Learning to Drive (Again) on ADHD Medication

What kind of driver would I be on my ADHD medication?

Lee Skallerup Bessette
May 14 · 8 min read
Red and White Lights on a Dark Highway

I’m unreasonably nervous; I’ve been driving for almost 25 years — more than half my life now — and yet, here I sat in my driveway, focusing on my breath. It was the first day of driving while on my ADHD medication.

I am 41-years-old. I have a PhD, a husband, two kids, a career, a driver license, and a car that I have driven since 2005, one I’m intimately familiar with. My husband and I drove that car from Edmonton to southern California, and, then, all over SoCal while we lived there. I commuted to my job, 45 minutes each way if traffic was good, along the 410. I drove it from Florida to Kentucky, and Kentucky to Virginia, where we live now.

I did all of this driving — thousands of miles — without knowing I had ADHD.

I learned how to drive even though I was anxious to the point of almost paralysis about driving.

I learned how to drive on the mean, unforgiving Montreal streets without knowing I had ADHD. Montreal drivers are known for being really, really aggressive. We’re late to everything, so we drive really fast. We don’t use our turn signals to change lanes. (Signaling appears as a sign of weakness and simply indicates to the other drivers that they’ve committed the cardinal sin of leaving too much room between themselves and the car in front of them.) We can’t be trusted to drive with caution; because of that, it’s the one of the only places where you still can’t turn right on a red light.

Oh, and there’s winter.

I learned how to drive a stick shift in Montreal without knowing I had ADHD. I learned how to drive in winter, real winter, during snow storms, ice storms, deep freezes, thunder, and lightning through streets that are well-known for their potholes that never get fixed. I learned how to drive even though I was anxious to the point of almost paralysis about driving.

When I was much younger, my brother and I used to be allowed to start the cars in winter to warm them up. One time, the car was in first when my brother started it. It lurched forward and promptly stalled, but in my mind, it had almost run into our house. I figured that driving was too much for me.

That anxiety, that fixation, I would much later figure out was a part of my ADHD. But back then, I assumed I was just overly sensitive and emotional.

I learned to drive without knowing I had ADHD, but firmly aware of my complete lack of directional sense. This was a time before GPS in cars, before smartphones. When Montreal closed all of its roads in the summer for construction and didn’t put up enough detour signs to help you navigate, you were on your own. I knew the water was to my south. (I was always on the south-west part of the island; that’s where all the Anglophones lived.) If I could find where the water was, then I could head west. If I could smell Seagram’s distilling their wares, then I knew I was headed in the right direction and could make it home.

Moving around so much and my lack of sense of direction meant that driving in unfamiliar places triggered a strong anxiety reaction. One time, I was driving in Lexington, Kentucky, after having only lived there a few months, trying to get home with my son in the back seat. I was following Google Maps, but unbeknownst to all of us, the roads around us where closing because of a parade. I kept hitting closed street after closed street, and the re-directs kept taking me to more closed streets. I couldn’t even go back the way I came. I cried on the phone to my husband, stuck on a one-way between two closed streets before finally approaching a police officer, who gave me directions to take the long way home.

Moving around so much and my lack of sense of direction meant that driving in unfamiliar places triggered a strong anxiety reaction.

When we first moved to Kentucky, we learned that we couldn’t exchange our Canadian driver licenses for Kentucky ones, so we had to do the written exam, wait a month, and then take a driver’s test. I almost failed my driver’s test at age thirty-something because of all the bad habits you develop as you drive and because I still can’t parallel park. My anxiety takes over — here I am, a woman, stereotypically unable to parallel park — and everyone is watching and waiting and judging. And yet, I passed.

My anxiety around driving was because of my ADHD. But I didn’t know that yet.

There is one thing about driving that I loved — driving on busy major highways. When I would drive in this environment, I would always know where I was going (straight), so I didn’t have to actively worry about it, though I did have to worry about everything else — other drivers, speed limits, lane changes, directions, if I would be late. My anxiety, what I now know is my ADHD, which was always looking for things to worry about, would be completely occupied on a highway.

By some cosmic gift, I had taken a defensive driving course when I was 16, so I am always on alert when I drive. That, coupled with having to learn to read body language to anticipate lane changes from driving in Montreal — I watch drivers to see if they are on their phones, if they are looking over their shoulders to change lanes—means that I can predict with pinpoint accuracy when a driver is either going to drift or cut me off. Worrying about all of these things while I highway drive means that, for the duration of any trip, I am free to actually think, unimpeded by my ever-present anxiety that was busy trying to keep us alive in the car.

It was a small gift that I didn’t want to lose.

In spite, or maybe because, of my anxiety disorder caused by what I now know is my ADHD, I was a really good driver. I am a really good driver. And in these moments on the almost-open road, I could reach my thoughts in a way I couldn’t ordinarily. My mind would wander productively rather than spiraling into a pit of…not despair, but of desperation, trying to climb back from the worst-case scenarios that produced themselves in my head. The only other place that had ever happened was when I was swimming; I had to keep track of the sets, the intervals, the other swimmers around me, what my body was doing, and my mind would and could productively wander. Swimming by myself, without having to worry about anything other than myself, did not produce the same results.

When I was diagnosed with ADHD, it was a revelation to me, and the medication was a godsend.

But driving still did. When I was diagnosed with ADHD, it was a revelation to me, and the medication was a godsend. I could finally get through a simple to-do list that had previously felt insurmountable. One morning, just after taking my meds, I watched in my mind’s eye as my to-do list literally snapped into place, prioritized and everything, which is something that had never happened to me before. I took my pills before coaching at a swim meet, and I didn’t miss nearly as many races. I didn’t freak out and spiral when I did inevitably miss one of my swimmer’s swims because of the noise and chaos that comes from coaching twenty kids, who were nine and ten-year-olds, at an event with hundreds of other swimmers.

I was learning how to live with my ADHD under control. I was re-learning how to write, how to read, how to be a co-worker, how to coach, how to parent, how to spouse, and how to everything. I had never done any of these things without my ADHD being unrecognized and out-of-control. Each thing I re-learned how to do was small celebration — it doesn’t have to be so hard!

But I resisted taking the medication before commuting to work in the morning. Surely I wasn’t wasting valuable productivity time in the one-and-a-half-hour commute. Plus, if I took my pill when I got to work, there was no risk of it wearing off before the end of the day. Heck, the medicine might even last into family time in the evening! And besides, my anxiety was abating, enough that I could focus, but I was concerned: did taking the medication mean that my mind also could no longer wander — something I counted on to make me a better driver?

What kind of driver would I be on my ADHD medication?

The first time I took my medication before driving, my destination was an unfamiliar place where there would be lots of traffic and potential for wrong turns or getting stuck in the wrong lane. I did inevitably get lost, but I didn’t panic, cry, or spiral. I just took a deep breath and kept going. This may seem like something ordinary, but for me it was extraordinary, driving without descending into hysterics.

And yet, I kept putting off taking the pills before my daily commute to work. Until one day, I didn’t. It was a minor, albeit comical, disaster. Instead of focusing on the drive and letting my mind wander, I was focusing on what my mind was doing and I lost track of my driving. For the first time in my life, I was a distracted driver, not because of technology or my ADHD, but instead by my newfound ability to focus.

There were no accidents, no speeding tickets, and no missed turns, just a longer than an hour battle within my head about what to pay attention to. I’ve never had that problem before. It’s a new one that I am still trying to figure out.

I am forty-one years old, I have adult ADHD, and I still have a lot to learn. Or, in this case, re-learn. My life activities pre-diagnosis, pre-medication, everything up to this point, have been performed in one way. This new, different way of being myself takes some getting used to.

DISABILITY ACTS, founded in 2018, is an all volunteer-run magazine — run by disabled people, featuring disabled writers, who write about disabled life, literature, and more. Please support DISABILITY ACTS. Even one dollar helps. All money goes to paying our writers. You can see updates about how much money we have raised on our Submissions page.

Lee Skallerup Bessette

Written by

Learning Design Specialist, Georgetown U. Lover of Literature. Neurodivergent. Size XL.

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