Most people out there don’t ever have to face or confront what real fear is. I would say the average person deals with feelings of discomfort or mild panic, at most. I was one of those people. That is, up until 5 years ago. Five years ago, everything changed and my brain allowed me a glimpse in to what real fear is and can truly be like. In case you haven’t read any of my other posts, I’ll briefly explain that I lost my mother, and then in turn my father under unexpected and sad circumstances. When I lost dad, it was a particularly tragic event, as he was the last member of my living family. This left me completely on my own and I was still in my 20’s. These events changed my life forever. After dad died, life was just too complicated for me to handle any more. I knew I needed to get my ass to therapy, quickly. I chose a woman out of a directory and took the first appointment I could get as soon as the funeral had been arranged and the other details were settled. I had never really been to therapy before, I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew is that I was going to be completely honest with her, and not shield or misrepresent anything I said in any way. I sincerely wanted help, and I knew the only way to get it was to be a complete open book. In total I attended 11 sessions. At the end of the last session, she let me know that she felt I was handling everything quite healthily, and said that she really didn’t feel that I needed to continue therapy unless I felt like I needed to. That’s right everyone, I graduated therapy. Despite what my x-boyfriends have told you, I’m definitely NOT crazy. That was a huge relief to hear, as at the time I felt like my life and my mind were completely out of control. I was, however, diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the stress of the loss I’d experienced. She explained to me all the different things that I could experience and expect from having this affliction. She also said that for most people, PTSD is temporary. I did, in fact temporarily experience many of the symptoms she had described to me most of which disappeared after a few years. One of the symptoms I’m still am dealing with is the irrational phobias. Before “The Event” I had exactly zero phobias. Not one. My life now consists of me doing a completely normal activity that I have done my entire life, like swimming for example, only to be met with a crippling anxiety attack the minute I see the water that I completely wasn’t expecting and have no idea how to deal with. After discovering I am now afraid of what ever thing I was just confronted with, I then am left with months of reoccurring nightmares night after night of whatever thing I saw or did until the very thought of seeing it or doing it again makes me want to vomit and curl up in a ball. Here are a list of my new, known phobias. Keeping in mind, any day I could discover a new one:
(I host party busses as well host regular zine and independent publishing night on a stage with a spotlight. FUCK)
Talking to strangers
(I am a retail manager of a multi-million dollar store. Double fuck)
(At least I live in Oregon now)
(I get a panic attack every time I drive. Always. At any given time. That’s why you’ll see me in the passanger seat or on the MAX 99% of the time)
(I won’t take pills, even when I’m very sick and absolutely need them)
Enclosed spaces (claustrophobia)
(I used to sit for hours in my childhood closet and read. I loved small, cozy spaces. Now the thought of it makes me panic!)
(Dude. This one turns out to be the grandaddy of the list. One night, I re-watched the old Stephen King movie Cat’s Eye. It consists of 3 stories. I remember the first one being really boring the first time I saw it. The plot consists of a man who is forced out on a sky scraper and is told to shuffle on a ledge no wider than his feet the complete circumference, or they’ll kill his wife whom was being held hostage. Just typing this description is making my hands and feet tingle. I panicked the entire time I watched the 15 minute short. I periodically wake up from nightmares about watching the man on that ledge. Really? REALLY? What in the actual fuck? How could I fear something I just saw on a tv? Its like my brain got switched with someone else’s)
These are just to name a few that I’m comfortable with sharing. The last two combine to introduce me to the ultimate in my own personal terror. The Boss-level of anxiety. The thing that fills me with such dread, I’d do nearly anything to not have to face it. I am referring to what is, at least as of right now, my worst fear:
Just the very thought of being on an airplane makes my feet tingle and I begin to feel nervous. Its definitely not the crashing and dying that wigs me out. I mean, of course no one likes the thought of that. That’s not where my fear and anxiety is coming from. Its this unique combination of the extreme height combined with the knowledge of no matter what I do, I can’t get off the plane. It wasn’t always like this for me. I’ve flown quite a few times in my life, and never felt any hesitation. Just a normal person, doing a normal thing like traveling. It wasn’t until I flew to Mexico about 2 years after my dad died that I realized this was now my worst fear.
Chapter One: The Cabo Flight
I arrived at the airport, ready to fly to a different country for the first time. I had to get a passport, pass through customs, everything. I was getting to spend a week in one of the world’s most amazing vacation spots. I was excited. While we were waiting in the customs line, I began to notice that my right arm had gone completely numb. From shoulder to fingertips. I began pressing my finger tips with my thumb and felt the familiar feeling of the adrenaline working through my body of a panic attack. My body was having a reaction, even though my mind was completely calm and free from worry. I found it to be really weird, but I just tried to ignore it. We boarded the plane. By the time we were all seated, I began hyperventilating. As the stewardess was going through her routine for the cabin, I was sweating and the horrible numbness spread to both arms and down both legs. By the time we began the takeoff, I bit my tongue so hard it was bleeding to stop myself from screaming. We flew out from San Jose, California to Phoenix for a layover. The flight was about an hour an a half. I spent the entire time sweating, panting, with my head down. My body was convulsing without control. The cart came around, and Ross asked for a water for me. I tried to drink it but I had lost control of my muscles to the point that I felt like I couldn’t swallow without swallowing my own tongue. This was the longest, most tortuous 90 minutes of my life. We finally landed. I ran off the plane, in a full on panic. Our connecting flight was to take off in about 2 hours. I told Ross I couldn’t do it and I was going to rent a car and drive back home. I broke down, sat up against a wall in the airport and started crying.
I called a friend and she tried to talk me down. She and Ross both suggested the bar. I was skeptical.
I sat down at the bar and had a few vodka-sodas. The adrenaline calmed. I had two more. This was the first time I had ever tried to “cure” anxiety with anything. It worked very well. Almost as easy as flipping a switch. I agreed to get back on the plane.
The second flight was better. I went from a level 10 anxiety to about a 7. I made it to Mexico. I had a magical time, but I had the flight home constantly looming like a dark cloud over my vacation.
I attempted the first part of the flight home without any booze. We had a layover in Vegas. I had to have the bartender line up 5 shots of pure vodka for me, in which I took back-to-back with no chase. She said she had never seen a woman drink like that, not in 20 year of bartending in las Vegas. My fear was that real. After all that, I didn’t even feel drunk. The anxiety was more powerful. I gripped Ross’ hand so hard the way home, I put grooves from my fingernails in his skin that lasted for days. I avoided flying after that trip. I had a chance to go to New York, but passed when I saw the 8+ hour flight knowing that for me, it would be impossible. When I’d go back to Fresno to visit, I’d drive the grueling 15 hours rather than face the 45 minute flight. Finally, after about 3 years after that Mexico flight I decided to face my fear.
Chapter Two: Fresno
It really took a lot to convince me to fly home for a visit. I only agreed because I was hoping that maybe the PTSD had worn off. I really wanted to be rid of this phobia. I wanted to be able to travel, which I love more than anything. Plus, its a huge inconvenience to fear such a thing. What if my job asks me to fly somewhere? I couldn’t show up reeking of booze. I decided that I had probably built it up way worse in my head and it wouldn’t actually be that bad once I did it. About a week before the trip, the panic attacks started in. I couldn’t focus on work that entire week. The anticipation was killing me, and I walked around in a constant state of worry. It was like I was waiting to get some risky surgery that I had a 50/50 chance of surviving or something. It made no logical sense. I talked to anyone and everyone who would listen about my dread: Co-workers, friends, strangers sitting next to me at the bar…
You’re probably thinking why don’t you just take a xanax like the rest of the normal population and be done with it? If you were paying attention in the intro of this story, you’ll remember me referencing the fact that I absolutely fear taking pills. Like, its a very serious phobia. After that terrible Cabo flight, I did, in fact, purchase 70 xanax to try in attempt to treat my anxiety. the thought of taking one gave me just as much anxiety as what it was trying to treat. I ended up giving them to friends and never took a single one of them.
The night before the flight, I couldn’t sleep. I tried to pack my suitcase, but I couldn’t focus. I was unable to plan what it was I would need for the week. I worked at 7 am the next day, and we flew out at 8 pm after my shift. I couldn’t focus at work, and ended up leaving at 11:30. The time between 11:30 and 8pm were the longest hours I think I ever spent. I continued to try and pack. I just basically ended up roaming around my suitcase in circles, dropping strange and random articles of clothing in it. I tried to eat, but my stomach was so upset I could only manage to shove a few forkfuls of rice in my mouth and swallow. Kyle was picking us up to take us to the airport at about 5:30. At 3, I popped a bottle of champagne. I was too full of panic to swallow. My dog came and pitifully put her head on my shoulder. I was sweating. Not from the heat, but from the fear. Once it started, it wouldn’t stop. My hair became so wet, I had to put it up in a bun. I changed my clothes twice, my underwear 3 times. The champagne had no effect. Suddenly, Kyle was here.
I don’t remember the drive to the airport at all. I was so in a panic, all I could do was stare out the window and worry. The drive was way too short, and before I knew it I was wheeling my bag though PDX international. I stood, glassy-eyed though the entire ticket/bag process. I just kept looking around at all the other people there to travel and I couldn’t get over how relaxed and calm everyone looked. I had this horrible problem, and no-one else could relate. The minute we got our bags though the scanner, I demanded for us to find a goddamned bar. NOW. I didn’t care what they were charging. I was due for take off in an hour and a half and my dress was so wet with fear-sweat it was stuck to all sides of me. I was in trouble. There was no fucking way I could get on a plane.
The nearest bar to us was packed. I found the only table available and sat down. We waited for nearly 20 minutes, no servers. The menu was suspiciously void of prices of any kind. Not on food, not on drink, not on anything. Two women sitting next to us received their bill for 2 salads and 2 waters. Their bill was $40 dollars. I mean, sure they could have ordered other things besides what I saw on the table. Considering the speed of service I observed, swiftly-bused tables seemed unlikely. I know I said I didn’t care what they were charging before. Seeing that, though and taking in to account the time we decided to find another bar. PDX is pretty big. According to the directory, the next nearest dispensary was a mexican cantina pretty far down from our gate. Ross was obsessively watching the time, I was obsessively trying to get drunk. We arrived at the cantina, and it too was packed. I DID NOT GIVE TWO SHITS. I was due to be at the gate in less than an hour at that point. I pushed my way to the front of the bar and made very intense eye-contact with the man pouring. Within minutes he wanted my order. I asked for a shot of Fernet and a glass of Cabernet. He raised an eyebrow at my order, and asked for my i.d. I reached for my wallet. No purse. I left that shit on the chair at that last bar. FUCK ME.
Ross had managed to get the only table free in the entire establishment and was surrounded by our carry-on bags. I told him I had to get back to that other bar. He looked at the time and gave me a face. I shit you not, I ran in a full sprint down the length of that airport in stiletto heels with everyone looking on. It actually felt good to run off my nervous energy. People think I’m really late for my plane, in actuality I just really needed to flip this switch. In keeping with the poor service I observed earlier, my purse sat untouched on my chair. I snatched it, and sprinted back the opposite direction to the bar. Again, I bullied my way to the bar and wedged myself between patrons. Two guys ogled me, making the she’s rude face. I plainly told them that I really, REALLY wasn’t a good flyer. The bartender saw me and served me. The minute I had my drink in my hand, I relaxed just a tiny bit. I sucked down the shot, and took big gulps of the wine. My stomach curdled from the lack of food, but championed on. The sweating began to slow. I wanted one more glass, but time didn’t allow. I had to get back to the gate. I definitely wasn’t ready.
We got to the gate 10 minutes before boarding. I went pee (so I wouldn’t have to get out of my seat after take off) and popped in to a little store to get a crossword to distract myself with. I sat at the crowded gate, staring at the planes waiting to take off. I looked at the one that was waiting for us to board. It was a lot smaller than the one I took to mexico. My pulse began to race. I stood up and began pacing in the window. There was an announcement. Our flight was delayed. It would board in about 45 minutes. I should have gone and had another glass of wine. Instead, I sat and started a crossword, thinking I would be ok and paranoid that I would smell too much like booze and wouldn’t be admitted on the flight. This was a bad choice.
By the time I entered the plane and found my seat, I was at a full panic. I was supposed to sit in the window, but I made Ross take that seat and shut the blind. I sat in the middle and clipped my seatbelt. The man on my left side was studying a large manual about anesthetics. The pages were filled with medical jargon and complicated chemical equations. A doctor. I’m sitting next to a doctor. Somehow that made me feel a little bit better. I’m not sure why that should matter. The stewardess began to go through her pre-flight routine.
I chose to wear a nice dress, heels, and a full face of makeup. Somehow I thought if I were overly dressed, I’d be less likely to have a freakout or make a public display. Dress like a lady, must act like a lady. Notice the sensory deprivation: glasses and headphones.
I gotta get off the plane. I gotta get off the plane. I gotta get off the plane.
I took a really deep breath and tried to not freak out. Those seats and the fuselage couldn’t have been any fucking smaller. I just kept telling myself that I would just have to make it to the drink service, and I’d be cool. I told Ross to order vodka, that way I’d be able to have 2. I was panting at this point and digging my nails into my legs. The man sitting next to me kept looking at me sideways. I told him that I wasn’t a good flyer. Damn, whatta fucking understatement. He nodded an understanding nod. I rambled on to him asking him if he was a doctor. he told me he was a dentist. A dentist? I started to bite my tongue. We taxied and began takeoff.
Takeoff in an airplane is some fucked up, unnatural shit. I mean, The entirety of takeoff and how physically uncomfortable it is should be a clear sign that people were not meant to fly. I looked down the whole time, staring at my crossword. The feeling of flying in the air terrified me. The moments ticked by so slowly, I was counting my breaths. I kept darting my eyes up to check the center isle, looking for that blessed cart to come down. I continued to try and relax. It was impossible. The feeling was so uncomfortable I couldn’t possibly not be aware of exactly what was happening and that I was indeed facing my worst fear. I kept trying to find words to fill in the boxes in front of me.
Finally, that fucking cart started rolling down the isle. It took forever. By the time it got to me, I was nearly jumping out of my seat. Ross and I both ordered vodka, the dentist ordered a whiskey and coke. I drank the entire thing in one gulp. I clutched the barf bag in fear it would come back up again. I spent the next 5 minutes convincing myself I didn’t need to puke. Blessedly, by this time it was time to land. I put Ross’s mini-vodka in my purse for later. It was ending. Thank fucking god it was nearly over.
Landing is the complete opposite for me than takeoff. Its the home stretch. Every second we descend, I’m closer to the ground. I love landing. I don’t car how turbulent, how rocky, or how fast it happens. By the time we touched down at SFO, I was crying with relief. It was over.
Chapter Three: Getting home
The trip home consisted of 2 days in Monterrey, 3 days in Fresno, 2 days in San Francisco. The fucking flight back was seriously wigging me out. I felt like I couldn’t relax or enjoy myself the entire trip because I knew that flight was immanent. I kept in the back of my mind as I re-visited home and the beautiful surrounding areas. Fresno passed by in a blur, and soon I found myself checking in the hotel in San Fran for my last night before having to get back on the plane. The hotel was gorgeous, as usual. Ross’ dad travels for his job, and gets points for hotels. Whenever we travel with them, we always get to stay in really nice places. We checked in to our suite, established our beds and luggage. We opened a bottle of wine, and I pulled the curtains back on our large bay window. This was the view:
Here I am, in a beautiful hotel, sipping on a nice wine from a Napa vineyard (way better than the $2-$4 swill I usually buy for myself) whilst enjoying a front row view at my worst fear taking off over and over again. I stared at it in disbelief for over an hour. I was also in disbelief of the contents of my suitcase. I was in such a state of panic during the packing process, I failed to bring any one of the following:
Anything with long sleeves of any kind
Any kind of leg cover save one pair of tights with holes in them
Normal shoes (2 pairs of heels and a pair of platforms)
I had to get incredibly creative and also look like a crazy-person the entire trip. It was in the low 50’s at night in both Monterrey and San Fran, and here I was with only tank-tops and shorts. What the fuck, man?
San Fran is one of my all-time favorite places in the world. Visiting flew by in a flash. Before I knew it, it was about an hour before I had to get on the plane. Ross’ parents drove me to a nearby bar. They knew my problem, but of course didn’t really understand. I had a glass of wine. I didn’t want to suck back the booze too hardcore in front of them. In my mind I wanted to take shot after shot until I didn’t care what was happening to me. After a few wines, I snuck in to the bar bathroom and made a video:
How many can I get away with having before I start making people feel concerned?
We were dropped off at SFO amd we said our goodbyes. I was nervous, anxious, felt sick. I fucked up last time, WAY underestimated how much liquor I needed to ingest in order to counteract the adrenaline. I refused to face that mental torture again. After checking in and all that crap I headed to a bar and drank a few, very fast.
The good news is, by the time I was boarding the plane I was good and drunk. Not slurring my words and stumbling drunk, but not sweating through my knickers and panting. Perfect. My arms and legs felt like jelly and I found my seat with a smile. Even as the plane began to taxi, my heart rate didn’t jump.
I did not have my pre-flight usual extreme panic where I feel like I have to run off the plane. I actually felt slightly relaxed. After my seat-swap I was sitting next to an elderly japanese man. As we began our take-off, he closed his eyes and squeezed a little braided rope he had in his hands. I looked up from him, and saw a couple diagonal from me clutching hands with their eyes closed. I saw a man with both arms wrapped around the woman sitting next to him who had her hands over her face and was bending over into her lap. I sighed a very deep breath. Other people are afraid of flying too.
In addition to being able to actually pick my head up and look around me, I actually looked out the window of the plane. Something I haven’t been able to do in a very long time.
I was elated. maybe I had beat my phobia. Maybe next time I fly I wouldn’t be afraid to do it at all and wouldn’t need a single drop of booze. Maybe my PTSD is finally going away and I could have my life back. I felt like a thousand-pound weight had been lifted from me and was, for the first time in a long time hopeful for the future.
I took this victory picture. Smiling and not about to scream.
I also took this drunk-ass video. I have never watched this. I played it for a few seconds and had to turn it off because the sound of the airplane motor made me feel sick.
The morning after my flight, I woke up to one of the worst panic attacks I’ve ever had. It did not stop and continued over the course of two days. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and every time I tried to close my eyes I would picture myself on the plane. Over the last month, I’ve woken up in a sweat from nightmares about being on a plane. I absolutely did NOT conquer my phobia that day. I may have made it worse. I feel like I took two steps backwards in my fight to be a “normal” person again. Christine: Zero Plane: 1,000.
I realize the dangers of treating anxiety with alcohol, so no need to leave your comments and messages in regards to that. I understand the dangerous cycle it can, and usually does lead to. I only use the booze to stop the panic in the plane-scenario. Other times I try the bullshit breathing and meditation techniques my therapist taught me. They don’t always work, but I happily choose that over being one of those poor souls perma-stoned on their anxiety prescriptions. Its a choice, and I made mine.
I’m not sure if, and when I’ll be facing an airplane ride again. I am still having plane-related nightmares and just looking at the pictures for this very blog triggered a panic attack. Maybe its okay that I have these random phobias now. Life is a journey, and we have to change to adapt. Either way, at least for now the phobias are who I am for now.