Motorway phobia

I can’t wait for self-driven cars to become a reality. Sadly, I fear I won’t live long enough to see the day when they will be safe enough to be unleashed on the roads, but even if I do, we can assume they will be priced to be accessible only to the super rich.

I have a reason for this dream. One day, I’d like to drive on a motorway again. The last time I did that was in 1976.

If you don’t drive at all, no one thinks you are weird. But if you do drive but can’t drive on motorways, you are considered to be very odd indeed. That’s me.

It crops up in conversation a lot, because everyone knows I have this affliction. “I know”, people say, “I hate motorways too”. But that isn’t the point. I don’t just hate them, I live in such terror of them that I’m finding it painful just writing these sentences. My phobia is total. If a terrible emergency were to crop up tomorrow which made it vital for me to get onto the M3, for example to reach an airport because a relative was dying, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

“Describe how you feel”, people say. Well, I can tell you how it started. I used to drive on the Autobahn in Germany. I remember those huge trucks with trailers that would swing around in the inside lane. My wheezy old Beetle would struggle to overtake them. Sometimes it would take a minute or two of inching alongside them before the blessed relief of pulling in, and during that time, there would be angry BMW drivers in the mirror flashing their lights at me. But there was nowhere to go. Cars to the left of you, lorries to the right, stuck in the middle lane. It was claustrophobia in its most extreme form, but back then, I was able to cope with it. Most people wouldn’t even think of it as an issue.

Those suffering from conventional claustrophobia are compelled to get out of their situations and normally, with a little embarrassment, they can. An elevator will normally stop eventually, a theatre will have an exit, even a cable car will reach the top of the mountain, but if you are driving on a motorway, there’s no escape.

“What does it feel like?” people ask. In a kind way, they try to empathize. But they can’t imagine what this phobia is like. I was first struck by it in 1976, on the way home from seeing the Rolling Stones at Knebworth. Surrounded by headlights at speed, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by confusion. Were the lights in front of me, behind me or in the mirror? How far away were they? I literally froze, having no control over my body or mind. I lost all understanding of how to drive the car. I had to stop, get away, but it was impossible. My head span, I felt sick, I couldn’t see properly and my limbs were out of control.

It was a miracle I didn’t crash and die there and then, but the next day, assuming it must have been some weird one-off, I tried again. And it happened again, this time in daylight. And then again. There is a strong element of OCD in this. I don’t believe that I won’t plough into the nearest lorry, or that its driver won’t have a heart attack and veer across the motorway. It could happen, and that is enough to convince my troubled mind that it will.

Already my mind had taken over control of my intentions, learning the wrong responses, but I was determined not to be beaten by such nonsense. When I realised that something had to be done, I took medical advice, but before that, my dear wife offered to take me out on practice drives on dual carriageways. It was hopeless and we would always end up stranded at the first layby and she would have to drive me home as I shivered and sobbed.

Had my GP heard of this strange driving affliction? No, but he was sure it was merely stress and anxiety. He prescribed two sorts of pill, one of which I stopped almost immediately after I discovered it was an enormously strong and highly addictive anti-depressant. The others were standard tranquillisers, to be taken before attempting to drive. Bafflingly, the label said that one should avoid driving after taking the pills. That was helpful. And significantly, the doctor asked me if I felt I could drive better after having consumed alcohol? I did. But it obviously wasn’t a solution that it made sense to pursue.

I consulted a series of psychiatrists and psychotherapists. The first person I went to just made things worse. Despite his opulent house, his leather chaise-longue and the long series of letters after his name, he showed no sign of being able to relate to the condition. He also lived in a place only accessible via a busy road, so that didn’t exactly help. Another one tried really hard to help me by coming out in the car with me, the idea being to overcome the phobia by confronting it. In theory, it was a sound approach, but after a couple of sessions, he was so shit-scared that he told me he did’n’t dare continue. I didn’’t blame him.

Yet another psychotherapist thought that group therapy might help. Unfortunately, the other participants had quite different phobias, of bats, mice and snakes. They didn’’t empathise with my problem and I didn’’t empathise with theirs. Homeopathy wasn’’t any better. The white-coated expert was obviously a charlatan and sold me some pills which I knew were made of sugar.

The most helpful person was a local acupuncturist, although it was a bit awkward. Her daughter kept walking in to find me spreadeagled on the couch, looking like a pincushion. The acupuncturist also treated several of my friends and would regale me with information about their personal problems. I could only assume that she was also telling them all about mine. What she did do, however, was teach me good relaxation techniques, which I have found useful in a variety of situations ever since.

Finally, annoyed at my GP’s insistence that there was nothing for it but to “keep taking the tablets”, I changed to another doctor. He immediately said I should stop taking the tablets and also stop driving. “Stop driving?” “Why not? Millions of people don’’t drive. What’s the big deal?” He was right. I was reassured to look up several of my heroes (such as Liam Gallagher and Ricky Gervais) and find that they had never driven and didn’’t care. Although I guess they can afford chauffeurs.

I had long since accepted that I was a non motorway driver for ever when I was approached by the BBC, wanting to film a documentary item about my affliction. They already had an agenda in place. They would film me being treated by a hypnotist, an extraordinary lady I christened Mystic Meg. She would carry out a miracle cure, they would film me bowling along the M3 and they would have their programme. Of course it was a failure (although I really tried, as keen as anyone for a miracle cure) and they doctored some footage of me on a short piece of dual carriageway to make it seem like a success.

I now know that the only way to have conquered it was to have been forced, again and again, to confront it, but the unique nature of this problem made that impossible. I would never have been able to do it on my own, and no one else would ever have had the courage to accompany me. In my mind, I would certainly lose control and kill myself, my companion and numerous other drivers. That was too much of a risk to take.

So why am dragging all this up now? Well, partly because I want to know if I am the only person in the world who has this problem. When the programme went out, no one contacted the BBC saying they recognised the symptoms. I have met plenty of people who don’t like driving on motorways but none who simply can’t. Plus, last week, by an awful set of circumstances, I suddenly briefly found myself on a stretch of dual carriageway in Southampton. Was this the confrontation I needed? Was I cured? Nope, it was just as bad as the first time. I completely freaked and it is only the fact that there was practically no traffic that allows me to still be here and able to write this. No happy ending there, then.

I can drive short distances on small roads and luckily, my wife is an excellent driver who enjoys nothing better than blasting along motorways. The tranquillisers went down the toilet long ago and in my retirement, I plan to research and write a volume entitled How To Drive From Land’s End To John O’’Groats Without Encountering A Dual Carriageway. It’s bound to be a best-seller.