January 04, 2023
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Photography by Oliver Nasteski/Stocksy United
My symptoms have made it unsafe for me to drive, but I’ve found other ways to maintain my independence.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) changes so many things in our lives. But the most significant change for me has been in my level of independence — and that’s largely because of how the disease has affected my ability to drive.
Like many people, I live in an area that lacks good public transportation. It doesn’t help that it’s a predominantly suburban area where everything is distant enough that walking (or hobbling, as it would be for me) is simply out of the question. From getting groceries to seeing friends, being unable to drive as I once did has altered my life.
MS can affect our ability to drive in numerous ways. Vision problems, cognitive impairment, numbness and weakness in our extremities, loss of sensation, impaired coordination, and spasms can all be potential pitfalls when driving.
These MS symptoms can cause you to get lost or make it difficult to control your vehicle and follow the rules of the road. Since many of these symptoms can come on quickly, it can also be difficult to plan for them. This unpredictability is at the heart of the challenges to my driving ability.
For much of my life with MS, I could drive with no real issues. About 10 years ago, I had an exacerbation that left me with lingering symptoms that were bad enough that I was forced to leave the working world.
Despite being disabled, I was able to drive just fine on my good days — or so I thought. Eventually, I had several experiences that opened my eyes to the dangers of what I was doing.
At first, my cognitive issues caused me to get lost a lot, even when I was going to familiar places. I then had an incident in which my right leg went numb while driving, making it difficult for me to move my foot to the brake. I was eventually able to stop the vehicle, but I had to drive off the road to avoid other cars in the process. That led to a difficult discussion with my doctor.
My doctor confirmed what I had already figured out: I probably shouldn’t be driving anymore. So we agreed that I would limit my driving. And by “limit,” we meant I’d rarely ever drive. I kept my license to keep the hope alive that I might be back at it again someday, but realistically, I wouldn’t drive anymore.
After some time, we agreed that if I were to drive, it’d have to be a very short distance and I’d have to be very honest with myself about how I was doing that day.
That was many years ago, and I’m still in the same situation. I will occasionally drive to one of two places very close to my house (on rarely traveled roads lined predominantly with farm fields). Even those small trips require me to have a serious discussion with myself first about how my body has been behaving that day and how the weather might affect me. (If it’s the summer, given how heat impacts my symptoms, driving is a no-go for me).
Technically, I can still drive, but I seldom do because it’s simply not safe.
Limiting my driving has had a massive effect on my level of independence. It’s forced me to depend heavily on planning my life because I can’t get in my car and go somewhere. There is no running to the store because I forgot something. No impromptu meeting up with people to socialize. No taking myself to any of the many medical appointments I need.
In addition, my inability to drive has made me depend on others much more than I’d prefer. I have no doubt this lack of independence has affected my mental health because it often makes me feel helpless and like a burden.
Like many aspects of life with MS, learning to adapt and alter my lifestyle to keep up with my ever-changing body has been the key to success.
If you have difficulty driving, you have some options to consider before you hang up your car keys for good.
Some people can stay behind the wheel by altering their vehicle with adaptive devices, such as special knobs to make steering easier, different mirrors to make it easier to see, and even hand controls for the gas and brakes. If changing your vehicle isn’t enough to keep you safely on the road, you can still explore other ways to maintain your independence.
To minimize my need to ask others for rides, I try eliminating as many potential trips as possible. For example, I try to have groceries and other supplies shipped or delivered (many stores will deliver for a small fee or even for free after you spend a certain amount). Sometimes, I’ll ask friends to pick up certain items if I know they are already going to the store. I also tend to buy items in bulk so I don’t need to make as many trips.
It’s been important for me to learn that asking for help from others doesn’t make me a burden, and that most people are happy to help. It makes them feel good, too, after all.
I also take advantage of telehealth visits with doctors whenever possible. For someone who doesn’t drive, one of the rare bright spots of the pandemic has been that remote options have increased in the past few years.
When I do need a ride, I often rely on friends. It’s been important for me to understand that this doesn’t make me a burden and that most people are happy to help. Helping folks makes them feel good, too, after all.
When I don’t ask friends for rides, I use rideshare programs like Uber and Lyft. That can get pricey, though. To help keep the cost down, I recommend always checking both apps to find the best price when looking for a ride. I also try not to use them at peak times (rush hour for commuters is usually rush hour for rideshare apps as well). Sometimes that means I need to plan ahead and arrive earlier than I’d prefer, but it’s a good way to minimize the cost.
Another option to keep in mind, depending on where you live, is taking an old-fashioned cab. Where I live, the two local taxi companies have altered their prices to be more competitive with rideshare apps, so it may be worth looking at taxi rates near you when you need a ride.
Your MS symptoms may eventually affect your ability to drive. It’s important to be honest with yourself, your family, and your doctor about your symptoms and how they affect your driving ability.
It’s not the end of the world if this happens. You may feel like you’ve lost a lot of independence. However, if you are willing to adapt, you may be able to stay on the road by altering your vehicle or considering options that eliminate your need to drive altogether.
Medically reviewed on January 04, 2023
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