Neurotic Neurosis

My flight to San Francisco this past weekend was not great; actually it was completely terrifying with my having what I can only describe as a major panic attack. I have flown at least fifty times and while every single time I get nervous at takeoff and landing, I have never before faced the waves of panic that I endured on this trip. I have however, had this issue before...four separate times that I can easily recall.

The first time I can remember feeling like I couldn't control my thoughts, like I was a passenger and someone else was leading me away from a more rational route of thought was during a visit to Philadelphia. I was at a water park with some friends. We had probably waited, climbing the stairs in line for at least 45 minutes to reach the top of this huge slide. It was the kind of slide where you sit on a round party float with like three other people. I was totally fine as we climbed the stairs until we reached the platform right below the top. I looked down and remember being shocked at how high we were. I looked out at the slide where people had just pushed out and were heading down. And I looked around at the stairs and all the people waiting and something shifted in my mind.

I wasn't having fun anymore. My heart was beating so fast. I couldn't relax. Instead, I kept scanning my surroundings. I don't even know what I was looking escape I guess. I weighed my options and determined that I couldn't go down the slide. I'm not sure why. We had gone to Dorney Park in Pennsylvania I don't know how many times growing up. I'm pretty sure I had ridden all of the slides at some point, but at this moment it wasn't an option. I didn't even have a clear fear as to what might happen to me if I did take the slide. I just couldn't make myself. My mind rejected the idea. My only other option was to face embarrassment and head back down the stairs passing all of the people waiting in line. This is what I did. I kept my head down as tears pooled in my eyes and listened to the remarks spouted out by people, assholes from Philadelphia, who didn't know me but felt it necessary to comment on my unconventional return trip. I was like 19 or 20 and I couldn't explain why I was suddenly unable to do something I had wanted to do.

The panic returned again while I was in my scuba certification class. I was probably 24. We had four days set up to become certified. The first day was mostly book work. The second day we spent hours in a pool practicing basic skills like partner safety checks, breathing out of the same mouthpiece, clearing our masks, and overall just getting used to wearing all of the equipment while "breathing" underwater. It was fun. The next day we were headed out to open water to complete all of the same skills. I woke up before my alarm inundated with fear. I lay in bed trying to tell myself it was fine, I would be fine...but I was unable to convince myself. I told my friends I couldn't go and cried myself back to sleep.

The instructor called me that night asking why I didn't tell her I was scared, telling me that she was only moving so fast because we were all lifeguards and seemingly comfortable. She said if I really wanted to do this, she wouldn't leave my side. The last day of class, I went with the others out to the open water spot. I was nervous...uncomfortably nervous. It was very different from the pool. The waves were pushing in, rocking us off balance as we tried to get our fins and masks on. As we dropped below the surface my mask allowed a slow leak. We were about 20 feet under when my instructor assigned one of the dive masters to assist me in clearing it, as it was one of the skills I had to pass for certification. I had done this in the pool with no difficulties, but I was nervous and when I attempted to clear, I actually let in more water than before. My goggles filled blurring my vision. My nose filled with saltwater, and some entered into my breathing. I began coughing and I began to freak out.

Automatically, I tried to get out of the situation. I tried swimming straight up to the surface. (You're not supposed to do that.) The dive master kept telling me to breathe, but I couldn't catch my breath. It was like the water in my eyes, and in my nose tricked me into thinking I couldn't breathe. I was actually holding my breath. He held my arms so we were eye to eye, he took out his mouthpiece to show me he wasn't breathing, told me to relax, told me to breathe. He could see my panic.  He brought me back to normalcy and stayed by my side the entire rest of the dive allowing me to actually enjoy myself, but again I had no real understanding what caused the fear in the first place.

My third time panicking was this last year. I went down to Bisbee, AZ with my husband and another couple. Bisbee is an old mining town that has turned somewhat eccentric, kind of hippy-esque, filled with lots of quirky bars like the world's smallest bar, and shops with two headed squirrels as their tourist attractors, and a bunch of ghost tours. We visited all of these places and made plans to do the mining tour. I love stuff like this. They put us in big miners' jackets with helmets and big flashlights. I was super excited!

We climbed aboard what appeared to be a mini-train, kind of like a kids' amusement park ride. We started heading down into the mine. It began to darken and cool down, but I almost instantly warmed up. I started to sweat, badly. I felt like the walls were getting closer and closer, and they obviously were, but I couldn't take my mind off of it. I kept thinking how if I already was uncomfortable, it wasn't going to get any better as we progressed down into the mine. I tried telling myself I was okay, but it's like I just didn't believe me. I wish I could explain how strong my desire to retreat is when this happens. All I want is to get out of the situation and it seems like nothing else is going to help me.

I started to feel lightheaded, dizzy as if all of my blood was pulsing so intensely it wasn't able to do its normal job of circulation. My hands tightened and cramped, it felt like I couldn't open them. My eyes filled with tears as I internalized how I could get out of the situation. Then, the train stopped. The "conductor" got off and began walking up the small tunnel explaining how we were so many feet under ground at this point, and how this was kind of a last chance exit for anyone wanting to disembark. I didn't even think about it. I don't remember if I said anything to anyone. I just got up off the train and headed toward the light. As soon I got outside I tried ripping the heavy miner's coat off my body because I was so hot, but I couldn't get it off. The flashlight was wrapped around me like a constrictor. I was still in panic mode and I was shaking and my hands wouldn't do what I wanted them to. Luckily, my girlfriend also got off the train and was right behind me. She instantly started helping me out of the coat as I stood there crying, frantically breathing. I felt helpless. It was eleven in the morning and we went back to our hotel and made bloody marys.

The last time this happened prior to my flight to San Francisco was at work just last month. I had to take a TV upstairs on the elevator. The elevator hadn't been working for a bit so this TV was stuck in my room for weeks. I heard it was working and went about my task. As soon as I closed the doors, my mind was like, "why did you just do that?" I had no response except an immediate desire to get the fuck off the elevator. My vision blurred out and I was dizzy. I had to grab onto the TV cart to hold myself up. The elevator hadn't even started going up yet. We're talking seconds of time that was completely concentrated with every miserable and uncomfortable thought and feeling I could possibly have. "I'm going to get stuck on this piece of shit" replayed over and over in my mind. My heart was beating like I just finished some sort of race, and of course I was sweating all over my work clothes. And then the elevator stopped, but the doors didn't open right away. I was ridiculously close to throwing myself up against the doors but luckily they opened. I vowed to never use the elevator again.

I have absolutely no idea why this happens or what triggers the feeling or how to help myself when it is happening. During my flight we had just boarded and pulled away when it started. It's like my vision goes in and out and I can't focus. I started contemplating my options which were pretty minuscule. I started envisioning myself trying to get off the plane. The only thing that really kept me from doing so was the embarrassment, knowing the plane would actually have to turn around for me. The mantra "I'm okay" repeated over and over in my head. I read my book, but later had to go back a whole chapter because I had no idea what I had actually read. The words, the practice of taking in each and every word as they lined up row by row helped, but I didn't have a clue as to what I was actually reading. It was such a relief when I heard the captain say we were heading into our initial descent or whatever he said. I could see an instant end to my discomfort.

I wish I understood why this happens or what I can do to fix it. For now just being home will have to suffice.


  1. This TOTALLY happens to me too. I'm so glad you shared. First time for me was on a really stupid amusement ride at Universal Studios a few years ago. I think it was the Simpsons ride - seriously. I had no rational reason to be scared, but absolutely had to get the fuck off it immediately. It happens now whenever I'm in a situation where I don't have control, and my options for getting out are very limited (definitely on planes during the taxi before takeoff, in elevators, and sometimes even when I'm the person sitting closest to the wall on a crowded bar bench). I've tried everything too: anti-anxiety meds for flying, deep breathing, reminding myself of how illogical I'm being, etc. None of it really works. It always feels like I'm on the edge of just completely freaking out, and my fear is always: what would that look like? I don't want to find out. I like to think that I'm a reasonably well-adjusted person, so it's extremely frustrating and embarrassing to feel like I'm an emotional time-bomb in certain situations. All to say, I feel your pain and also wish that there was an answer. Margaritas, maybe?

    1. Margaritas...yes please. It actually does make me feel a little better knowing that other people too have similar issues because I really feel at the time that no one could possible understand. Thanks for sharing Kathryn :)

    2. --although it might be hard for us to meet up!!


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