On Tuesday, I was asked to travel to my customer’s Guernsey Office for a meeting with a supplier the next day. Fortunately (or not), the company plane was flying there at 8.15am from East Midlands. Then I could fly back to Southampton at lunchtime, work in our UK office and take the train back to Derby on Thursday.
Logistically everything fell neatly into place. Mentally, I was in danger of falling apart.
The company plane is tiny. It has 8 seats. The inside is no bigger than a mini-bus. You sit facing another person in a very confined space. It is impossible to stand up or move around. The flight takes an hour. Sixty whole, individual minutes. And I have an unpredictable tendency to suffer from claustrophobia, producing significant anxiety (at best) and outright panic (at worst).
I had flown to Barcelona in November on a nice spacious EasyJet plane – and suffered an attack of claustrophobia hemmed in on a window seat. Fortunately, I had been able to move to an aisle seat. * But this is not about flying – or even crashing. I have no problem with that. A month earlier I had a mild panic attack in the back of my son’s car, simply because there were no rear doors.
My issue is being trapped – trapped in a small space and unable to get out.
I was edgy all afternoon. My wife took me to John Lewis, where I was particularly grumpy around haberdashery and not much improved in tableware. That evening I packed, drank an extra glass of wine and tried to sleep.
4.30am is a bad time to wake up. My head was a playground of uncontrollable thoughts, shouting and screaming at each other. “Fly – you will be fine”. “You will crack up – don’t go”. The anxiety about my anxiety was feeding my anxiety. As I closed my eyes, I was inside the plane unable to breathe. I threw off the duvet to get some air. My wife grumbled.
By 5.30am I had just about decided to play my “get out of jail free” card. I would say that I was too sick to fly – which I was – mentally. Instead I would drive calmly to Southampton as I had originally planned.
When the alarm rang at 6.45am I resolved that it was all nonsense. I should go through with it like a Man. I was being irrational. I had done this before. In the cold light of day I would be fine and it would be all over by 9.15am. Besides, you can’t give into these things. It was simply a question of mind over mind. I was worrying about nothing.
As I walked across the tarmac to the plane, I luxuriated in the fresh morning air. It was still dark. I was calm and I felt fine. There were five other passengers – so the plane was not even full. One by one we climbed the steps and squeezed through the small hole into our container. So far, so good.
I chose to sit near the door – being able to see it seemed to be important. Now, the game was to deploy my best tactics to remain calm and in control.
One approach is to face into the fear and rationalise it into submission. “I am safe, I am an adult, I will get out, I will be fine”. Two seconds into this approach I realised this was not an argument that my reason was about to win. I backed away. I was already losing my calm.
I switched to “distraction”. Just as a mother distracts a distressed child with a toy, I would pre-occupy my errant brain-waves with something else. I contemplated starting a conversation. This felt like hard work, and what if it didn’t work? “Excuse me, can we stop talking now, I need to panic?”
Instead, I stuck my ear-phones on and tried to listen to something. What music should I select? “You can check in any time you like – but you can never leave?”. I plumped for some soothing by Eva Cassidy.
I was sweating inside my coat, and was unable to move my feet without playing footsie with the woman opposite. The ceiling was uncomfortably close to the top of my head. I struggled with my seat-belt. Eventually I strapped myself in – trapped myself in.
“Why is this music not distracting me?”
The pilot walked through to the cockpit, bending double of necessity, on account of the confined space. Did I mention the confined space? It’s quite small, you know.
The door was still open. The co-pilot climbed the stairs and turned to close the door. My heart was beating, and not to the music. This was it – the crunch. I felt sick.
“Excuse me, I’m really sorry, but I need to get off”. Within seconds I would be filling my lungs with that delicious liberating cold air, spinning round like some crazed Julie Andrews.
It would have been that easy. I closed my eyes as the co-pilot locked us in. I didn’t want to watch.
The propellers droned – but the plane took an age to move and then taxi to the runway. I opened my book and read the same sentence at least 15 times. Something about a man with a penguin in his house. The distraction tactic was not working. I felt a mix of panic and despair. Time for my trump card.
As a child, consigned to my bedroom, I took much comfort in my little radio. One of my favourite programmes was “Letter from America”. This wonderful audio blog – for that is what it was – transported my thoughts out of my mind and far away from my room into far-away corners of the world – America, the middle-east, Moscow or Reykjavik – and into the fascinating world of international politics. And all delivered by the man of reason himself – Alistair Cooke, in his soothing and even-paced voice, refusing to allow the latest international crisis to disrupt his soothing flow of incisive observations.
And now, confined to this plane, he was on my iPod. I flicked the little button.
“Audio book 1. All songs. Audio Book 2. Audio Book 3”
When I got to Audio Book 6 – where my favourite uncle was waiting to greet me again – there was a horrible silence. I frantically switched off and on and tried again. Surely, surely, I wasn’t going to have to face this without my iPod? Surely it hadn’t just run out of power? My heart sunk, my stomach started cartwheeling and my throat tightened.
I tried reading again. I tried doing some work. By now we had taken off – that event signifying nothing of any importance, as this is not about a fear of flying. And at least now, I could stare across the clouds and see some space, even if I could not access it. I felt like a prisoner staring through the bars of his jail.
I was struggling to contain my anxiety. In this state, every second is a second to be managed, survived, endured. It is as exhausting as it is depressing. I would not look at my watch. The guy next to me was asleep – how I envied him. Another second consumed.
The pastor of our church had sent me a text . “He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them”. I tried to imagine this, but only conjured up a bizarre image of the plane being like a giant sheep. Which wasn’t even amusing at the time.
In quiet desperation I tried my iPod again – hallelujah! Audio book 6 had played through to the end – hence the silence. I rewound. Before long I was at least half-distracted by a series of letters from the maestro concerning Bill Clinton and his misdemeanors with Jennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky. I lost him as he tried to explain the forensic machinations of the Grand Jury, but at least another 10 or 15 minutes must have been conquered. I was a little calmer. We were over the sea – so we must be half-way there.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me” the voice said “have you thought about what would happen if the plane landed in the sea and sunk. You would be trapped in here with these other people and unable to escape. That would be your worst nightmare”.
I was shaking – shaking the champagne bottle of panic. I could feel it rising. My face was hot. The sweat on it was cold. My stomach was full of snakes. I needed to undo my seat belt, shout, make a scene, be sedated. Anything but sit here, in this seat conjuring up nightmares.
When I was trapped in Budapest after the ash-cloud came over, I seriously contemplated staging an accident so that they would fly me home on some emergency medical plane.
Time for my mantra – “you are safe, you are an adult, you will get out, you will be fine”.
Our fears – like our hopes – so often trace back to our childhood. Trapped in my bedroom. Trapped in a small cupboard inside the TV-room in my junior school, hoping against hope that the latch would not fall on the outside. Psychologically trapped or physically trapped – it really made no difference. As a child we are powerless either way.
I was no longer a child. “I am safe, I am an adult, I will get out, I will be fine”.
I just about regained the controls. I was determined, and in the end the portion of determination I had was sufficient. Sark and Herm and then Guernsey waved at me through the small window. We would soon be landing, and that door would open, and I would be free.
As I had climbed out of that cell with wings to my freedom – I had texted my wife. “It was a bit of a struggle” I understated. She messaged back “Well u conquered. well done. u are a fighter”.
I don’t know about that. I felt more like a survivor. There was no sense of relief or joy – just a weary acceptance that it was over. Like a battered boxer who has just about won on points. I had gone several rounds with myself. I felt bruised and tired and depressed at the nonsense and yet necessity of it all.
The echoes of the nightmare stayed with me as I climbed into the mini-bus, sat in a small office, sat in the back of a taxi back to the airport. But in all of those situations there was a door I could open myself, if I had to. At least I had an escape route.
The Blue Island plane back to Southampton later that day was huge, massive and ginormous – at least 50 seats. To my amusement I was one of only 6 passengers. They were all seated at the back and I was on the very front row positioned next to the emergency door. I chuckled at the irony as the steward told me how to open it “in the unlikely event of landing over water”. I almost enjoyed the flight.
It was quite a day. And yet, nothing really happened. I went to a meeting in Guernsey and came back the next day. I was just another passenger.
But oh, what journeys we make in our minds. What flights of fancy we take. What inner battles we fight. What fears and anxieties we wrestle with.
* I always chose the aisle seat when I fly, so that I am not trapped. The flight had been booked for me, and I found myself in a window seat. Right until the last moment, the two seats next to me were empty, but then a couple boarded late and sat in them. My anxiety mounted as I felt trapped in a small space. I tried reading the paper. My stomach churned and I was unable to manage my rising panic. I asked the couple next to me whether they had chosen aisle seats and whether they would be prepared to swap. Yes they had – the guy said he too preferred not to be hemmed in. He was very nice about it, and was kind enough to offer to swap anyway. Fortunately the situation resolved itself as an aisle seat became vacant across the aisle. I had escaped.