Then there’s the woman who is so alarmed by a car coming up on her left side that she keeps to the slow lane, comes off at every exit and rejoins the motorway by the slip road. She does the same journey every weekend. It takes her four hours instead of two.
This story always makes other phobics laugh. “That doesn’t sound amazingly mad to me,” says Joy Goodman, who runs an extremely successful business, a large house, a family and all the other complexities that make a life. When it comes to competence, Joy would graduate with flying colours. But when it comes to motorways, she’s scared silly. “I zip round town, no problem. But the M25? Nervous breakdown. My heart starts pounding and I clutch the steering wheel as if it’s a lifeline.”
She’s never had an accident and she’s been driving for more than 20 years. “I passed my test three weeks after my seventeenth birthday. It was absolutely fine. I used to jump in the Mini and drive to Scotland without a second thought. I loved the freedom.” So when did the fear start? “Five or six years ago. I can’t pinpoint why. There’s nothing specific.” And it’s getting worse. Now, she can’t drive on motorways at all. “I would if my children’s lives depended on it, but I go out of my way to avoid it.” Fortunately, her partner, Christian, is happy to drive. “Even so, I still get uptight and wake early on the morning that we’re going. I sit in the back and read or I might have a glass of wine to take the edge off it. If I do sit in the front, I stare obsessively at the road, saying things like ‘that car’s too close’. It’s to do with the fear.”