A study done on claustrophobia reports that 10-20 percent of people who fly in the United States suffer from the fear of closed spaces. I am one of these people who becomes physically ill at the thought of being closed in. I can see a picture of someone in a small space and feel the quiver in my heart. The fear of flying is not safety related. I’m not bothered by stomach-displacing turbulence or strange noises erupting from the bowels of the jetliners, but I feel like saran-wrap is stuck to my face when I'm in small places and especially when I step over the thresh hold into an airplane.
It’s a powerful feeling of suffocation that grips me like a vice and squeezes tighter and tighter until I am paralyzed with a panic that feels like I’m trapped in a body that can’t breathe or move. And, that can be triggered by the tiniest thought of entering the doorway of any airplane and making my way to the isle seat nearest to the door!
My sister, Sandy, also suffers with this and we know it’s somehow related to our early traumatic childhood, but that does not lesson the physical discomfort and paralyzing life-changing fear that turns us into wild-eyed, babbling idiots with tears running down our pale face and white lips while we clutch our cold hands into tight fists and gasp for breath, seeking desperately to escape the oppressive prison that surrounds us and robs us of life-giving air! (And if you are out of breath after reading this sentence out loud in one breath, that’s just a fraction of how we feel in small places.)
But, I have determined not to let this disabling condition dictate my method of travel in this world. If I want to get someplace that requires more than five hours of drive time, I book that $59 flight and get there in time for supper!
So began one of the longest airplane trips of my life this last week when it was time to visit oldest son, Billy in Portland, Oregon from Columbus, Ohio! Perhaps I’ve flown to that city before, but due to the acute discomfort that comes with flying, it’s like my birthing experience with Billy, I don’t remember the details!
Months before (if possible), I book online and pick out my seat on the isle as close to the front as I can get. For some unknown reason, my sister needs a window seat so she can glue her face to the window the entire trip. Exit seats are the best, but they don’t let you select them online.
You may ask for one at the counter if you promise to lift heavy objects and throw them to the back of the plane during an emergency.
Because even thinking about being claustrophobic brings on the insidious terror, I must have all my ducks in a row before I get to the terminal.
I have read the first and last page of a book that is good enough to grab my attention and long enough to last until I get there. (It won’t be a religious book, so don’t look!)
Extra bags are checked outside the terminal so I don’t have to stand in more long lines than I have to and think about what’s ahead. The boarding pass has been printed out at home the night before.
During the mile-long security line that moves slower than a sick snail, and because they won’t allow us to joke anymore, and because they make us discard all of our comfort foods, I pretend I’m a spy and take careful notice of every detail around me. I memorize shoe colors, hair colors, idiosyncrasies, body odors, jewelry and sticker messages stuck on luggage. I check out old men’s hearing aides and young people’s piercings in odd places. I notice expressions, body language, cell phones, I-Pods and try to guess what’s in the packages that must go through the x-ray machine ahead. I make everything a game so I can forget where I’m headed.
When it’s time to board the plane, I’m last in line (even if they’ve called my “zone”) so I can let everybody get ahead of me. Or, I slow down and irritate the people behind me for the same reason (so there can be a lot of space ahead of me). I don’t want to be clogged up at the doorway when I’m going to be making some important decisions. And, I’m not taking a chance that I’ll kick the person ahead of me who takes five minutes trying to squeeze an oversized suitcase into an undersized spot while people pile up against each other in the minuscule sized isle!
Even so, as I enter the airline doorway, there’s this urge to turn around and run away. The number one objective is to clear my head of the question, “Am I staying here or not?” I don’t let any of the catalytic questions flitter completely through my head although the questions are banging at the forehead. “Am I going to stay here or not?” “How am I going to get out?” “Will my seatmate be really big and take up my space too?” “Is this plane going to close the doors and then sit on the tarmac with me encased inside”?
"I’m staying! I'm staying. I'm staying!", I say to myself with each step into the cavernous tank.
If the airline hostess (there’s that word “air” again) smiles and catches my eye as I step past her and turn right into the airless cigarette-sized coffin, I will explain that I have claustrophobia and would appreciate it if they don’t stop with the service cart beside me. Sometimes he/she will nod and smile in agreement, but most times don’t count on any empathy or sympathy from the hostess.
I sit without looking at the door, but I don’t buckle my seatbelt. I hide it under my blouse because they walk by and ‘look’. I turn on both air vents above my head and glare at my seatmate if he/she starts to reach up to turn it off. I open my book and start reading, not looking up for an instant. Right about then those air vents are going to stop hissing cool air and the swaddling blanket will start to tighten! If the suffocation gets too great, I close my eyes (first) and put my head back against the seat toward the air vents and envision a category-5 hurricane tearing recklessly through the aircraft, or I add creativity to a vast colorful ocean sunset.
Pink whales, orange iridescent starfish and gigantic cones of chocolate ice-cream fill the sunset scene. If that fails, I go the more subjective scene. A tall, handsome man in a really small bathing suit with a monkey on his shoulders and a parrot on the monkey’s head and a banana on the parrot's head and a fly on the banana and a flyswatter coming down on all of them…
“Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen. The doors have been closed and the captain has put on the seatbelt sign. We are number 14 in line so sit back and enjoy the flight.”
Create a picture for THAT one!
Next, there's always the little problem of having to pee during the 5-hour flight. They don't provide little pee jars, but the tiny cubicle provided is about the size of one! Just to prove I could, I actually fitted myself into the shell casing called the 'restroom', and didn't panic until the door stuck and I had to stop and read the little letters on the the door that said, "push here". By then I had the door pushed almost into the first class section of the plane.
Now I’m trying not to think about arriving at our destination when everyone will stand up and clog the isle and slurp my last bit of oxygen as they crush against the tide of people anxious to be the first off the plane.
So far, what works best is for me when that crush starts is to stand up in the isle and be a bit pushy myself. I put my arms out against the seats in front and stand with my feet apart leaning over so my butt keeps people away at the back, and my body keeps others from leaving their seats beside me. Look out the window and watch that airport employee driving that little go cart real fast, and notice how they all interact like little bugs on the ground. Hope the attendant knows how to open the door and be glad that people do move fast to get off the plane!
I thank the pilot for a 'nice flight', and step back into the sweet freedom of breathing again and suck in the bright sunshine of life. I'm finally free of the phobia grip, and can spit it's sickly bile into the wind.
Welcome back to earth!
Take Care on the Journey,