Stepping out of the driver's seat

Kate Giles
Summary 
My friend Pete has just been told his vision has deteriorated to the stage where it is no longer safe for him to drive. For many people like Pete, having to give up driving is usually the first step into a world of disability. It can feel like a world of limitations and challenges. Taking this step causes all sorts of emotional reactions throwing even the most reasonable and responsible people into denial and despair. And as both John and Lindsay found out, stepping out of the driver's seat came with a fear of what the future might bring.
Posted by: 
Kate Giles on 01/07/2014
A photo of the driver's seat, steering wheel and the dashboard.
Audi_A4_B7_Cabriolet_Dashboard

To give up driving was overwhelming.

My friend Pete has just been told his vision has deteriorated to the stage where it is no longer safe for him to drive. Pete insists his sight is nowhere near that bad and says he will continue driving. He is upset and angry but his response isn't all that unusual.

Changes

Pete has reached a stage of vision loss most people dread as it takes away a huge chunk of independence with one foul sweep. But even worse, it indicates the time has come to make the massive changes needed to accommodate sight loss. For many, having to give up driving is usually the first step into a world of disability and a world with innuendos, limitations and challenges. Taking this step causes all sorts of emotional reactions throwing even the most reasonable and responsible people into denial and despair.

John's story

John has retinitis pigmentosa (RP). He has some central vision but very limited peripheral or outer vision. He also lacks night vision.

Like many people with RP, John was initially able to hide his vision loss. He says his denial started as a young man.

I was very much a closet RPer and said nothing to those who hired me as a young legal associate. Deep down, I knew I was hiding something of potential significance but the fear of being turned down for the job, coupled with denial guided my thoughts.

John's fear and denial continued for several years. Eventually he confided in his law partner. John says although his partner noticed some signs of poor vision, he failed to understand the significance of John's loss. Together they came up with a plan enabling John to continue to drive.

Lunacy

I still can't believe what we did, says John. I was determined to drive home even at night. As long as I could see the taillights of the car in front of me I was OK. That car just happened to be driven by my law partner guiding me home.

John goes on to say, this lunacy continued for a couple of years, even though I knew I was pushing my luck. But that's the thing: the fear and the anxiety of giving up driving overwhelmed me and consumed much of my rational thought.

He also admits a lot of his denial came through fear of what the future held and as long as he could drive, he could convince himself and others that he was OK.

It wasn't until another senior partner called him into his office and told him he had to stop driving that John says he came to his senses.

Lindsay's story

Lindsay also had difficulty giving up driving. Lindsay has central vision loss and quickly learned to use his peripheral vision.

I just made sure I stuck to the left of the white line. It sure as hell was scary. It was always scary. I never saw the traffic until it appeared 20 metres in front of me. Once I saw a guy on a bike directly in front of me. I slammed on the brakes stopping just in time, says Lindsay.

When the cyclist asked Lindsay if he nearly hit him, Lindsay told him that it wasn't a close call. And when Lindsay's specialist told him he shouldn't be driving, he recalls thinking to himself I sure as hell know that.

Loss of independence

Lindsay says not being able to see properly while driving was scary. But losing his independence and becoming dependent and a burden on others was a lot more frightening.

He says, I have been fiercely independent and very active all my life. If I didn't drive, it would have been extremely difficult for me to get to work. Besides, I didn't want to give up all my other activities either.

I knew if I gave up driving, I'd have to make a lot of dramatic changes. I just wasn't quite ready to take that step.

Eventually Lindsay had a massive drop in his vision that caused him to give up work and driving.

Denial and understanding

It may seem incredible that otherwise rational people can take such risks that endanger themselves and others. But avoiding something you are not ready to deal with can be common. Most psychologists and health care workers call it denial.

According to American psychologist and author Kendra Cherry, denial functions to protect the ego from the things that the individual cannot cope with. Denial can involve a flat out rejection. Or in other cases, it might involve admitting that something is true, but minimising its importance.

It's only with understanding and the right support that fears are diminished, appropriate choices are made and people learn to overcome obstacles once thought impossible.

As John and Lindsay found, stepping out of the driver's seat isn't easy but it does lead to a safer and less stressful existence. My friend Pete is about to find that out.

Readers comments (4)

I think this is an excellent article which shows amazing insight into the emotional aspects of Vision loss in people who lose their vision later in life.
Denial is very common and this is also demonstrated by the lack of use of the mobility (white) cane, which is necessary for safe mobility.
Keep up the goodvworkbKate

Thanks for your comments Ros. When you begin to lose your vision, especially later in life, there are so many emotional hurdles to overcome before being able to move forward. And there is so little understanding as to the impact these emotions have.

Totally understand this article
it was like reading a story about myself 6 years ago

Thanks Denise, It's been 20 years for me and I still remember the attached emotions like it was yesterday. However, I am so accustomed to public transport and love the freedom it gives me, not to mention the lack of stress that goes with someone else doing the driving. .

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