The picture via Creative Commons.
“Help! I need somebody. Help! Not just anybody. Help! Oh I need someone to hel-e-elp!”
The Beatles harmony rang through my alarm clock. I wish I could say they woke me, but sadly my eyes were already wide open. Fear had kept me from sleep. The few times my body gave up anxiety and allowed me to drift away, I dreamt of plane crashes and hijackings. The fear of falling from thirty thousand feet lurched me awake and my body took up its anxious flex once again.
There’s nothing I wanted more than to lay back down and search out another ten minutes of rest, but I knew this was a pointless pursuit. I sat up. The carpet was soft under my feet. I stood on shaking legs and made my way to the shower. The hot water was invigorating. My mind began to spring to life.
“I can’t believe I’m actually going to be flying today, the first time in 25 years. I’m a nervous wreck. But I’ll get to see my daughter who I haven’t seen in almost a year, so I can do this,” I said to my bottle of shampoo since I knew it wouldn’t judge me.
The conversation I had with my daughter last month replayed in my mind. “Mom, I know you’re afraid to fly but this is a big deal. It’s an engagement party for God’s sake! You haven’t met Rick yet. We’re getting married next year. I want you to come!”
My mouth was parched as I mumbled, “ I really do want to see you and meet Rick but I am so busy at work. And there is nobody to watch Buster. He’s so attached to me.”
“Mom, I know people I went to school with who still live in New York who would be happy to spend a long weekend dog sitting. Plus you get three weeks vacation. It’s after tax time, so I am sure your boss will let you visit your daughter. You’re just making excuses.”
Ali knew the truth about me. Growing up with a mom who suffered from anxiety was not easy for her. Not only was I scared of flying, I was scared of driving through tunnels and over bridges. Ali knew that the times I forced myself to fight my fears I was okay. I went to doctors who couldn’t find the cause of my anxiety. I refused the medication that was suggested. I even went to a meditation teacher who specialized in past lives. Maybe I was in a plane crash in a past life?
“Ali, I can meet him through Skype, “ I suggested.
“No. You know, dad has come to visit me three times already since I moved here. And he lives even further away from you. Plus he has a busy job too and two dogs and a cat. So, there’s no excuse.” That was the final straw. I was looking like the bad parent and Gary had a big gold star implanted on his forehead.
“Fine, I’ll go,” I said, secretly hoping Rick will break up with her and she’ll come running home for good.
After I finished packing, I made sure to include meditation articles, breathing articles, relaxation articles, and articles where the headline screams, “fight your fear”.
The car service came promptly at ten. The minute we were on the road I said to the driver, “ Oh my god, I am a nervous wreck, I haven’t flown in so long, I think I’m going to have a nervous breakdown. Oh god, I hope nothing bad happens. ”
The driver, a blonde woman in her forties, recommended Valium. I started to think she wanted me to take it in the car so as to stop talking. At a red light I saw she took an Advil. I guess I gave her a massive headache.
Once I got to JFK I saw potential terrorists everywhere but also knew my imagination was running wild. I confessed to the bag checker how nervous I was. She was a gray haired woman in her sixties who grimaced as she grabbed my luggage and gave me my boarding pass. She looked bored, like this was the last place on earth she wanted to be. She said with no real feeling, “You’ll be fine. Next!”
When I got to the security line and had to take my shoes off I looked down at my chipped nail polish. I wondered why I didn’t splurge on a pedicure this week. When I walked through the metal detector, the alarms went off. “This can’t be because of my chipped polish? “ I thought nervously awaiting the police to take me away.
“Miss, please take off that sweatshirt?” the security guard asked me after she patted me down like you would to a misbehaving puppy.
I took off my sweatshirt and walked through with no bells ringing. Must have been the zipper on my sweatshirt.
After that fiasco everything went smoothly and I took out my meditation books and started to relax while I waited to board. I recalled what Ali said to me last night.
“I’m so happy you’re coming and I know you’ll be fine. I love you mom.”
I kept replaying her words in my head. I knew if I had chosen not to come, she would not have said those words again. I wanted to see her smiling face when I emerged from the plane.
Once on the airplane I settled down comfortably in my window seat. A heavyset unshaved man in baggy navy sweatpants plopped down next to me. I felt completely squished and he smelled like he forgot to take a shower. I considered paying an extra $1000 for more leg room and clean seat mates but decided that was a complete waste of money.
As the flight attendant went over all the safety precautions I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to see what the air mask looked like. The thought of us crashing into water was raising my blood pressure so if it actually happened I would just wing it.
I remembered hearing that chewing gum prevented ears popping so I stuffed 3 pieces of peppermint gum in my mouth and chomped away. If anything, my breath would be good.
As we ascended I actually felt relaxed. This was good. Five minutes into the flight I started feeling queasy. Maybe I needed to eat. I took out my yogurt I bought at the airport and immediately realized that was a bad idea. The nausea was getting worst. Then I heard a loud noise and I turned to my right to see the man sleeping and snoring. To the right of him was a much thinner, cleaner smelling man who was also fast asleep. Now I was getting light headed and knew I needed to get up quickly.
“Excuse me?” I meekly said.
I got a loud snore in return.
“Excuse me!” I said much louder. Still nothing. I pushed the man into the man on his right and they both woke up.
“I don’t feel well, I need to go to the bathroom.” I don’t know what I looked like but I have never seen two people get up so quickly.
I slowly walked towards the bathroom and thought this is the worst thing that can happen. As I approached a flight attendant, she looked at me and said, “You’re as pale as a ghost, you don’t look well.”
I wanted to yell, “Please make me better” but she was so stern and unapproachable I thought to myself, “I definitely need to fly a different airline next time with nicer flight attendants.”
Her and her equally unfriendly coworker sat me down on a hard bench in the back of the plane and started peppering me with questions, “Do you have any medical conditions? Do you think you are going to throw up? Did you eat anything today?”
I said a trip to the bathroom may be a good idea, but then I thought of kneeling over an airplane toilet and decided that holding the vomit in was a better choice. After twenty minutes of sitting with my eyes closed, fighting what could potentially shoot out of my mouth any minute, the flight attendants gave me vomit bags and sent me on my merry journey to the bathroom. I guess the thought of me projectile vomiting was not an appealing thought for them.
In the mirror I saw an unattractive version of Casper the ghost. My skin was as white, my hair hung like clump spaghetti, and my eyes looked sunken. No wonder those flight attendants wanted nothing to do with me. I looked at the deep pit of the toilet and imagined being sucked in like a piece of dirt being sucked up by a vacuum. The inside of the vomit bags were much more enticing than the toilet. After I threw up I felt a thousand times better. I left the bathroom and told them I was feeling better. I thought they were going to start chanting hooray. They obviously wanted nothing to do with me.
They gave me three fresh vomit bags to take back to my seat, almost like giving out party favors at a party.
As I approached my seat 45 minutes after I first left it, I feared my two seat mates would have fallen back asleep. But I smelled the delicious aroma of airplane food and I saw the two of them were happily eating their lunch.
“Excuse me, I am so sorry but I need to get back to my seat,” I said.
They both tried to get up juggling their food trays glaring at me. As I squeezed past the skinny one, I bumped him ever so gently and his glass of water spilled all over the other man.
“Damn,” they both said in unison as I stood there and wished I could fly out the window right about now. Then they spotted the vomit bags I held tightly in my arms. I am sure at that exact moment they wished they were sitting anywhere else except next to me. I managed to get back to my seat and prayed that I wouldn’t throw up again.
After about two hours I really had to go pee. I looked at my watch, three hours to go. There was no way I could hold it in for three hours. I turned to the right and the two men were both asleep again.
“Excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom,” I said.
This time they both jumped up and moved quickly down the aisle in the opposite direction of the lavatory. As I washed my hands I couldn’t find the soap dispenser. I pressed a little button that I thought might be it , and then realized my mistake. That was the help alert button. I heard a loud knock on the bathroom door.
“Is everything OK in there?”
I opened the door to be greeted by the same flight attendants looking panic stricken. Then they saw me, and I knew at that exact moment they were thinking of different career options. “Sorry, my mistake, just looking for soap,” I mumbled and ran back to my seat.
By this point my fears of crashing or being hijacked were completely gone. They almost sounded like good alternatives to what I was going through. When the plane finally landed in San Francisco, my two seatmates were the first ones off the plane. I was sure they were calling their therapists to make an emergency appointment after the trauma they experienced. I thanked the flight attendants as I exited the plane. They also looked in dire need of therapy.
After I retrieved my luggage I spotted my daughter’s smiling face. Next to her was a tall, muscular man with a broad smile. This must be Rick. His arms were protectively around Ali. I felt relaxed for the first time today.