…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’ve 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!