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After a panic attack on a plane, I thought I’d never fly again

Katy Lemay/The Globe and Mail

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Over a year ago, on a flight from the East Coast to my home in Ontario, I was suddenly engulfed in a full-blown panic attack.

A panic attack is like an earthquake: It comes on suddenly and shakes you to the core. I thought I would never set foot on an airplane again.

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In the grip of fear I turned to my husband, who tried his best to be reassuring with the remark: "At least we're not over the ocean." (What can I say? The man has a gift.)

I caught the attention of a nearby flight attendant trundling a drinks cart down the aisle. My pathological level of self-control miraculously still intact, I inquired whether she had experience dealing with panic attacks.

"Are you having one?" she asked benignly, looking unconvinced.

She relegated my husband to the background, sat beside me and proceeded to extract my catalogue of symptoms. By then I was alternately hot and cold, shaking uncontrollably and hyperventilating. I had an overwhelming sense of impending doom and an irresistible urge to escape.

She encouraged me to drink the glass of wine sitting on my tray but I couldn't hold it steady. She distracted me until I felt a measure of relief.

Yet to come was a stopover during which we were not permitted to get off the plane. My husband and I had been relocated to the front of the aircraft, where it was thought I would feel less claustrophobic. Just before takeoff, I saw the flight attendant's arm reach up, ready to shut the door.

I flew from my seat and was out on the landing in seconds, the co-pilot and two flight attendants in hot pursuit. I can only imagine the concern of my fellow passengers, not only about the inconvenience of a delay, but over the possibility of terrorism. Through great force of will, I eventually got back on the plane and made it home, huffing into a paper bag.

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My panic attack was a gift in disguise, a catalyst that intensified my journey of self-discovery.

I consulted the oracle Google, and undertook a study of this debilitating condition. I delved into self-help books looking for answers to my life-long struggle with anxiety, and its handmaiden depression, which I'd thought I had under control.

Anxiety comes to us through both nature and nurture, I learned. Anxiety-ridden people are a porous lot, readily attuned to the needs of others at the expense of their own.

At 65, I have experienced the usual losses: an empty nest, the death of parents and the end of workplace rewards after retirement. I have also endured the searing loss of a sister through cancer, an event that brought home to me the certainty of death.

I've adjusted my internal clock to the reality that I am no longer as young as I feel. I'm part of the generation that's next in line for the final reckoning.

In my impoverished childhood, my shyness, sensitivity and high-strung nature were like a target on my back. Hypervigilance was required to avoid the merciless mockery and bullying of peers and adults alike. I sometimes got in trouble for getting home late from school, ashamed to admit how long it had taken me to dodge the bullies.

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My fight-or-flight impulses (mostly flight) were well honed. The disciplinary tactics of my 1950s culture made effective use of guilt and humiliation in conjunction with corporal punishment. It took a lot to get me to cry, as I knew well the threat: "I'll give you something to cry for!"

No wonder I dug a trench of fear to hide out in, and resorted to appeasement as a survival strategy. Once, a girl in my Grade 8 class blatantly took possession of my good fountain pen after it fell on the floor. She glared at me as she picked it up, lifted her desk lid and dropped it inside. I told her it was okay, she could have it.

There's no virtue in this martyrdom. It's a weak and cowardly stance that I shrink from confessing. It leads to harboured resentments and self-righteous grievances. At a tipping point, I've sometimes exploded in anger, undermining bonds of intimacy and friendship.

Sustained fear and suppressed needs take a cumulative toll, and sometimes panic attacks are the result.

The cure contains a paradox: You have to surrender to the fear to get control. I have learned that my fears gain strength when I resist them and dissipate when I let them be and trust in my ability to cope. Calming methods help to counter stress, but self-acceptance is for me the overriding talisman.

I give myself permission to expect support, acceptance, understanding and forgiveness from myself and others. These are things we all deserve.

I had much trepidation before my next flight back east, but I was determined to face my fear. When I heard the landing gear go down, I jubilantly threw my arms in the air, Rocky-style. But within seconds I felt the nose go up again and heard the pilot announce that because of fog we were being diverted to another airport. Twenty-four hours later, we arrived at our destination.

I had been well and truly tested, and I'd passed, dare I say, with flying colours.

Joan Hotson lives in St. Catharines, Ont.

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