Learning how to learn to drive

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Navigating the roads of life and the obstacles of mental illness

Graphic by Yimeng Bian, Graphics Contributor

Graphic by Yimeng Bian, Graphics Contributor

To me, life feels like driving a car.

Cars are complex systems, but deceptively so. The individual skills needed to safely drive a vehicle provide little challenge on their own; even people who are too young to drive can understand the basics behind how traffic lights work, or when to honk the horn. However, it is much more difficult to take hundreds of these smaller skills and manage them all in perfect harmony. Driving safely requires a level of multitasking that takes years of practice to truly attain.

This is made even more difficult by the unpredictable nature of the trips themselves. Countless factors beyond the control of the driver threaten their ability to get to where they would like to go. In real time, a driver is expected to adapt to changes ranging from shifts in the weather, to the deterioration that comes with wear and tear. Even the other drivers that fill each car on the roads of life need to be accounted for, as each person has their own unique approach to driving. Combined, these factors are overwhelming.

Mental illness is an impairment in learning to drive. Navigating the roads is difficult enough with clarity of mind, but each simple skill becomes a struggle under the inner fog of disability. Unlike other impairments, disabilities that exist within the mind are much more difficult to notice, understand, and communicate. To others, erratic driving is equally concerning regardless of whether the driver has control over these actions. Yet those in need are pushed onto the road with similar expectations to those of more capable drivers. Without support, this disadvantage is immense, and is likely to lead to a collision.

In a world as challenging as the one we live in, this support comes in the form of building a healthy sense of community. Mutual support and communication are immensely valuable, but are not commonplace. Personal struggles are often bottled up in an effort to appear strong and stable. Whether or not mental illness is a factor, the difficulty in the everyday challenges of life aren’t talked about as much as they could, or should be. To make matters worse, my illness causes these smaller skills to become even more difficult to master.

One disadvantage that I struggle with is a difficulty in regulating my own attention. This brings me trouble in directing focus towards areas truly in need of my time and energy. I rarely notice when the check engine light tries to alert me of danger — this realization comes only after I have already begun to swerve.

My emotions, too, get the best of me. When the difficulty of piloting a vehicle makes failure inevitable, the ability to calmly persevere under pressure is critical. Personally, though, the threat of danger evokes panic, and the fulfillment of success evokes recklessness. These disproportionate responses ensure that no road trip is without incident.

I have crashed before, and these conditions make that risk a constant one. I am in a position where I not only need to learn how to drive, but learn to learn to drive as well. The path I have chosen through my education and my commitments is a winding one, and the spaces to pull over and breathe are few and far between. Some days, I fear a fatal collision.

There is no elegant, optimistic ending to this metaphor. I’m terrified.

Life, and driving, can often feel difficult to keep up with. If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed or struggling with mental health issues, know that you are not alone. The Vancouver Island Crisis Line can be reached at 1-888-494-3888; their crisis text service can be reached (via text) at 250-800-3806. The phone number for the UVic Student Counselling Services is 250-721-8341, and the Resource Centre for Students with a Disability can be reached at 250-472-4947.

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