Central Sensitization & Driving
I couldn’t pay attention to drive well enough in my teens, and I had more than one careless driving ticket around that time period. A couple years after I started driving, when the severity of my symptoms were highest, I was no longer able to drive. The major reason was because my symptoms were now so hard to anticipate. Everything was different including my triggers, and how long it took an old trigger to kick off symptoms (much sooner).
There were also visual hallucinations (spots and dots) due to light sensitivity and less quality of sleep. Lining up lanes visually or mentally was a skill lost – I could no longer tell which lane a car was in, left or right. If I looked left or right, or behind me to see if anyone was coming, the second I looked forward that information was lost (kind of like when you walk into another room and forget what you went in there for).
I zoned out completely missing red lights and turns. For normal people, the subconscious kicks in and acts for you (like how you can drive to work safely and not even remember getting there). But for me, once my attention was gone, I was gone – and it didn’t take much to draw my attention. Driving was impossible, I couldn’t even ride a bike safely. In fact, for a number of years walking alone around my neighborhood was a big no-no. This was because I would zone out and not notice when I reached a street. Instead of noticing I reached a street and stopping to look if it was safe to cross, I would just walk right out into the street.
It took me 10 years of being introduced to these new symptoms to be able to figure out how to safely drive again and to acctually try to drive again. Being able to drive is severely limited for me even now, but I can manage my week-to-week. Since public transportation was out of the question due to motion sickness, sensitivity to smells (passing out around bus fumes, getting in cabs with lingering cigarette smoke, perfumes, or colognes), and severe muscle spams (nearly constant) trying to stabilize myself on something as bumpy as a bus, I turned to Independent Living Services (ILS) to cart me around for quite some time. But, not understanding my condition lead to a number of scary episodes in public.
So what changed? How did I go from not being able to walk around my own neighborhood to being able to run errands? And will the same work for you? I don’t know, but if you’re having the same issues, I think it’s worth a try.
#1 Building Attention and Focus
Building up my attentional skills was key to living independently, including driving. I knew I would never be able to hold my attention again for long, but if I could just hold it for 15 minutes (which is how long I have to get home if a really bad symptom starts to kick off, and my max siting limit in a vehicle), then I should be able to run the majority of my errands on Good Days during Good Hours (I’ll explain what these are next).
Building attentional skills for me involved doing a few things daily. Concentration meditation was one – which is where you focus on an object, or visual image, or even a phrase, but it must be rhythmic (trance-inducing). This can be the sound of waves hitting the beach, the flicker of a candle flame, or repeating a mantra over and over again in-mind or aloud. Mindfulness meditation is similar where you focus on how you feel and what is going on around you – focusing on NOW.
During concentration meditation you will lose your focus, A LOT, but once you realize you have lost focus you simply gently guide your attention back to your focus object, image, or mantra.
Of course this change – in my brain structure, literally – didn’t happen overnight. It took years.
In time I started writing again, which I couldn’t focus enough to do for a long time either. Writing a little bit each day strengthened my attentional skills over time. In fact, writing was the key to me being able to drive again, whilst meditation was my key to writing again. Writing (whether creative writing, academic, fiction, or non-fiction) requires a lot of focus and attention on a lot of different ideas at once which can be very distracting, and can make you more sensitive to distractions. With a very comfy recliner as my office chair, a keyboard in my lap, and a mouse on my chair arm, I was free from a lot of bodily distractions. With dim lighting and a fan on near the window I was free of light and sound distractions. Again, it took time, but it all worked out in the end. It just took years of self-directed occupational therapy.
#2 Recognizing Good Days and Good Hours
Everyone is going to have different good days and good hours. A good day is a day when you feel the most attentive, alert, awake, etc. Most days I wouldn’t even dare to walk around the neighborhood, but on Good Days I can drive. Now there will be different levels of Good Days. You may only feel up to driving 2 minutes away from home, 5, 10, or 15. I’m able to drive:
- 2 minutes from home 1-2 times a week,
- 5 minutes from home 1 time per week,
- 10-12 minutes from home every 2 weeks,
- and 15 minutes from home about once a month (on average).
Also, I can only drive 1-2 per week. This means if I drive 15 minutes away one day, I cannot drive 2 minutes two more times that week.
Good hours are when it is easiest for you to drive and when it’s safest for you to drive. I am most alert around 12pm. In fact I have a rule to not leave home at all until 12pm no matter who is driving. If I’m waking up earlier, 11am is the soonest I’ll leave the house. This is when I have the least amount of symptoms and the most energy. It’s also a time of day when there is no traffic and the least amount of cars on the road, and since my night vision is poor, during the day is the best time for me to drive period.
You can find out what hours have the least traffic by searching “your city + traffic + map” on Google. If it’s all green, you’re good to go.
Since I have been driving again I have not had one accident or ticket. In fact, because I am so HYPER-AWARE when I am driving, I have prevented accidents where others were not paying attention and I was able to quickly compensate. I always bring my cell phone in case I feel I cannot drive home to call a friend or family member, and I have my phone on silent and tucked away while I drive.
#3 Buy the Perfect Car
I still have issues determining how far away I am from objects, so I bought the smallest car I could afford – a Mitsubishi Eclipse (automatic). Being lower to the ground I feel more in control, and no matter how close I think I am to objects I never bump into anyone or anything parking because I’m always over compensating as though I’m driving a big car. I also only pull into parking spots that are easy to get out of, even if I have to walk a little further.
I have my air conditioner or heater on which drowns out some noise, windows always closed, and I set the car to internally circulate air to prevent issues with outside smells (e.g. car exhaust fumes). The seats are very comfortable for me, and I sit on a Temper-Pedic cushion for extra comfort. I sit close to the steering wheel, which allows the weight of my leg to hold the pedal down instead of just my weak muscles. I always drive the speed limit, am aware of everyone around me, and never drive anywhere new.
I know which lane I need to be in, so I don’t have to merge because I get in the correct lane pulling out of my community. I stick only to the main road – which has 90% of everything I need on it except my dentist and doctor (which I get rides to from dear friends). If someone is in the car with me, there is no or very little talking. Music is a big no-no unless it’s a REALLY good day or a VERY short trip. People in the car know to never wear fragrances, and I have a rule of no more than one passenger in the car. They can’t be moving about or be a distraction in anyway. Kid’s playing, babies crying, or the friend that never shuts up are the types of people you will never see in my car.
# Move to the Middle-of-it-all
I live in a small quite community that is about two blocks away from a main road (2 lanes on each side of a wide grass median). Two blocks away is a Family Dollar, my bank, and 2 gas stations. Three minutes away is the grocery store, the post office, and my dog’s veterinarian. Five minutes away is Walgreen’s, another grocery store, a huge Dollar Tree, a CVS, an Auto Zone, and my auto mechanic. Ten minutes away is my mom’s house, a Lowe’s, a Marshall’s, a place to get my hair cut, a pet store, and a thrift store. Fifteen minutes away is a Walmart, a Big Lots, and another thrift store. So, pretty much everything I need in a year is a straight drive down one road.
If I need something else that isn’t acquirable on that road, I’ll buy it online (eBay is the best way to go). So, in the end, I drive anywhere from 6 to 30 minutes per week, which means very little gas money, and my car will probably last forever. But, keep in mind – I didn’t just buy a car one day and start diving. Nope, I had a friend re-teach me over the course of about 4 months. In that time I learned when my Good Days and Good Hours were, how far I could go and when, and I had her to drive home if I over did it shopping. That’s another big thing you will have to learn – how much time you can have in the store and still safely drive home. For me it’s about 15 minutes in the store, 30 max with my rollator to sit on while checking out if I’m not on an electric cart.
So there you have it, after 10 years of not being able to drive at all, I can manage to fit in all of my errands throughout the month. I make lists of things I need from each store so I am sure to get them the next time I am up that way. If it’s a trip to Walmart though, I typically opt to purchase online and have it shipped, as the parking lot and the store itself is just too busy for me to keep up with.
So, while my driving and shopping times are very limited, I am very grateful that I can keep up on my errands without being a bother to anyone else. So, to me, my car is a symbol of my continued freedom and independence, something I cherish. When I look out the window of my home and see my car I see a bright independent (although primarily home-bound) future. In other words, I don’t see my limitations, I see all those years of hard work paying off.