The fear factor

By Sharon Stephenson

A car crash led to years of living with a powerful phobia, writes Sharon Stephenson

A car crash left Sharon Stephenson traumatised. Photo / Thinkstock
A car crash left Sharon Stephenson traumatised. Photo / Thinkstock

I was 11 when a plumber's van slammed into the car that was taking me and my two younger brothers to school.

As my mother grappled with wet roads and an unreliable clutch, I was watching a raindrop snake its way down the window. A few minutes later, through the same window, I saw the hunk of metal, glass and plastic U-bends fling itself at our ancient Austin Cambridge.

In the minutes following the impact, as one of my brothers struggled to free his arm from the crumpled door, I was unable to move, hypnotised by the blood that covered my school uniform, the car's upholstery and by the bystanders who came to our aid.

That accident left me with two visible scars: one on my forehead, which I still carefully hide with my fringe; the other on my left cheek, a messy tapestry of scar tissue that has thankfully faded with time and oceans of Bio-Oil. But it's the psychological scar that has been the hardest to heal - a fear of driving. For years after the crash, fear prevented me from getting anywhere near the driver's seat, let alone joining the stampede to get my licence at 15. It shames me to admit it, but I never again allowed my mother to drive me, a persistence that must have been awkward, given she taught at the school I attended.

If my insistence on catching a bus rather than travelling with her hurt, she never mentioned it.

It wasn't as though I didn't try to overcome my phobia, but every time I got behind the wheel, the projectionist in my head would play a reel of twisted metal and shattered windscreens. And every effort to embrace the holy trinity of brake, clutch and accelerator would be cut through by the screams of my brother. Just the thought of piloting one tonne of killing machine made my hands clammy and my teeth clench.

And so I happily romanced the passenger seat, taking advantage of friends' generosity. I wasn't, however, anyone's idea of a model passenger, often spending the entire journey pressing imaginary brake pedals and yelling, "Watch out, there's a dog 2km up ahead who might want to cross the road." I'm surprised anyone ever agreed to play taxi driver. I also became an enthusiastic consumer of buses, or the "loser cruiser" as friends liked to call the No. 20 bus.

Given that driving occupies roughly the same space in the Kiwi psyche as jandals and Marmite, being without a driver's licence was a little like signing up to the freaks' club.

But I managed to fold it into my life and I don't ever remember missing out on social events because of it.

I became skilful at hiding my phobia, managing to blag my way into journalism school despite the insistence on students holding a current licence.

I did, later, get my licence - on the first attempt, no less - after months of straining the patience of friends and an expensive driving instructor. But I came to think of my licence more as a piece of paper to be waved at prospective employers than something to be used.

In fact, when I began working, my fears continued to run free - and I almost always managed to find sympathetic colleagues who were willing to drop me off and collect me from interviews.

It didn't always work, of course. One evening, as a cub reporter on a small daily newspaper, I had to attend a council meeting a good half-hour's drive from the office.

There was no one to help, so I gritted my teeth, plotted my journey on back roads and, despite a slight incident with the front bumper and a parking bollard, managed to complete the round trip. But I hated every minute of it and spent the entire council meeting fretting about the journey home.

Shortly after that, I headed overseas, where I knew my licence could gather dust. I used subways and buses and became the Queen of Cabs. But eventually I came home and I knew I had to get behind the wheel. In my first week back, I took my brother's car out for a drive. I gave new meaning to the word "incompetent".

On my second outing, I narrowly missed hitting a pedestrian. I googled "fear of driving" and discovered it is one of the planet's most common phobias. There were others like me. I realised I was probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); it was a relief to finally give it a name.

I read about a bloke who lost his trucking firm because he was too scared to drive after an accident, and a woman who kept her job only because her husband ferried her there and back while she sat trembling in the back seat with a coat over her head.

Unlike the fear of blushing (ereuthrophobia) or of going to bed (clinophobia), there is no medical term for a fear of driving. It can include everything from people who avoid certain intersections or drive miles out of their way to avoid motorways, to those who hate turning left or cannot open the driver's door. I read books with titles like Overcoming Panic, Anxiety And Phobias and Free Yourself From Worry And Fear. In the end, there was no lightning flash moment.

One day, while driving to an interview, as I gripped the steering wheel like a woman possessed, I realised it was time to stop. I earned my own living, owned my own home and had a list of accomplishments. Eventually, the angst subsided and one day, a few years ago, I was able to put it back into its box, hopefully forever.

I'll never win any prizes for piloting a vehicle and remain envious of friends who enjoy driving long distances. But I remain grateful that I was able to tackle the fear," a car equals freedom and my life is so much easier now. As my mother likes to say, "There are things you enjoy doing and things you enjoy having done. The second level of enjoyment lasts longer ..."

- NZ Herald

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