Reasons Unknown and Known

Panic attacks are hell! One struck yesterday as we were buckling up on our return flight from Orlando to Minneapolis. Suddenly I was shrinking, swirling as the world around receded into a solid cage. My body was being sucked out of my skin. Breathing stopped and became intentional, or not at all. I needed out! Where didn’t matter. It would not be a pretty sight if the ground agent closed the plane’s exit.

Why yesterday? What set it off? When might it happen again? I love flying. In fact, the year Mother Teresa died I had the good fortune of meeting her in Calcutta. I also visited Kathmandu and Bhactapur and I recall many of the sites devastated by the earthquake in Nepal this week. This trip enabled me literally to fly around the world! I even boast of having sky-dived from 15,000 feet! Planes don’t frighten me.

One of the most anxiety producing aspects of panic attacks is their unpredictability. Who knows why, when or where! All I know for sure is that I have experienced such terror six or seven times over the past fifteen years. So generic Klonopin goes with me whenever I travel — just in case. Thankfully, I rarely need its tranquilizing help.  The last time was more than a year ago when I was overwhelmed in the middle of the night at home in bed.

Yesterday’s anxiety was compounded by the fact that my just-in-case medication was safely tucked away in the baggage compartment. Never do I check luggage; yesterday I did. Why I checked it is a long story and irrelevant. My point here is to report why and how I made it through the ordeal, sans medication. The frightening experience suggests a few lessons we might all take to heart.

First, the lead flight attendant took charge with calm confidence and reassuring competence. I experienced first hand that these crew members may busy themselves with “pleasantries” but their main purpose for being onboard is much more important and requires special professional skill. Thank you, Rhonda, for helping me feel safe in your care.

Second, I’m reminded not to so easily take others for granted. Fellow passengers were patient and understanding. One man actually volunteered his seat — with infinite leg room — at the exit across from where two flight attendants sit during takeoff and landing. I was shown unmerited kindness and cut a great deal of slack by complete strangers. Its reassuring to find that, just below the surface and when we need it most, we survive within a community of care.

Finally, I share this story from yesterday and my history with anxiety in solidarity with so many others who struggle with mental health issues. There is entirely too much silence, stigma and shame associated with mental illness. This needs to end.

It will end when more of us experience the kind of caring support and understanding within community that I was given on a Delta flight from Orlando to Minneapolis yesterday.

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