As much as I love travel, and my friends and family, sometimes the endless flights from one side of the world to the other can get a little stressful. Especially as I always book the cheapest option, which usually means really, really long layovers. Partner that with my inability to sleep on planes and it’s a recipe for disaster.
That brings me to December 2012 and the time I realised I had turned into a person who is a nervous flyer. After more than two decades of loving flying, I was suddenly about to freak out at the thought of getting on a plane.
Sean and I were flying home for Christmas together. We had booked our flights on two different credit cards. When we checked in we asked if we could get seats together, but they only put us together for the first leg of the journey.
We had left Adelaide and flown to Melbourne before flying to KL where we had a nine hour wait. Neither of us had slept and I was definitely over-tired because as we were queuing up to board the plane I started to feel really stressed. Just the thought of being stuck on a plane for another 14 hours, already extremely tired, and knowing I wasn’t going to sleep made me feel a bit panicky! Plus the thought of possibly sitting next to a stranger and not my boyfriend didn’t help because I was planning on using his shoulder as a head rest.
I was even more freaked out when I felt my eyes fill with tears and my face get really hot. Oh God, I thought, am I turning into an anxious flyer?
At that moment, the answer seemed to be yes. The last thing I wanted was to get on the plane. I started to think of my mom, and how she is a nervous flyer, and how she always waits to be last on the plane because she gets claustrophobic. Then I thought of my friend who is so scared of flying she once freaked me out on a flight to America by gripping my arm with terror in her eyes when we hit a little turbulence. Now it looked like I had caught their anxiety.
Of course thinking this only made me more anxious. Then I started to get freaked out that other passengers could see me with my watery eyes and a terrified look on my red, sweaty face. And so I got more red and my eyes were threatening to drop two rivers of hot tears on my prickly face at any second. Sean didn’t really know what was going on, and as we were lining up to board, I couldn’t really get into the fact that I was on the verge of a panic attack for the first time in my life.
So I concentrated on not looking like I was crying or having a breakdown. As we got on the plane, the air hostess cruelly separated us and sent me down the far aisle. We hadn’t realised that our seats were on opposite sides of the plane. This was going to make getting someone to swap even more difficult. We were both on the aisle seat beside the window, on two different rows and had the middle row of five seats between us. This would mean that one of us would have to get the person who had the window seat to agree to change to an aisle and somehow move across the packed plane filled with people squashing their bags in the overhead lockers and crawling down the aisle in a never ending line.
I was still fighting tears, and trying to get my head around the fact that I was apparently having some sort of panic attack. I couldn’t even look at my neighbour, because I didn’t want to freak him out. Instead I kept craning my neck trying to catch Sean’s eyes and communicate how I was freaking out. He spotted me and saw I was not myself, and he asked his guy, a nice old man if he would like to swap so that he could be with his girlfriend. The man said no. Sean gave me a shake of the head which almost sent me over the edge. That was my last bit of hope.
And so I had no choice but to accept my fate. Exhausted, I watched movies and put off trying to sleep until I couldn’t stand it any more. I kept trying to look over at Sean, but as he was the row ahead of me, he could never see me looking. He looked like he was asleep so I left him to it. That flight felt like the longest one yet. I was so tired, and was half drifting off, but when I looked at the time, only five minutes passed. It was awful. I was too tired to read or watch anything and so I just had to sit there with my eyes closed, praying for sleep.
When the flight was finally over, and after I had aged about five years, Sean and I were reunited. I was giddy with relief at being freed, but I found Sean in worse shape than I was. His neighbour had spent the whole flight staring at him. Like, fully shifted in his chair to face him. Sean was verrrrry angry. He said he was close to hitting the guy. He even said, ‘what?’ to him a couple of times, but the guy would look away for a few minutes before returning to staring.
So we both came close to having a breakdown on that flight. But, luckily we had just landed in Amsterdam, one of my favourite airports for its convenience and the speed you can get outside after landing. We headed straight for the doors and sucked in some fresh, freezing air as we calmed ourselves. We had made it. We were staying in Amsterdam for two nights to go to a friend’s gig, and then we would be home for Christmas. We had survived.
Luckily when we flew back after Christmas we were sitting together. We were also armed with strong sleeping tablets that the doctor gave me after I casually mentioned that I was starting to find flying a little stressful. And they worked like a charm, although they did make me confused about whether I was watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower or whether I was in a dream about it for a trippy few minutes. After watching it again when we got home, I realised that I had been dreaming because the scary scenes that I thought I remembered weren’t in the movie at all.
Next week I’m flying home again, but this time Sean is not coming. And I’m flying the same route, with the same layover. I’m just really, really hoping that I don’t have some sort of meltdown this time. That would be a little awkward. Fingers crossed for me!