I did it…

…and, unless I sit my Maths GCSE a third time, or have to rewrite my whole book because no-one wants to publish it, it’ll probably be the hardest single thing I’ll ever do. But I knew it would be, and acceptance was half the battle. I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at 21 in 2005. Early on during the assessment, I was asked whether I could drive and whether I’d found learning difficult or frustrating (“Does the Pope pray?” “Is Boris Johnson a pillock?”). All bar one dyspraxic person I‚Äôve ever¬†met has said they found it hard or impossible to learn, and the one anomaly was a master of fake bravado (he later died – bad mental health, not bad driving…). In 2011, during my happiest spell as a journalist,¬†I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph about dyspraxia and driving;¬†then had to explain patiently to many people that despite it, I hadn’t actually cracked said milestone myself. I took blocks of lessons during my teens and twenties¬†but was curtailed by multiple moves, lack of money and sporadic levels of enthusiasm for driving, and life. Of the five instructors I had age 17-24, only one got me anywhere near to a test. My first could barely get me into third gear and I didn’t drive again until two years later. Two were barely in their twenties. The older one tried to tickle my ribs as I drove down Durham’s main dual carriageway. I learned on Saturday mornings during my first graduate job and gave up because I was far too tired and consequently far too dangerous.

My iron determination to try again and finally see it through kicked in after I ran the London Marathon two years ago. A few people seemed to enjoy the diary I kept here during the training¬†so I thought I could similarly keep one of my learning to drive. But, while it’s normal to publicly celebrate running a Marathon, driving is…well, leaving it late or finding it hard’s not really something you’re supposed to talk about, is it? Like admitting you’re bad at sex, or struggling to get pregnant. Or grieving¬†(You should totally talk about those, by the way. I’ll help you do it).¬†More importantly, though, learning to drive is really quite dull. The basics can come fairly soon, even to a dyspraxic, especially if you’ve driven before. After that it’s just endlessly, boringly making new mistakes and repeating old ones for a long, long time until you get there. I’d expected it would probably take me two or three tests and 12 to 18 months of lessons to pass. It took me fifteen months to drive to test standard, another four months to book a test, and after another four months I still hadn’t passed. I failed the first due to two epic nervous brain farts at the beginning, with just two other minors. The second test a month later was infinitely more pleasant and I thought I’d done well, only to discover I’d failed for wrongly using the left-only lane at a roundabout, and not looking left before turning right at a junction where I thought there was only unused industrial land that side. After the third, another month on, I came back and lay face down on the grass for half an evening. Now well into worse-case scenario territory, I decided it might just help if I expected to pass next time rather than hedging my bets, and tried to put it to the back of my mind rather than overthink every permutation of test route. My driving instructor who overthinks and takes his job nerdily seriously (funny how we got on…) has spent two years emphasising the importance of keeping a positive attitude to driving. He would praise lessons where I had a serious fault but exuded confidence over those where I made no mistakes but drove as if I was driving through Pyongyang in a New York taxi. Sure enough, being quietly confident about my next test – quietly being about about as good as it gets – did seem to make the run up feel easier.

And so, attempt number four. The test centre was much less busy than on previous visits – a big help to begin with. Driving test centres, you may recall, have the combined atmosphere of a hospital wing and the worst places you’ve ever temped. There are lots of signs imploring you to relax and, usually, lots of smart, under-confident young girls being comforted by their gormless, over-confident older boyfriends. Everyone sits in the waiting room nervous-laughing and deep-breathing as they wait for the examiners to come down in their high-vis jackets and call out the names. I was first up, and remembered the examiner from my second test – another good sign. (“We’ve met,” I said, a bit too eagerly. He remembered I was “A writer of some sort.” I remembered he was called Ian). The cardinal rule of driving tests everyone tells you is not to worry about things you think you’ve failed for as you go along. Guess what, this is easier when you’re not on your fourth test during a heatwave. I hoped that I’d be given parallel parking as my manoeuvre, which I am inexplicably very good at, thanks to the one good instructor I had in my youth who made me practice it for an hour at a time. I hadn’t had it on any of the previous tests, so it was likely. Instead, I was told we were going to do the manoeuvre first and do a bay park in the car park –¬†my least favourite manoeuvre and possibly least favourite anything. “God, I’m sorry, I’ve lost this, how many go’s am I allowed?” I said, convinced I’d already failed and strangling the urge to run out of the car weeping before we’d even left the test centre. But then I remembered my instructor’s advice to me umpteen times that manoeuvres are very difficult to fail for. Examiners are lenient with them as most people cock them up simply due to nerves, especially if you have to do one first thing.

The drive seemed a mixed bag. Definitely some comfortable stretches, definitely some Moments. I was convinced I’d failed for at least one other thing, possibly a couple. I faffed about a bit trying to change lanes early on. Later, a car came flying uphill at me just as I’d passed a give way line on the blind spot of a notoriously dangerous winding road where no-one who wants to live should attempt the speed limit. I yelled something plaintive and was told politely but firmly to STFU and concentrate. There’s a small mosque on the outskirts of town and I had to drive up a street rammed with Friday lunchtime worshippers. (No racism from the passenger side, however. Hooray!). Further up, I had to pull in close behind a car because of an illegally parked van obstructing the road and was convinced I hadn’t left enough room or would be marked down for being prompted to reverse back/edge forward/generally stay calm. I knew the point at which we were going back to the test centre, and those last few minutes passed by uneventfully. I waited in the driver’s seat, slugging from my water bottle and trying not to look across. Ian did not seem especially as if he was about to impart good news. He seemed as if he was sweating and wanted to go home, which, strangely enough, I could empathise with.

“Well, Maxine, that’s the end of the test…”

I waited for the “I’m afraid/I”m sorry…”

“And I’m pleased to tell you that you’ve passed.”

I’m afraid it all went very X Factor and weepy for a moment.

“How many minors did I get?” I asked, when I could speak. I got seven, mostly for the bay park – as many as I had in the other three tests combined. You’re allowed up to fifteen minors on one test, the average is 8-10. They’re all indicated on your test report. “Have a look; but no need to dwell on them,” he added – the sign of someone who either knows me too well or not at all.

That was last week. Since then, I’ve had one very jittery little drive with a scared mum and a few much more pleasant little ones with a less-scared dad, where I realised my seat had probably been too far forward the first time (slow clap Max). My instructor left me with two pieces of advice: To self-monitor my dyspraxia (Essentially, don’t drive when tired, angry or hungry. You know, like everyone else on earth) and to push myself beyond easy familiar routes. I’m torn between thinking it’s perfectly OK to be a timid local driver forever, and agreeing with him that I have not put all this time and money into learning just to tootle to Tesco and back. After other milestones – degrees, diplomas, shortlistings – I haven’t always had the confidence to unlock the doors those milestones were supposed to open, and it wasn’t until I ran the Marathon at the age of 32 that I really learned to appreciate the magnitude of something I’d done. I don’t want to repeat the past with driving. Speaking of running, I have wondered whether a similarly methodical approach to driving would help, building up to more ambitious drives in a similar way my training plan built me up to running more ambitious distances.

Next up, I have a motorway lesson in September (I’ve already had one as the law very recently changed to allow learners on), and probably another night lesson as the nights draw in (I’ve driven in darkness before but I can’t even remember whether it was this winter or last…). I am old enough now to know there’s a pattern to my achievements: One, I can go into an anticlimactic slump afterwards. This needs to be carefully contained so that it doesn’t go on for months (Or, indeed, years. Hello 2011-14). Two, I daftly make a mental note of those who haven’t been in touch to congratulate me for it, as well as the 100-odd people who have, including people I haven’t spoken to in decades, and The Dyspraxia Foundation. In this instance, the people who haven’t made contact haven’t because they’re dead (definitely), or on holiday (probably). Nothing much to be done about either, is there? As I said on Twitter recently, I’m not just happy about passing my driving test for what it is. I’m happy because it’s the first achievement in all my adult life I haven’t clouded by wishing someone would and/or could get in touch. At least, not to the point any pleasure is removed from it. This feels rather lovely.¬†Oh, and now I have a free hour to spend applying for this and a spare ¬£162 a month not to spend on lessons and tests. That feels rather lovely too. See you on the road…¬†

Also, if you have recommendations of any advice/resources aimed at new drivers who aren’t teenagers, please sling them my way!


April, month of Absolutely Everything

Gosh, it’s been a bit of a while since I was here last, hasn’t it. A busy while.

And so, we go live to April, the home of big feelings, anniversaries and so on (see also, July, November, Christmas, my birthday. Basically I’m a cucumber with legs and a face throughout most of any given year now. But April’s the¬†daddy of them all…). Despite my best intentions to space events out, everything has converged around the last fortnight of the month like an annual blue-arsed fly convention. Maybe being incredibly busy and incredibly knackered seems a good way of handling things to you; maybe it doesn’t. Whatever. I am it, and I am – touch wood – doing well.

Late-April is exactly seven years since I last saw two people I knew separately alive in the same week. We had an early heatwave and an imminent Royal Wedding then too. Late-April also means it’s two years since I ran the London Marathon (no heatwave then, thank God. In fact, it was bloody freezing, which was OK for me. Not so much for my poor parents who had to stand and watch for 5 hours after they’d just come back from four months in the southern hemisphere…).

As I recently said on Twitter, recent years have basically represented me going through what anyone goes through when faced with the possibility of losing/not having things which our society assumes/expects you inherently get/keep. You make your own normality. In January, probably the most important piece of work I’ve written in years was finally signed off, after two years of back and forth and will-it-ever-happen. It very much did, and the feedback has been very much great. At the same time, having spent the better chunk of 2016 running huge distances and the better chunk of 2017 writing and editing my book, I arrived at the “Shall I spend 5K in relocation costs in order to take a two-year contract job at a department which may not even exist in a years’ time, or invest half that money into my business to make it better instead?” crossroads, and I chose the latter, relaunching my business with a stronger identity and focus. So, say hello to Genuine Copy.¬†I’ve kept meaning to blog about it here and not done it – my website will speak for itself soon, when it fully goes live. If you know me well, I’ve probably already told you something about it, and you’ve probably said something lovely and encouraging. Thank you!

This month I was also chosen as one of fifty “rare minds” to attend RARE London’s¬†two-day masterclass, designed for mid-career people in the creative industries and aimed at encouraging greater diversity in those industries. As a freelancer I was awarded a scholarship place next to people who’d had theirs paid for by the likes of YouTube, Google and Saatchi & Saatchi, which was extra rewarding. It couldn’t have been a better first outing for my business, or a better illustration of what said business is about.

What else? Early next month, all being well, I’m sending my book out to a first batch of agents. And being generally eager to discover what the next few months will bring, on every front….

Oh, and did I mention the small matter of my driving test? I postponed booking it for at least six months, and have been postponing taking it for at least the last four months.¬† But I’m doing it this time. INCREDIBLY soon. For definite.

At some point in all this, I might manage a drink and a little lie down. With you, if you’re so inclined (Ahem, the drink, not the lie down. I am slightly more discerning on that front…).


Driving: The home stretch?! Can this really be it!?

I almost made my driving instructor cry today. In a good way. I’m about 60 hours in now and if my lesson had been a test, I’d have passed with three or four minors. I got a clap at the end and a shoulder squeeze, which is acceptable tactile behaviour for a driving instructor, as opposed to a tickle in the ribs while you’re on a dual carriageway. (For those who don’t know the story, yes, this literally happened to me when I was 19 and came close to taking my test, until I moved to university and from a decent instructor to the archetypal bit-of-a-perv. I wish I’d reported him but I didn’t know how, blamed myself for being kind to him, etcetera. If social media had been around back then I might’ve had more encouragement).

When I first decided to blog about learning to drive I wondered how often I should update. Weekly? Fortnightly? Monthly? The fact that large parts of it are a repetitive and tedious bum-ache has largely taken care of that question.¬†For us¬†clever-with-words-and-stupid-at-everything-else people who know we’re not going to pass in under 20-30 hours (the UK average is 50, FYI), from then on it’s largely consistency. You know the mistakes you make (your steering is too shuffly sometimes, you hesitate at roundabouts, you’re “just a liiitttle bit close on the left there,” your focus takes a mo to recover after a manoeuvre) but you keep making them and you just have to keep going until you stop making them. My instructor says my clutch control is better than some of his pupils who’ve taken more than one test; I know the right gears for every point of every tricky hill but I still manage to bugger up first-lesson stuff related to spatial awareness. As for roundabouts, they’re my continual nemesis and my town has some of the worst ones in the UK outside Swindon. I wish I could slow them down like you can slow someone’s voice down on a dictaphone when transcribing interviews…

Inconsistency has been the irritating watchword the last few weeks. After a test-standard lesson sometime back in May I had a dip in June, including a scary lesson where I suddenly lost muscle memory and kept meeting first gear when I wanted third. Not a good look for a main road, and quite a blow when gears and clutch control are normally a strength. We had to drive up and down back roads until I got it back. I worked out this was down to tension in my wrist and to having driven three different cars in the space of a week as I’d practised parking in both my parents’. For the last couple of lessons after that, I just seemed to be blah-ing along with partly-good/partly-bad lessons that left me wanting to cry with frustration and sheer boredom (sorry, Twitter followers). Today’s was The Breakthrough I’d been waiting for. I aced hill-starts and didn’t fail at roundabouts I still have a bit of residual fear when I’m changing up to third gear and have to do therapy-talk to get rid of it, but no more muscle memory problems. I even did quite a good reverse around a corner, which is my worst manoeuvre because I was never taught it when I was young (I cancelled my test when the aforementioned pervy instructor tried to teach it to me just before I had one booked, with predictably awful results)

I started last June wanting to pass by this Christmas, and I’m still happy with the test being a Christmas present. I need the practice for my nerves, and we still haven’t done the big dual carriageway on the test route which he’s been saying we will for at least three months. But everything looked a bit closer today – including my licence!

Highway Star: In which I finally find time for a driving blog post, which seems to require a Deep Purple song reference…

As plenty of you know, I’m currently 32 and learning to drive. Combined with¬†freelancing, looking for contract work, Pilates, training for the London 10K in May, and trying to finish writing a book, also by May. (Doing things by halves, as ever. Might pop over to the¬†IMF later and¬†see if¬†Christine¬†needs a hand with anything….).

I’m now seven months (about thirty hours) into having lessons, and at the consciously-incompetent stage, which is the stage between “Yay, I drove¬†and didn’t kill a child” and “Oh balls, not killing a child isn’t enough to be proud of anymore. I actually have to understand roundabouts and filter lanes, will I ever.” It’s¬†the “I’ve come a long way but gosh, there’s still a bloody long way to go” stage. The¬†stage where thinking about the sheer number of reasons it’s possible to fail a driving test is enough to make you want to move to an abandoned island for reasons other than political…

Since October, when my instructor suggested I book a test for January and I replied “LOL¬†HELL NOPE”, I’ve been putting off having the conversation about how things are going and when my test is actually going to be, in a way that indicates¬†why my longest relationship has lasted months. In the summer I hope,¬†but my instructor is now being as specific as¬†Theresa May on Brexit. Generally the very “best” learners take under 20 hours, the UK average is around 50 and the weakest can take between 80 and 100. His record is 140 hours and counting. I can’t even begin to imagine affording so many, so I bloody well hope that’s not going to be me (Oh, and a tip:¬†Don’t look at online forums for learner drivers. They’re full of teenagers who think everyone learns in under ten hours¬†– I had enough of that circa 2001, thanks).¬†

The good news about driving is that clutch control – which many dyspraxic people struggle with to the point they’re recommended automatic cars – is dead easy for me¬†and I’m pretty confident using gears (well, except sixth gear which I forget exists and don’t use. Car, you’re a learner Citroen, not a Maserati; get over yourself). I was also taught three-point turns and reverse parking a lot when I was much younger, before¬†moving north to university disrupted my learning, hence I can do those pretty fine, once I’ve mapped out the reference points and remembered which key principle applies to which manoeuvre (I can almost remember how to do a three point turn better than I can remember how to spell manoeuvre, and I’m a copywriter and journalist…).

Driving is also helping me¬†become a more decisive pedestrian because I realise how unnerving it can be for a driver when people hover by the road not sure whether to cross, or nonchalantly stroll out without looking. And I’m¬†better at trusting that people will stop for me when they’re supposed to, even though drivers regularly zoom up to the pedestrian crossing near where I live as though it’s a pit stop.

My nemesis in driving (and life generally, pretty much) is spatial awareness. Although it’s improved a great deal with age, thanks to a decade of walking around with music in my ears, five years of semi-often Pilates classes, and two years of road running, it¬†is still emphatically¬†Not My Best Feature. It manifests as clipping my elbows/knees/ankles on things more than most (although no injuries from running, touch wood). On the road it manifests as being told I’m too close to the kerb quite often,¬†and making a hash of finding¬†a sensible place to pull over beyond the stage when I probably should.

Specifically the most difficult¬†bits for me right now are steering and¬†roundabouts. I’m starting to work out the small ones OK on my own, but the big multi-lane ones are still a salad.¬†I did some of the massive ones quite fearlessly when I was younger, or I must have done because I drove¬†a lot and got quite close to test standard (during one of the worst mental health periods of my life, incidentally). But I had a hairy incident on a busy one last time I learned at 25, so that’s probably stayed with me. The steering issue is just odd. Apparently in my yoof I was not properly taught the proper 12-to-6 steering technique which affects a number of other things. It’s coming, but has taken lots of drilling in.

My instructor has the right combination of pedantry and nonchalance to teach me (He’s dyslexic himself, and I’ve learned to handle his occasional left-right indecision without panicking. (“Take the next road on the left – no, actually right.” “Right. Are you sure?” Yep.” “Still sure?” “OK”)¬† He works me hard on my weaknesses¬†but equally makes sure I know when I do something well. And he doesn’t indulge me when I’m being a drama-llama, although, vitally, he understands why I am¬†(Understanding anxiety without either playing to it or dismissing it is really important, FYI). I’m trying to absorb his mantra – essentially, be patient and get on with it, try not to overthink ¬†it – even though it goes against my nature in the way that modesty goes against Donald Trump’s

Here’s to the next six months or so. With the emphasis on “or so.”

All driver tips on dealing with roundabouts gladly received.

Oh, and just to clear something up while I’m here…

Read More »

Max Learns To Drive: Part One of Many…

“So, London Marathon done and dusted. What new hobby can I bang on about endlessly in a bid to squash my feelings of social¬†inadequacy¬†and incompetence¬†next?”¬†I wondered.

I could just keep doing the same thing and running more Marathons in more places (the single woman’s equivalent of having another baby every two years…). But, I didn’t get “The Bug” from it. I’m thrilled and proud that I did it, and I’ll still happily run the Berlin Half Marathon next year just for kicks,¬†but I currently have no desire to run a full one¬†again. As far as other projects go, there’s the book, but I’m too shy to talk about it much in case I jinx it like my others.¬†In the longer term, as I’ve said, I’d like to do more directly mental health-themed work, and possibly a counselling training, but¬†a lot of organisations – rightly – have rules that you can’t train or volunteer until at least two to three years afterwards if you’ve been affected by a suicide or a significant mental health dip, so that’s out for a while longer.

One too many frustrating experiences with buses in recent months have pointed me to¬†my answer. My next big Thing should be¬†learning to drive again.¬†Less than 5 per cent of the world’s population have run a Marathon and I have. Half of UK adults drive and I can’t. When you put it like that, it’s a bit silly, really. The need is seeming increasingly urgent for me and for many people my age who are being priced out of London, the only city in the south of England with public transport vaguely fit for this century.

The problem here (i.e the reason I’m nearly 32 and still can’t do it) is that¬†learning to drive¬†is really quite expensive, and I’m¬†really quite bad at it.¬†If you wanted to dream up something to make me feel as horrendously useless as you possibly could, you’d probably invent driving. The last instructor I had was younger than me and several of my cousins’ children have passed their tests before me. Literally every skill driving requires in abundance I find singularly difficult.¬†The clumsiness, lack of spatial awareness, poor short-term memory, poor sequencing and slow¬†information processing might be OK if¬†I wasn’t also enormously sensitive to people having a go at me over¬†all the above. And if all the above didn’t make it so buggeringly impossible to concentrate for more than a minute.¬†And if I hadn’t moved¬†around the country so much with so little money, meaning I never settled down anywhere long enough to learn and pass.¬†I’ve had a ragbag of instructors over the years from the very first who almost gave up on me before I gave up on him, to the one who was really good but then I moved away, to the archetypal flirt who thought tickling me while I was driving down the main dual carriageway out of Durham was a good idea…

If you didn’t know and hadn’t gathered, I’m dyspraxic, and driving is pretty universally a nightmare for¬†us. So much so, I wrote an article about dyspraxia and driving for the Daily Telegraph in 2011. All bar one dyspraxic I’ve ever¬†met either doesn’t drive or¬†found it super-hard to learn. The one strange anomaly, who I met coincidentally through non-disability-related journalism¬†a few months after that Telegraph article came out, said it came naturally to him and even¬†claimed¬†driving was one of his two¬†only real talents (the other was playing the drums, apparently…an intriguing skillset for a PR).¬†But he was a bloke and a master of fake bravado so¬†who¬†knows what to make of that. He also grew up in the countryside, pre ‘elf n’safety,¬†and so, like my clumsy dad, probably learned to drive go-karts and Land Rovers off-road before puberty.¬†That always helps.

My¬†first “try-it-and-see-how-it-goes”¬†lesson is this afternoon¬†and I would honestly rather run another 26 miles or do a skydive. As a handy reminder to you all and to myself, here’s why I’m doing this…

  1. Convenience –¬†No more journeys to the next county that involve three methods of transport and take longer than a flight to Barcelona? Yes please.
  2. Work –¬†The big one. I’ve known radio silences from prospective clients to occur when the phrase “public transport” comes up. God knows how many opportunities have¬†never even occurred to me because I can’t get to them…
  3. I hate being the only person over 20 and under 60 on the bus except for someone reading David Icke.
  4. Being fed up of explaining to inquisitive strangers¬†why I don’t drive. I don’t mind on principle. I’m not ashamed of being dyspraxic. But that doesn’t mean I want to talk about it every time I meet someone. I’m not ashamed of being a woman¬†but I don’t particularly want to¬†discuss¬†my smear tests¬†with late-night taxi drivers, or a¬†stranger¬†who’s organising a¬†conference…
  5. To help friends who don’t drive for other medical reasons by being able to get to them, and drive them around.
  6. I’ve found a local instructor who says he understands people with neurological conditions, and is himself dyslexic. This is an absolute dealbreaker. (And a miracle).
  7. I’m a sensible adult and am ready for this responsibility. Well, perhaps not,¬†but at the very least, I love¬†nobody capable of sending a distracting text or tweet that’ll lead me to crash my car bonnet into someone’s house. And I almost always wear flat shoes so I won’t be that ninnykins who tries to drive in heels either…
Not Me
Try a Google image search for “car crashed into front door”; it’s fun…

The last time learning¬†to drive crossed my mind I actually pitched the idea of a column about it to a few national newspapers. A couple literally said thanks but no thanks. A couple more said “Nice idea but sorry love, no-one’ll¬†read it because you’re not well known enough.” One really liked it but her boss with the pursestrings didn’t go for it. But, the success of my Marathon blog has persuaded me it might be worth blogging this too. I may get so¬†despondent after a while I don’t even want to blog. Or I may call it quits after the first lesson. Who knows? Whatever happens next, I’m dead keen on hearing from other thirtysomethings who are learning or have learned recently. Do say hello!