I boarded Delta flight 1782 from Minneapolis to Boston, and settled myself into seat 7A (window), grateful that the guy who had a boarding pass for seat 7A was willing to swap the window for the aisle. It was the last (flying) leg of my trip home from White Fish, Montana, where I’d participated in Haven II, a powerful writing retreat with Laura Munson.
“Ladies and gentleman,” the flight attendant announced, “we have closed the cabin door and will be pushing back from the gate momentarily.”
My seat mate and I grinned at each other and high-fived. No one would be sitting in the middle seat! I took a deep breath and smiled to myself…after having to get up at the ass-crack of dawn in Missoula, I was pleased to have this small victory.
The plane trundled out to the runway while the flight attendants made their requisite announcements. I played Peter Gabriel via iTunes through the fancy Bose noise-cancelling headphones my husband had researched and deemed, “the best,” as the plane took off.
Before the pilot had even turned off the fasten-seat-belt light, the guy in the middle seat in the next row up, bolted for the lavatory at the front of the plane.
Activate internal alert system! (Those who know me well know that I have, for years, battled a severe phobia of other people vomiting.)
I continued to read, glance out the window, glance to the front of the plane, and back again. Many minutes went by. Ten, 20, 30 minutes. My breathing became shallow.
When he finally returned to his seat, his face was ashen, and his gray-crew-cut scalp was drenched in sweat.
OMG, I screamed inside.
He sort of fell into his seat and put his head back…then immediately leaned forward, grabbed the white “air sickness” bag from the seat back pocket and heaved.
My worst nightmare had finally come to pass (well, not the worst, but still…).
I quickly wrapped my scarf around my head and face so as not to see – or smell – what was happening in front of me. I cranked Peter Gabriel so as not to hear anything.
The woman who had been sitting in the aisle seat next to the sick guy headed for the back of the plane and the guy sitting in the window seat? Well, he was kinda stuck but didn’t seem to care. In fact, he gently patted the sick guy on the back and…my heart melted just a bit. Could I, would I, ever be that person?
Every once in a while I took a peak out the window, then glance quickly at the broad, sweat-stained back of the sick guy in middle seat in front of me, then quickly hide my face again.
I thought about the women with whom I had just spent several days.
I imagined Brenda, who had brought me to tears while reading from her memoir, sitting next to me, holding my hand.
I imagined Julie slipping into the now vacant aisle seat next to the sick guy, and patting him on the back. Julie knows how to be that person.
I imagined Kristen grinning at me in an effort to distract me, Kristen who radiates peace and comfort.
I imagined Nancy’s warm smile and the silly banter we shared about whether or not she was going to get car sick.
And so it was.
Ultimately, I took myself onto my own lap and let myself be who I am: a 54-year-old woman who has an irrational fear of other people throwing up, but who doesn’t want to hold herself back from situations where that might happen. And more importantly, a woman who is learning to have immense compassion for herself, rather than believing she is pathetic and weak – not to mention selfish, because along with the anxiety is a rather intense anger: how dare someone board a plane with a contagious illness!
I have railed against, resisted, and hated my anxiety and all it did was perpetuate it. It left no room for an alternative.
I have blamed others for it, blamed myself for it, and at one time thought I’d be someone who never flew again, or maybe never even left her house.
Now I know I can feel anxiety for what it is: nothing more and nothing less than physical sensations in my body that I deem uncomfortable.
As the plane landed, I peaked at the guy. He was smiling. My educated guess is that maybe he’d had too much to drink the day before (on Super Bowl Sunday) and was thus dehydrated and motion sick.
And why would that be an educated guess? Because it happened to me, twice. The first time was back in late 80s. I was flying from NYC to Portland, OR, and decided to have a glass of wine with dinner (this was back when they served dinner in coach class). One glass of wine had me in a cold sweat, racing for the airplane lavatory where I passed out, came to, and then had a rather severe digestive reaction.
The second time was in 1998. My husband and I were flying to Italy for our Honeymoon via the redeye. We decided to celebrate by having a glass of wine. Once again, cold sweat, passing out, and severe digestive upset. That was the last time I had an alcoholic beverage on a flight.
Anyway, getting back to the guy. After we landed, I saw the him at the baggage claim. He appeared to feel much better and I was glad. I almost went over to tell him about how the same thing had happened to me, and about my crazy vomit phobia, and how sitting behind him was both terrifying and enlightening, and that I was glad he felt better.
But I didn’t.
I honestly hope there’s not a next time, but if there is, I know I’ll be okay. I might even be that person.