A few years ago I was flying home from my dad’s funeral. It was a normal flight all things considered. I was obviously sad he was gone, and for the first time in my life I felt the existential reality of death. I felt like its imminence. I felt like I moved up one space in line for the trip every human being takes to the unknown. The place ancient people called Sheol.
After having a drink I fell asleep in the window seat next to my wife. I don’t often fall asleep on flights, but this time I fell into one of those really sweet
Suddenly I woke up out of my sleep having trouble breathing and feeling extremely disoriented. I don’t even remember how I got past my wife and the person in the aisle seat, but I rushed to the lavatory in the back of the plane, sat down, and splashed water on my face while saying “Jesus help me.”
I felt like I was dying. Since I grew up Pentecostal my instinct was to believe that I was being attacked by a demon – some kind of airplane devil or something.
What I didn’t know then that I know now is that I was experiencing a panic attack. I learned that because on the next flight I took the same thing happened.
After that the second incident, I googled my symptoms and read what panic attacks are and how to cope with them. That was the day I decided not to white knuckle this issue.
Side note, “white-knuckling” might be the only pejorative reference to something “white.”
I didn’t “feel” an overwhelming amount of grief over my dad dying, but I believed that the panic attacks were a signal that something was new in my emotional headspace. I wanted to find out what that was, so I sat down with a counselor and processed what I was feeling about death, life, religion, and my own mortality.
I also explained to the counselor that I had had panic attacks, and they introduced me to “mindfulness exercises.” I assumed that like any other time I was prescribed medicine from a doctor, that would cure me, and I’d like to say that was the end of the panic attacks – but it wasn’t.
I continued to see a therapist to discuss depression, anxiety, and more generally, how I felt about myself. However, every time I got on a plane, I would feel panic trying to come on. In fact, I still feel anxiety about flying – especially alone. I think I had one or two more episodes while flying before one session with a therapist changed everything for me.
There was nothing terribly profound about what the counselor said to me. I can’t remember the exact words, but I remember that they told I needed to accept the new reality of my mental state.
I suffer from anxiety, so when I get on a plane I expect to encounter my old friend panic, and while that’s not a practice that is designed to prevent panic attacks, I haven’t had any since my therapist introduced that idea to me.
Perhaps you’re reading this as a person who quietly suffers through anxiety alone because you believe that it’s something to be ashamed of. Maybe you’re someone whose religious experience precludes you from seeking professional help. To both of those
I don’t mean repent in the tent preacher revivalist sort of way. I mean it in the old Jewish way of changing your thinking. Try to consider that there is no shame in carrying a disease that plagues millions of people around the world, and consider that science is teaching us things about the human brain that the Bible writers had yet to name or discover.
All that to say, if you’re struggling with or even casually encountering depression, anxiety, or panic, seek out professional help from a licensed mental health professional. There is nothing weak or sinful about asking for help.