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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-05-30 05:44
Subject: [travel] Trying to help, and failing
Security: Public
Tags:personal, travel
Coming back from World Steam Expo, I changed planes in Dallas. I was sitting in the gate lounge at DFW minding my own business when a woman sat down next to me. We exchanged a few polite words, then she had a peevish phone call, which I ignored. She got off the phone, sighed, then gave me a long look before asking if I took this flight very often.

That evolved into a conversation about flying. It became very quickly apparent to me that she was quite worried about the flight. (Hence her peevishness.) So I spent some time talking calmly about the experience, with a few thoughts about what the fear meant and how I might speak to it if this were my fear.

I know full well that fear of flying isn't born out of rational risk assessment. So do most if not all fearful fliers. She didn't need to hear that from me. It would have just been me calling her foolish, which was both untrue and beside the point.

Rather, I gently reminded her that the flight crew and the cabin crew wanted to get there safely at least as much as she did. We talked about keeping the window shade down at take-off so as not to watch the world blur by, and closing one's eyes so the acceleration pressure felt like a giant, brief body massage. I told her what to expect from the DFW-PDX flight.

In turn, she told me that she was traveling to be a caregiver to a close family member in Portland undergoing a major medical procedure. That was the only reason she was setting foot on an airplane for the first time in several decades. Her flight to DFW from a regional airport had been aboard a much smaller plane with a fairly bumpy ride, and it had stirred her fears.

In the end, I went to board the plane as she went to buy a snack for the flight. I didn't think much more about the conversation. As she boarded a few minutes after I had taken my seat, we exchanged smiles.

Then, just before the gate agent closed the door and locked down the flight, this poor woman fled the plane in the grip of an obvious panic attack.

At that point, I suddenly wished I'd been more focused during our conversation and offered to switch seats to sit next to her. I tried to get up to say something to the purser and the gate agent, but I was in a window seat and they were closing up the flight. There simply wasn't time.

She didn't make the flight. Which means she didn't get to Portland, at least not Monday night, to care for her family member. I don't know what did happen to this woman, and I never will, but I really regret not being just a little more thoughtful. Because I'm pretty sure that sinply by giving her someone sympathetic to focus on, I could have kept her on the plane.

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User: mikandra
Date: 2012-05-30 12:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Don't know if it will make you feel any better, but if that woman had been me, and I had been afraid to fly (which I am not, thank goodness, being in Australia with many relatives in Europe), there would have been nothing that anybody could have said that would have made me feel better. Because I am that stubborn, and the feelings are mine, so are my fears. So the the more "friendly" and understanding someone is trying to be, the more angry and recalcitrant I get and the less likely to cooperate. It's probably not an uncommon type of reaction.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-05-30 13:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So the the more "friendly" and understanding someone is trying to be, the more angry and recalcitrant I get and the less likely to cooperate.

Understood, but I will point out that she approached me for reassurance. I don't normally volunteer to help people in airport lounges unless they appear to be in obvious and immediate medical distress, or appear badly lost and confused. :)
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User: radiantlisa
Date: 2012-05-30 13:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I was witness to a similar panic a few years back with someone I was traveling with. She'd maxed out her anti-anxiety meds, and three of us together couldn't talk my poor panicked friend down enough to keep her on the plane. I seriously doubt you could have helped this woman once she got to that level of emotion. But thanks for trying, and for caring enough to regret not being able to help more.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2012-05-30 13:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
What the others said. Panic attacks are irrational, and it is very possible to be in the midst of one while chewing yourself out for being stupid and irrational but STILL in the midst of the panic attack...and the panic wins. Even when Rational Self is still in there fighting for it.
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2012-05-30 13:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm with the chorus. There's no way to talk someone out of a panic attack. People who are that anxious about flying should bring some anxiety meds, though. I have a family member who is terrified to fly. He won't even consider it.
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User: radiantlisa
Date: 2012-05-30 13:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My Xanax is with me always, especially when I'm flying.
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User: chris_gerrib
Date: 2012-05-30 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I wouldn't beat yourself up too much - there's only so much help one can provide.
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User: nicosian
Date: 2012-05-30 14:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You offered help when she asked, and you tried. That's good enough.

I had a friend who was so afraid of flying she had deep anxiety JUST driving BY the airport. She asked me, a veteran of flying, how to cope. I talked with her for weeks at length, and when I turned up at a con, she was "I DID IT!!!" and she said it was my reassurances, and the crew, and she was now looking forward to a trip to Greece, now that she felt she could go anywhere.

You do what you can, when people ask for help. It doesn't always fix the issue, but sometimes, it does.

I can totally understand her fear, though. I've had more than a few flights where I've had the stomach churn-grip the arm rest-possibly start repenting- kiss the ground when you land flights.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2012-05-30 15:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Poor woman.
You were kind: I think you will have helped her in the long run.
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User: irismoonlight
Date: 2012-05-30 16:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Agreed. And had she stayed on the plane, she might have had her panic attack in mid-flight -- which could have been much more traumatizing for everyone involved.
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Rick Moen
User: rinolj
Date: 2012-05-31 01:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's usually the panicky flyers who end up seeking reassurance from me, too. I try to help, having both empathy and experience at the task. It generally either works or goes Horribly Wrong:

Me: I absolutely understand. It's a visceral thing.
Panicker: You're saying you suffer through this, too?
Me: No, I've been lucky, and also grew up in an airline family, but have known many friends who get stressed from flying.
Panicker: You have close relatives in the industry?
Me: Dad, actually. He was a Pan American World Airways captain.
Panicker: And what does he do, these days? Is he retired?
Me: Um... How about that Eurovision contest? Wasn't it great? Pity about Norway.

(Safe as modern jets are, there have been exceptions. Bang. Exuent omnes, Dec. 26, 1968.)

Rick Moen
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