Pre-Flight Fright

It’s going to be different this time. You’ll be ok. Breath. Don’t be afraid! Don’t cry!

This is my travel mantra. Internally on repeat, over and over at the onset of every trip to the airport. All the while, with every wearisome step, my heart rate surges in apprehension. The lump in my throat swells from a pebble to a boulder and I’m slowly suffocating. 

It’s always the same routine. Ticketing. Fumbling through security. Trying to Tetris my things into those damn buckets. Then, a stop at Hudson News for my ritual bottle of enlightened water and chocolate brownie “protein” bar. Inevitably arriving at my gate and struggling to distract myself from the dull buzz of the terminal to no avail.

Panic begins to set in. Panic, my enemy and my oldest friend. He follows me to every gate, inescapably through every terminal the fifteen years I’ve been flying. Usually by boarding time, I’m able to bury my emotions so deep I barely register the movement around me. Before I know it, I’m in my seat where I can release and secretly weep under my blanket through takeoff. 

Not today.

My fiancé and I are sitting at Gate C2 waiting for our second flight of the day after spending a booze-filled layover in New Orleans. Truthfully, I felt the insidious tendrils of anxiety before my first beignet. I felt it sitting heavily on my shoulders during our first flight from Orlando to MSY. The extra-turbulent takeoff did nothing for my nerves and seems to have thrown my body into a full-blown meltdown. Panic surfaces from the cavernous depths of my chest and grips my diaphragm, preventing me from inhaling completely. I try not to look out the window at our perky yellow aircraft, instead attempting to focus my attention on literally anything else. Nevertheless, I begin apprehensively fidgeting in my seat and I know I’m hurtling toward an undisputable panic attack.  

Keep it together bitch, my mind implores.

Choked terror rises in my throat while oppressive heat radiates from my tense shoulders. Electricity jolts through my spine in rhythmic, jarring pulses. Oh no, here they come. The tears. My body’s weapon in the war between body and mind. It’s no contest. The hot, humiliating tears win every time. The first one spills over the edge of my lid, rolls halfway down my cheek and I swipe it away with a quick jerk of my hand so nobody notices. Then, the thoughts begin as my breath escapes my lips in short, labored puffs.

I don’t want to go. I need to leave. I’m sure there is a bus I could take. I don’t want to go!

Flashes of the helplessness and loss-of-control I feel mid-flight flood my mind. I begin to shake, no vibrate with nervous energy. More tears break free and now my fiancé notices. He’s used to it by now, and begins his soothing, comforting caresses and reassuring words of encouragement.

Not going to work this time.

The vibrations become overpowering and the passengers sitting across from me begin to look curiously at the girl who’s clearly upset about something. And suddenly, it’s too much. I gather my things as discreetly as possible and scurry away from the gate as the attendants start the boarding process. My fiancé follows close behind and asks if I’m alright as he wraps his arm in mine. He can see now that I’m in full blown panic mode. My logical mind has been hijacked by the hysterical, apocalyptic inhabitant of my brain.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I frenziedly admit. And that’s it, I’ve said it out loud and given life to the panic attack. I’m no longer in control. The flood gates open and my tears become engorged rivers flowing stormily down my cheeks and neck. I’ve completely surrendered to the terror, repeating “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go,” again and again, all the while crying and pacing back and forth in front of a stand that sells travel pillows. I feel for my fiancé and the look of helplessness on his face as our plane has almost completely finished boarding. Soon, they will announce the last call for passengers bound for Los Angeles. 

It’s that look of helplessness in his gloomy brown eyes that triggers something deep inside my psyche. My choice will affect him too. I have to suck it up and force myself to board.

Last call for passengers going to Los Angeles.

The time comes to choose whether to face my mounting phobia or shrink away and shamefully endure a bus ride to LA for the next 24 hours. This is it, the last possible second. Just do it!

I take my boarding pass weakly in my hand and zombie-walk to the gate before I lose the momentary determination to take control of my life. My tear-stained, hiccupping, panic-stricken self presents my boarding pass to the gate attendants who look concerned until my fiancé hurriedly tells them I’m afraid of flying. Their concern becomes compassionate pity as they reassure me, all smiles, that they do this every day! Unconvinced, I snatch my pass back and hasten down the jet way. Once in my seat I do my best to disassociate from the terror, bury my face in my blanket and, in typical fashion, cry for the first hour of flying time. 

Of course, the flight is one of the smoothest I’ve ever experienced and all the fear and dread was for naught. It always is. I’ve flown fifty times and counting, always in the company of my incomprehensible enemy. Perhaps one day I will fly the friendly skies in the arms of ease and calm. Until that day, panic remains, a shadow I can’t escape.



Jade Arvizu holds a Master's in Rhetoric and Composition from California State University Northridge. She teaches composition and literature at Oxnard Community College and helps run a nonprofit finding careers for college students on the autism spectrum.


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