Airplanes And Anxiety Attacks


I like flying.

I didn’t always, or at least I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not because I flat-out refused to do it from 2001-2009. I didn’t study abroad and I didn’t visit my grandparents. I never saw friends who moved south or west and I never walked through JFK with a sunburned scalp and plastic beads dangling from my hair.

In 2009, I went to Las Vegas for work and flew on four planes in three days and that weekend, I decided that flying wasn’t so bad. I like the half-conscious state that sedatives lull me into; I like melting into my chair and waking up to find only one sip of my drink missing. I like being suspended in air, safe in a place where time doesn’t exist. I’d become accustomed to restrictions – state lines and tollbooths, but those things don’t exist when you’re flying. You are your own country, your own mobile island.

So I started doing it more often, flying. I’d still have anxiety, even with the sedatives. It’s my invisible luggage, the one thing I can’t leave at the bag check. But once we’d take off, I’d remember that I’d taken my pill and everything would be okay; I’d relax and I’d order a glass of wine and I’d feel something warm and safe and familiar. I knew how to do this, I’d remind myself. It’s just like riding a bike.

Four days ago, I didn’t even need a drink—the pill had been enough. I arrived to Chicago in what felt like forty minutes, like I’d jogged there. I felt like maybe I could do this on my own, this flying thing. So today when I arrive at O’Hare to fly home I opt to stay sober.

Sort of sober, anyway. My flight’s delayed because of the weather in New York, so I find a bar and order a loaded Bloody Mary. I hear the television squawk something about planes being shot down and I go cold; I look around but no one seems upset or worried so I turn to the television and watch for a few moments before the words ‘ten year anniversary’ and ‘World Trade Center’ come up. I’m momentarily relieved but that looping footage makes me feel sick as I did a decade ago and I wish someone would say, “Maybe this isn’t the best show to watch at an airport bar,” but no one does, so I finish my drink and leave.

We board the plane. I sit between a silver-haired man and a window; my seat choice highlights how bold I’ve become. I’m thirsty. Our departure time comes and goes and something inside of the plane grumbles and now it smells like gas—does anyone smell that? Someone coughs and I’m sure they smell it, too; we need air. Something bad is happening, hasn’t anyone seen Final Destination 2? I did. I’m recognizing signs. I need water so desperately, but we haven’t taken off yet and goddamn I really should’ve taken that pill. But it’s too late, now.

I’ve reached this point before, when it’s too late for pills because I’m already too anxious. If I take the pill, my breath will slow and my heart will stop. I’m alone and who will make sure I’m okay, who will save me 30,000 feet in the air? Not silver-haired man. Not anyone. It’s too late, I decide, now I have to stay conscious or I’ll have a heart attack.

This isn’t paranoia. It’s not that stoned feeling that insists your Applebee’s waiter is a cop, man. This is a panic attack, and this is all it takes to have one: a phobia, an ill-timed news report, an elusive smell, and a person coughing in the distance.

Anxiety isn’t like being nervous or scared or exhausted. Nervous, scared, exhausted people sit on a plane and think, “I wish I was wearing those warm, goofy socks I love. I wish I were eating a burrito in bed with the television off. I hope this is over soon.” But I am having an anxiety attack before take-off and all I can think is, “Am I breathing right now?”

We’re off and I stare at the flight attendant button. I know I shouldn’t call so soon, but I need water to distract me from the fact that I’m paralyzed. Panic is a prison. I’ve felt trapped in my own bedroom so being wedged between an older gentleman and a blanket of clouds is unmanageable and frightening.

The flight attendant comes over and he’s annoyed but I need him and I need that water. He brings a half-full half-cup and the water is hot but it’s enough until he comes around again with his cart. I eat two Tums and press my tongue to the roof of my mouth and practice breathing the way my roommate taught me; the way some acupuncturist taught her. I taste gas every time I inhale.

I read a book written by someone I know and it’s comforting but it doesn’t distract me the way I’d hoped. I pause every five or ten sentences and look behind me, trying to find another concerned face, but everyone’s been rocked to sleep by turbulence and fumes. I want that mask, the one in the pre-flight safety video. I can’t breathe without it, I think. I try to swallow but my mouth is dry. I finish the book and listen to Paul Simon. Graceland, America, Homeward Bound, ‘til the flight attendant comes over to collect trash and tells me to turn my electronics off; we’ll be landing in forty minutes and god that seems like an awfully long time.

There’s rain outside now; the plane cuts through air that feels like it’s comprised of glass. I grip my armrest and notice how the woman in front of me sits next to her child, their armrest is up and they’re sharing a seat and I think I’d give anything to be with someone who’d tuck our armrest away. Instead I’m in between an indifferent man and an endless grey landscape that once glowed a bright welcoming blue and I think, This Is My Worst Nightmare.

I shut my eyes now and beg for something comforting to come to mind, and it does, and it’s surprising. I see a face and think of how silly he’d feel if he knew, I think of how silly I feel. But it’s working, my mind welcomes the mirage, says, “Hey, thank you for coming. Thank god you’re here.” I wonder if I’ll ever tell him that. “I once thought of you when I couldn’t breathe,” I’d say, but it seems like the kind of thing you never tell someone else. Maybe someday.

The turbulence makes the plane feel like it’s already landed, like we’re driving now, but we’re not. I eavesdrop on the mother and child in front of me, the little girl’s asking if we’re almost there and the mother’s saying yes, we’re landing soon, and I relax my knuckles and try to think about warm, goofy socks.

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image – David Sanz