toppling out of the sky.

I had my annual performance review.

“You’re great.  We wouldn’t be able to do this without you.  You’ve been such a big help to me in learning my job.  Customers love you.  You’re great with the vendors.”

Blah, blah, blah.  No raise.

None.

I don’t remember the reason why there was no raise, but I was livid.  I was involved with this division from the beginning; I helped build the product line from zero to more than 3,000 different items (including all the different packaging configurations) and $22 million in sales in just 18 months.  By the time I had this review, my division was responsible for 20% of the company’s revenue.  I worked my ass off, putting up with an ungodly amount of shit from people, and my entire personality changed because of this job.

Then, after I practically begged for help, they hired me a new boss, and left me with all the shit work to do.

I was out of my skull.

And once again, to make me feel better about my utter lack of a raise, they sent me off on a business trip.  This time it was Florida – Orlando, to be specific.

But this time, I didn’t want to go.  I had a brand-new baby, just a few weeks old.  Sandy wasn’t completely ambulatory yet; she was able to get around, but would run out of steam pretty quickly.  And, to be gone for a week or so meant she had to wake up every night to feed a baby, plus do all the cooking and cleaning.  And to make matters worse, when you have a baby that’s not sleeping at night, you’re a zombie all day.

But I went to Newark and did my routine, put my car in long-term parking, checked in, and got on the plane.

Then, the weirdest thing happened.

I was in the air for all of 45 minutes, when all of a sudden a thought struck me: what if this plane crashes?

I guess everyone who gets on a plane has that thought cross their mind.  But this time, the thought was strong, and I started looking out the window, wondering how much time we had left on the flight.  The thought got stronger and stronger – every bump started freaking me out, every weird noise was a potential catastrophe.

Why was I freaking out like this?

Within about a half hour I was bathed in sweat, and completely unable to think about anything but a plane crash.  I had the Walkman on, with The Grifters’ Crapping You Negative blasting at full volume into my brain, but I just couldn’t shake it.  I began to get vertigo, to the point where every time the plane shimmied from side to side I felt like I was going to fall out of my seat.  I couldn’t look out the window, because I realized I was 30,000 feet in the sky, with nothing between the floor and the ground but an impossible amount of air, through which I would fall and land on my ass.  Hard.

When I landed, I couldn’t wait to get off that fucking plane.  Usually, I was pretty patient on planes – I wouldn’t even get up from my seat until the plane was empty, so I didn’t have to herd down the aisle like a cow.  This time, I had my overhead bag in my hands before the doors opened, and I was off the plane before most people even stood up.

The flight home was even worse.  I spent my entire time in Florida wondering what the fuck was that?  Am I going to freak out like that on the way home? And, of course, because I had built up so much anticipation about it, I did.  I was a nervous wreck by the time I got to the airport, I was squeamish the entire time I was waiting for the flight.

I asked my boss “Do you ever worry about a plane crash?”

She said “Nah – it’s not my time.  I have too much unfinished business.”

Unfinished business, I thought. Do I have any unfinished business?

I stopped at the airport gift shop and bought a coffee mug that said “Florida” on it, and a tiny bib.  There, I thought.  I need to bring these home.  Unfinished business.

But I still had panic attacks on the plane the entire way home.  During the ascent I was gripping the sides of my seat as if I was worried I’d get thrown right off the plane into the air.  Every time the plane’s nose tipped, or the wings banked, I envisioned the plane flipping, toppling out of the sky.

Once we got to cruising altitude I relaxed a bit, but when we began the descent I squeezed my eyes shut and grabbed the seats for dear life.

Holy shit, I thought when we landed.  That was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

I imagine how unhinged I must have looked to the people around me.  I can’t ever let that happen again – I can’t let the people around me know how frickin’ scared I am.

I had at least 100,000 frequent flyer miles at that point.  When I got home, I counted my plane ticket stubs and had flown more than 20 different business trips since my first one in San Diego in January of 1993.  I was flying somewhere at least once a month at that point.  And I had never had a panic attack.

I never flew again without having one.  And to this day, I still don’t know what made them start.

~ by Al on September 19, 2009.

One Response to “toppling out of the sky.”

  1. Nice job, planning the unfinished business.

    It’s weird how quickly you seemed to get the plane-fear, but I can understand. The knee-jerk reaction might be the fact that you were a new father, but I’d guess there’s more to it than that.

    No matter what anyone tells you/me about plane statistics, their beliefs in why this plane won’t crash (“not my time”), how normal turbulence is – all that stuff can be countered by this fact: planes do crash – and pretty often these days.

    No one can ever take that away from you.

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