My Experience with Driving and Multiple Sclerosis

After seven years, I am able to drive again (on good days).

Driving with Multiple Sclerosis
Driving with Multiple Sclerosis. Stephen Schauer / Getty Images

Way before I even started thinking about multiple sclerosis (MS) or had the symptoms that ultimately led to my diagnosis, I developed an abject fear of driving. I would blame it on jet lag, the glass of wine I had consumed the night before or dry contact lenses.

It was weird, as most of these symptoms are. I would get in the car and immediately feel anxious. I would press on, forcing myself to go places, even though I was terrified the whole time. I felt like I was in a video game, even when there were few other cars on the road and the pace was slow. A car switching lanes 100 yards ahead of me would tempt me to slam on the brakes, as it seemed like a collision was inevitable with such "reckless" and erratic drivers on the road. Approaching a traffic circle would be a gut-clenching nightmare of trying to find an opening, waiting too long, finally speeding out in front of traffic as someone honked and yelled.

Everybody that I mentioned this to had a diagnosis and advice. "You are just stressed." No, I really wasn't (besides the driving experience itself). "You need more sleep." No, I was sleeping fine. "You just have to keep practicing." I had been driving for 20 years at this point, so couldn't figure out what this one meant.

Once I got my MS diagnosis, about 6 months later, and learned a little more about this disease, things made a little more sense. I think what I was experiencing was a form of cognitive dysfunction, a slowing of information processing that made it difficult to integrate and make the hundreds of little microdecisions that are involved with driving.

I had a period of about 7 years when I really didn’t drive anywhere. It was really hard, as I was basically dependent on my husband to help me get-out-of-the-house things accomplished. I always felt slightly guilty asking him to take me somewhere—even though never seemed frustrated with me, often there were other things that he needed to be doing.

These days, I do more driving. We got a different car that was smaller, but high enough off the ground, and had exceptional visibility. There are good times (driving-wise), where I will confidently navigate local streets (still no freeways for me) and feel like I am in control of my universe. On these days, I almost feel “normal"—I can get things done like a regular person, on my own schedule, and change my plans if I need to mid-trip.

There still in-between times, where I find myself halfway to my destination, realizing that maybe this isn't ideal. During these times, I keep a running mental dialogue going, telling myself that a traffic light is coming up and not to slam on the brakes if someone slows down way up ahead of me. I don’t play music and I don’t talk to any of the passengers in the car, which there rarely are.

Don't get me wrong - I do NOT drive if I feel the least bit anxious or am having any MS symptoms, such as paresthesia, a headache or extreme fatigue.

A Word from Verywell

Don't worry if you find driving difficult. One good idea is to do an MS inventory before driving. Ask yourself how you are feeling that day.

While disappointing, be proud of yourself staying home or allowing someone else to drive if you are not feeling right about getting behind the wheel—you are trusting your gut, being aware of your MS, and taking care of yourself.

Edited by Dr. Colleen Doherty, August 2nd 2016.

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