Travel: Flying (Things that make me anxious, part 12B)
Monday, April 24 2017
It's 6 o' something. Gatwick Airport.
I'm looking through a window as high as the sky, and through it am faced with the aircraft that will (hopefully) deposit me, my best friend Sarah and our belongings in Reykjavik. Sarah's sat next to me offering words of reassurance (albeit a little grumpily), which mostly involves her saying "passport, passport" and rummaging.
"They charge you for carrier bags at the airport." She says "I think that's funny." She's a lunatic. In an overly excited shower this morning she managed to cover the ceiling of the hotel bathroom in conditioner and last night she put lettuce in my drink. Both of these memories go some way towards drowning out the sound of my own heart beat pounding in my ears.
This waiting room is as small as my pocket and yet goes on forever and ever.
6:31 Boarding complete. I turn to Sarah and say "I have no cold weather clothes" in panic, as I see all the Hunky Jumpers board. Andrew - it looks like your wife may die on a glacier after all.
"So many beards." She says, nodding in agreement. We have a brief conversation about how Finnish the pilot sounds and then hum the theme from Jurassic Park. I'm saying hum to make it sound slightly more normal, but please be reassured that we're actually meowing.
6:33 "Those hair bobbles look like telephone wires." Sarah says, pointing at a lady.
I feel sick now. All I can see in my mind is that scene from the Simpsons where they finally get Marge on a plane, which crashes into the ground upon take off. I try to remember the channel 4 documentary I saw about plane crashes. We're right at the front, which was safest right?
"...I thought they were supposed to be invisible, but if you can see them then what is the point of them?"
"I don't know, Sarah!" I can get a bit snappy when I feel anxious.
6:35 My tummy really hurts. Sarah's does too. Are we anxious or did we forget to poo?
6:36 Turns out Sarah has spare thermal tights.
6:45 The pilot makes an announcement: "Sorry about the delay ladies and gentlemen, 12 passengers decided not to travel with us today. They did make it to check in, so we're just finding and removing their bags."
I panic. Why would these people decide not to fly with us? Do they know something we don't?
"Why would these people decide not to fly with us? Do they know something we don't?"
"They're probably too drunk and not allowed on." Says Sarah. She's a good egg.
"What if they checked in a Bad-Bag and they don't find it?"
"They X-Ray them." She comes back quick as a flash.
"Do they?" I've got rather high pitched.
"Yes." She insists "And dogs sniff them."
"OK." I nod. That makes sense. I relax and say "I trust dogs."
6:53 We start to have a very annoying and slightly offensive exchange of "Yoohoo! Big summer blow out!"
6:53 and 10 seconds omfg we're moving
The build up to any holiday is dominated primarily by one thing for me: fear of flying.
The initial jolt comes immediately after booking; as soon as I receive my confirmation documents my eyes scan straight for the flight details. I look for the date and the time; for that exact moment in the future that I'll take off and my fate will be sealed.
My safety in the hands of the pilot, who I am already worried may be feeling suicidal - a thought that hadn't occurred to me until the tragic events of March 24th, 2017. My future in the hands of the engineers who have worked on the aircraft, who were probably all hungover and prone to making mistakes. My life in the hands of the 100s of fellow passengers I'll be sharing the air with, who are probably all terrorists.
These fears worsen, of course. With each news article, each rumour, each threatening tweet. With each article about depression and suicide in men. Each late night TV show about freak accidents. Each time someone mentions Lost.
"If it happens it happens", "nothing you can do about it" and "you're time is your time" - I think that people who don't live with anxiety GENUINELY believe that comments like these are reassuring. They're not.
Even though I can't imagine it, I accept that some people really think like this. That death is just an inevitable part of the circle of life (nants ingonyama bagithi baba) and not a cloud that weighs heavily on their every move. That the short few years they have on this planet is enough, and that eventually they'll be tired of it and that it will be a welcome forever break from this world.
Battling my flight anxiety makes me a horrible person. I mentioned that I can be snappy, but I also become cold, stand offish, suspicious and ignorant.
Anywhere up to 3 months before a flight it could suddenly hit me: I'm going on a plane.
Cue weeks of being kept awake at night imagining everything that could possibly go wrong during a flight, unable to distinguish between the memories of news broadcasts and action films and fearing the absolute worst.
I dull the fear slightly by watching YouTube videos about flights and reading articles about the now dubbed "safest method of transport". Because of this I know such facts as: A Jet engine costs an average of £11m; A plane can complete its entire journey with only one engine; No flying bird can bring down a commercial plane.
Of course, the scary articles and videos are only ever a click away. All too often I used to find myself tempted by "5 Scariest Plane Crashes of All Time" type shows. It's a lesson I learned the hard way. And if you take anything from this post, let it be that you don't fall down that particular rabbit hole. The damage isn't easily undone and the more graphic the images, the more convincing your imagination will become.
The couple of days before a flight are the worst. Forget butterflies, my tummy is now home to piranhas. My days on edge, my nights totally sleepless. I often leave the packing and preparation for my trip to the very last minute, in the hope that it will delay the onset of the fear.
When I do eventually brave the prep, I focus firstly on my in-flight tools. Unbelievably, there are things that I do which help considerably (although it is an art, not a science, and I learn something new with every trip). Those tools are as precious to me as the life vest stored under my seat. I urge you to find your "kit".
I travel for pleasure, rather than business, and morning of a flight is usually full of excitement rather than fear. I can kind of feel the anxiety cloud at the very back of my head, but it will usually stay at bay until the airport itself.
At the airport the initial fear comes from the knowledge that the people queuing for check-in have not passed through security and could be carrying a plethora of weapons and full of hatred. Provided there's no option to check-in online (hallelujah for that, eh?), this fear will absolutely consume me. I'll jump at every clatter of suitcase wheels, flinch at every sudden movement and actively brace myself if somebody walks in my direction. I have been known to leave and join different queues several time, and can find myself walking away from my party without a word of warning. Pre-security is not a safe or easy place for me. I try to spend as little time in this zone as possible.
Security itself has some regular anxieties. Because they are minor in comparison to what came before, it can actually feel like relief, but it is still stressful and difficult to navigate. There are two main concerns in this area, they are:
1) Do I look suspicious?
Am I making the "right" amount of eye contact with the staff? Is my resting bitch face murderous? Have I got anything I shouldn't have in my bag? Are any of my liquids not in the plastic bag? Am I fidgeting too much? Should I be talking? Am I too quiet? Am I going to beep? Will I need to be patted down in front of all these strangers? Will they think that I'm a wrong 'un?
2) Do they look suspicious?
Is that person shifty? Are they sweating? Why do they look so serious? Who are they with? Do the people they're with look OK? Is their jacket too padded? Is it concealing a bomb? Is that suspicious looking wire their headphones or something more sinister? WhyaetheyputtingtheirhandsintotheirpocketsOHFUCK -
- It's OK, I'm still alive. I'm still alive. I'm still alive. I'm still alive. I'm still alive...
After security I can relax, at least for a short while. There are plenty of distractions here, although they mostly involve spending money - but isn't this where the holiday begins anyway? I'll browse duty free, buy the last minute toothbrush (which I have inevitably forgotten to pack) and pick up some sun screen (I'm an advocate for factor 50 for EVERYONE - no wrinkles for me thanks!). I'll use the time to immerse myself in the excitement of the holiday (or of getting home) and sometimes I even manage to practice some mindfulness.
Call to gate is always a relief, as the lounges inevitably get old-hat. This is the time for the last minute passport check/ panic and to prepare myself for the inevitable. Boarding.
Getting on the plane involves a couple of difficulties, one of which is hard to admit to myself - and that is the tendency to fall victim the media bullshit and start racially profiling other passengers. This part of the journey is a battle of wills for me as I try to block out the horrible media narrative we've been spoon fed and try to push stereotypes of Islamic Extremists to the back of my mind. My priority of course is to make sure that I don't make any other passengers feel uncomfortable. It's an awful feeling, that no matter how hard I try to be an inclusive, progressive, equal rights advocate, I'll never be able to totally beat my own mind into submission.
No, brain. I'm the one in control. You're supposed to be on MY SIDE!!
Takeoff, aka white knuckling into the sky at 180 mph, praying we're not going to explode into a petrol-ly ball of hell or drop straight out of the sky into a housing estate in Basingstoke, is especially difficult for me. I often bite down on something, bury my head into my neighbour's shoulder and surrender myself wholly to the nonsense that is Roy Orbison's Penny Arcade (Stephen Fry's soothing tones are not quite invasive enough to interrupt the "Loud" horror going on in my anxious mind at this point).
The rest of the flight is OK. Seriously. It is OK and (don't laugh) I'm actually a surprisingly good flyer. I don't panic at all during the "torso" of the flight (the middle bit), even in rougher-than-normal turbulence or stormy weather. And after about half an hour of smooth sailing I relax completely, look out of the window and actually begin to enjoy myself. Who doesn't want to watch the clouds woosh by, look down at the ocean and sip on a glass of Malbec? OK, so maybe you don't. That's fair - everyone's anxiety is different, but, after days upon days of panic and shit, the middle of a flight is a welcome relief to me.
I actually love flying. God damn anxiety, ruining everything that is good in this world.
Here's what I have in my In-flight Kit:
- A book (that usually remains unread until destination)
- My iPad (pre-loaded with at least a series of Game of Thrones)
- Working headphones! (x2 actually, these are SO ESSENTIAL!)
- Sweets (any sort of munchable is an anxiety distraction)
- A bottle of water (to combat the difficulty swallowing and dry mouth)
- A magazine (usually something trashy)
- A notepad (to write down any creative thoughts I might have in my state of panic)
- Pocket Piglet (he's my mascot, he's a Disney tsum tsum Piglet that I carry everywhere)
That's pretty much it, I'm going to Orlando in January and I'll make sure that I share a revised list when I do - good luck with all your summer holidays, piggies!
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