Back Behind the Wheel

I’m sure it will be a betrayal of my thoroughly middle-class roots if I admit that I had my first ever driving lesson on my seventeenth birthday. Being born in January, I’d stalked the weather forecasts for days and prayed, possibly for the first time in my life, that the monotony of school would not be disrupted by snow, desperate as I was to get out on the road. Less than six months later I passed my test on the first attempt (I know, I know… apparently all the best drivers take at least three tries!) and off I went.

Because as if I was not lucky enough simply to have parents who forked out for all those lessons that got me there, I was also lucky enough to have access to a car that was only three years old. The bright red Mini Cooper, won by my brother in a competition, definitely had its flaws. This was a “proper” old-skool mini, not the modern day incarnation with all mod cons. My Mini had a non-locking petrol cap that made it the target for fuel thieves and meant I had to fill her up before every journey. She had a manual choke that required dedication to master. There was no de-misting system, and the only way to keep the windscreen clear in winter was to drive with the window partly open. And no, the heater was not very effective either! Thanks to that little car I learned all sorts of tricks that were certainly not part of the driving test. I was a dab-hand at jump starts and running bump starts.

But the downsides apart, that car to me represented a degree of freedom. Growing up in a village un-served by trains and with a bus service that rivalled Christmas in its infrequency, driving was a game changer. I was no longer reliant on lifts from my parents to go places and do things. And like a lot of seventeen year olds, I did things that make me cringe a bit now. Like the time I crammed five friends in to that tiny car – I’m surprised to this day that we ever managed to pull away. And there was the time me and my lead feet did a ton on the M25, just to prove that a Mini was capable of it (It probably lasted all of twenty seconds before I pulled in and dropped the speed back to something both more legal and more manageable for the engine – and fortunately I wasn’t clocked at that speed!)

My driving days, however, were pretty short-lived, however. I went to University in London, where I had no need of a car. I last drove during my first summer break back in 1999. Shortly after that, I did battle with meningitis and it was that which ultimately led to the surrender of my licence as a result of seizures.

Still a student in London, I didn’t immediately miss driving. Studying a professional course, from the second year onwards, summer breaks were short lived and I rarely left London. I honestly did not need a car, and likely could not have afforded to run one anyway. None of my friends drove at the time either, so I really did not feel that I was missing anything.

The first time I missed driving was during the time that I lived in Devon, where it became awkward to constantly beg lifts from people who I’d know for only a short time. But then I ruptured my achilles tendon, and entered a two year battle to walk, never mind drive, and it became the least of my concerns. It next arose when we moved out of London four years ago. Part of the attraction of our house was its proximity to the station and to all the local amenities, including my place of work, so driving was still not a necessity, but I came to realise how much more freedom it would give us. Sadly, at that time some ill judged indiscretions with medication meant I couldn’t haven’t re-applied for my licence, so I pushed it to the back of my mind. We at least had a car that Ian could drive.

After Thomas came along, my lack of driving became progressively more problematic. I was easily able to get lifts with NCT friends initially, with baby car seats easy enough to move from car to car. But it was more difficult when I wanted to go to places that others weren’t going. Taking Thomas to mother and baby swimming lessons was a particular headache. And as he grew out of his infant seat, the car seat issue became much more problematic too.

The biggest issue that I now faced, however, was after so long as a non-driver, I was incredibly anxious to get back behind the wheel. I was anxious too that I’d somehow fall foul of complex rules around driving with diabetes and be denied my licence despite being sure that I met the criteria to re-apply. It took a lot of liaising with my various healthcare providers, and reassurance from friends and family to finally pluck up the courage to fill in and send off the pages and pages forms to get my licence back. And it took them months to process them (This became frustrating, because I’d thought so long and hard about it, and I know that there is no way I’d contemplate getting behind the wheel, especially with Thomas in the car, if I wasn’t 100% sure that I was medically safe to do so. The suspicion that I may not be being truthful is difficult, despite knowing that not everyone is necessarily so careful and they have to follow protocol to help keep everyone safe.)

But this week, the brown envelope I’d been waiting for was on the doormat when I arrived home from work.

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My licence!

And in a fit of efficiency, Ian rang the insurance company that very evening and had me added to his policy. Despite not having driven for 15 years, and fully disclosing my medical exclusion, it made the policy cheaper! (It may be to do with working in the NHS.)

So all that was left was to do battle with my nerves about getting back behind the wheel.

And today, I did it.

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I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Our current car – a VW Tiguan – is an absolute tank in comparison to the Mini that I last drove. It’s also an automatic and I’ve only ever driven manual before, and also has a fancy electronic parking brake (which to you and me means that it basically has no handbrake!) We started in an empty car park  on the local industrial estate with the intention of going forwards and seeing how I felt. Happily I discovered that perhaps it really is like riding a bicycle (although now I’ve driven one I have no idea why automatic cars aren’t more popular in this country. I still firmly believe that very one should learn to drive manual, but once you now how to do it, why bother?!)

Thomas did unnerve me a little by yelling, unprompted, from the back seat “No, We don’t want to go on the main road!” when I left the car park. But we all survived, and even Thomas admitted later that Mummy isn’t a bad driver. Finally, after all these years as a passenger, I feel confident that yes, I really can do this.

I have, you may be relieved to note,  also booked some proper refresher lessons with an instructor (in a manual car) to go over some of the finer points, like night driving, motorways and parking. But I’m sure that I can do it.

And it will change our lives. On the days I’m home alone with Thomas I’ll no longer be quite as restricted in what we can do. Getting to friends’ houses for play dates will be easier. Taking Thomas to certain activities will be possible. And we’ll be able to make much greater use of so many wonderful local attractions and amenities. I’m so looking forward to this new chapter in our lives!

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