It was hardly Spaghetti Junction, but I was in the wrong lane about to veer off on a road to nowhere I wanted to go. People who knew which direction was up were tooting me into further frenzy as I straddled the turn-off while indicating the other way, like Mr Bean on a big day out. Did I calmly round the circle to find my bearings with a wave of apology and a self-deprecating grin?
Did I heck. I wobbled like a spineless jellyfish and tears of helplessness fell down my crimson cheeks. I had to box-breathe just to rejoin the roundabout, while simultaneously talking myself off the ledge so I didn’t crash: “You can do this, Vanessa,” I said, because I use my birth name in such serious self-talk, to sound more like my mother meaning business.
While I hope I paint an amusing picture, and I got there in the end, the truth is I have lost confidence – and not only when driving. I have worked from home for so long I barely recognize the woman who used to wear make-up, carry a tote full of items for any eventuality and navigate her way to the city, by car, train and on foot, where she was an equal with professional people and even made jokes out loud. I wear elasticated trousers now and, if my hair is brushed, I’m on fire. Most days, I don’t speak to a soul I didn’t give birth to – and part of me likes it that way. But it comes at a price.
It’s not all about me because I think the pandemic, or maybe life in general, has reduced many of us to shadows of our self-assured selves. I don’t go out if I can help it and even a video call makes me feel vulnerable. I hole up in my house with my roaming pot plant that serves as a backdrop for Zooms to make my workspace look less like I am sitting on the landing, because I am actually sitting on the landing. But maybe my worry over little things I used to do all the time is telling me where I need to focus my attention.
I have a love-hate relationship with driving, which is why I use it to illustrate my point. When I got divorced, my satnav saved me from cowardice, because my ex-husband had done all the driving while I stared out the window wondering where the hell I was. I failed my test five times (he says six), because driving did not come naturally to me. As a strong, independent woman, when I could get from A to B and it wasn’t a straight line was cause for jubilation.
My not-so-funny children set my TomTom to a man’s voice and I reacted with fury. Never again would a man tell me what to do! That woman who said “turn around when possible” more than anything else took me a long way, baby, physically and emotionally and, eventually, I was no longer afraid of driving to a destination unknown on my own.
Getting lost on that road somewhere new and my wibbly reaction undid me somewhat, until I scratched out a nugget of wisdom when I went paddleboarding for the first time – and, no, gliding over a bottomless lake was not my idea. So scared was I of falling into the water that I stood tall like a warrior and commanded that board with sheer force of will. It was outside the designated water-sports area and the lifeguards were gesticulating wildly but, as far as other onlookers were concerned, I knew what I was doing.
Let me put on my Captain Cliché underpants and have a word with myself and you, and I am not talking about life-threatening endeavours, but the little things we dread and avoid that probably won’t be so bad and could make us feel more capable: Feel the fear and do it anyway, fake it til you make it, push your boundaries, bite the bullet and dig deep for courage beyond your comfort zone, because that’s where the magic happens and you rebuild yourself.