There’s no sugar coating it: I am, by nature, an anxious person. My anxiety is slow and simmering. I don’t have “big events,” like panic attacks. I just walk through life with a low-level certainty that something dreadful is about to happen. Normally it doesn’t and I’ve wasted all that energy being nervous. Sometimes it does and I am totally prepared. I am excellent in a crisis because I go through most of my days believing one is imminent. Usually, anyway. This is not a peaceful way to exist in the world, but there it is. I’m better about this than I used to be, but I’m not cured. Perhaps I never will be.
I crossed the line between garden-variety anxiety to something else entirely last month when I flew with my children to California. I fly a lot but I am not a big fan of it. I particularly dislike take-off, all my aviation accident history rushing up to remind me that take-offs and landings are when most accidents happen. I’ve developed a routine to cope: a certain song on my iPhone in a loop, my mala beads in my hand, snacks and water bottle positioned where I can reach them for comfort. I say a special, secret prayer – me, the atheist – and I think aerodynamically uplifting thoughts. Somehow I get through it. I’m fine a few minutes in when the plane starts leveling off.
This past time, though, something happened. My usual self-soothing behaviors started to fail me almost immediately after we pulled away from the gate. I suppose the reason is that when I’m dreading the worst (my fiery plane crash death), one of the thoughts I use to calm myself is that my children are out there in the world and will carry on. The thought of them outliving me soothes a primal need to go on in some form, even if only as genes in other humans. Yes, it would stink for them to live on motherless, but they’d be alive and that’s a comfort. But on this flight there they were, in the flimsy metal tube next to me. I hadn’t flown with them in about five years. We’ve been taking road trip vacations recently. Even the cruise we took two years ago left right out of Manhattan. But now, here we were on a plane together and it occurred to me that if anything happened on this flight, it would happen to all of us.
And I started losing it.
It began as the plane started inching up the line, getting ready to taxi. Newark is a crazy busy airport and it’s not unusual for twelve or more planes to be ahead of yours for take-up. Whirrrrr the engines go to propel the plane forward. Then they quiet down again. Another acceleration that sounds like the taxiing is starting. Then another powering down.
This stop-and-go suspense proved too much for me and I began to cry. At this point in the story, I am still not reporting unusual news. I am a crier. My kids know that if we’re watching anything remotely emotional on TV or in the movies, they should glance in my direction if they want to catch the waterworks. I’ll sometimes hear them whispering to each other, “So, is she?” “Yup.” Or, sometimes, when a sappy love scene comes on (a proposal or a wedding, or something my daughter knows will crack my heart a little), she’ll lean over and ask, “You’re not going to cry, are you?” I’ll act indignant and say, “Certainly not.” Then, if the tears come, I try to keep them quiet. (I fail at this about 90% of the time. It’s the tear-filled inhale that gives me away every time).
I’ve learned a little trick in all these years of being monitored for crying: if I don’t raise my hands to wipe the tears away and I try to keep it quiet, sometimes I can have a crying jag undetected. I tried that on the plane. I cried for a solid ten minutes as the plane was starting and stopping, feeling the existential dread of knowing my children were alongside me in this danger, trying hard to pull it together and think happy thoughts. Oh, I know the statistics, of course, and understood intellectually that they were safer on that plane than on the Turnpike that got us there, but this was not a rational moment. It was a purely instinctual one. I wanted to grab them and run to safety. I wanted to protect them from the fireball. I could do none of that. My panic mounted.
Finally, it got to be our turn for take-off. The plane picked up speed and started making that dreadful noise that planes do. (Note to the aviation industry: is there seriously no way to better sound-proof those suckers?). As it did, something weird happened to me that I can’t remember ever happening before. I ran out of oxygen.
Now even more panicked, I tried to swallow a bigger gulp of it to make up for the tight feeling in my chest. But there was none. I really started to freak out. The crying got worse and I made a bigger effort to fill my lungs with air. I accomplished nothing more than making a strange sound. My kids both had their headphones in so I hoped I was still keeping my meltdown from them. I kept my hands down away from my face, gripping the arm rests as I tried to draw more breath. Nothing. There was no air to be had. Exhales were sobs. Inhales were panicked, raspy death rattles.
My strangled gulps for air apparently got pretty loud at this point. My daughter turned to me, hearing me through her hip hop, took off her headphones and asked me what was wrong. My son, two seats away by the window, heard me too. Several people in seats in front of me turned around to stare. If I hadn’t been bracing for the fireball I knew was only seconds away, I would have been mortified. As it was, my inability to draw enough oxygen felt like it was going to do me in before the fiery crash. Here I was, supposed to protect them, but instead I was rapidly melting into a puddle of panic. Finally busted as the freaked-out crier that I was, I loosened my death grip on the arm rest and wiped my tears. I took a gulp of water. And another. Finally, the plane leveled off and my abject fear lessened slowly but steadily. Soon I was recovered enough to feel terribly embarrassed for completely losing my marbles. Clearly, I’d just had some kind of panic episode unlike anything that had ever happened to me in my long history of worrying (and of, occasionally, of being in actual danger). It was one of the scariest moments of my life.
As the flight wore on, I relaxed a little. We flew home ten days later, and while I had my usual level of distaste for take-off, nothing like that panic attack happened again. (Helped, probably, by the melatonin and Benadryl I took an hour before the flight. I’ve never had a prescription sleeping aid or anti-anxiety med of any kind, but if I keep going ape-poop, it may be time to start considering it for flying).
Where did that come from? And where inside me does it live? I have no idea. All I know if that I am extremely happy to be on this lovely, solid ground.