Jami Attenberg | Longreads | June 2017 | 9 minutes (2,138 words)
There was a definitive start date to my flight anxiety. I know this because I was on an early morning flight back from a Midwestern city. I had been in town for an appearance. There was average attendance at the event; I had collected my check. Later, I had one of the hosts drop me off not at my hotel but an old lover’s house in the city. I’m sure she thought I was being sketchy. I wasn’t explaining the whole story. An old friend, I said. We were having dinner. But I took my luggage with me. She kept offering to buy me dinner, this nudgy, but kind woman. I didn’t feel like explaining anything. She was a stranger. It was my personal life.
These are not extraordinary circumstances, necessarily, although they are specific ones. You may not have to stand in front of an audience talking about a book you wrote, but you might have had to make a sales presentation to a regional office. You may not have a prying local escort, but you might have, say, a mother, or a friend, who doesn’t know when to drop it. And at some point in your life I bet you’ve made choices that other people might find questionable, even if you didn’t question them one bit.
The next morning I boarded this tiny plane, two seats on either side of the aisle, except for the very last seat, which was a single. That was where I was miserably stuck, directly across from the bathroom. I’d had about two hours of rest the night before and was hungover on arrival. I fell asleep almost immediately on the plane, a hazy, buzzed sleep. I woke as the beverage cart rolled over my foot, with a gasp and a start and a solid pounding in my chest. It was an almost instantaneous anxiety attack.
The beverage cart had me locked into my seat. I asked the flight attendant to move the cart and she wouldn’t. Please, I begged her. Let me up. She just calmly finished serving drinks to the row in front of me. When she finally moved I stood, but I quickly realized there was nowhere to go. It was just me on that plane and my deadly beating heart. I knew I couldn’t sit in that seat anymore. I asked a man sitting nearby if I could join him. I made him move over. I caused a scene. I hate causing scenes. It was the worst flight of my life. At least up until that moment — for there were worse flights to come.
For I could not stop flying. I had worked too hard on my writing career and was still too broke to suddenly give up things like paid speaking engagements. There is a limited amount of money we can make selling the physical objects we create. We have to travel to promote those objects and if we are lucky, we get to speak in front of large enough audiences where they will either buy a large quantity of your books, you will receive coverage in local press which will help sell your book, or someone will cut you a check for your time. Heretofore I’d had none of those opportunities, but with the publication of my fourth book, I had a few. I was not in the position to walk away from them.
And thus began my relationship with anti-anxiety medications. Not usually prescribed, but borrowed (never to be repaid) from friends with excess supplies. Other writers were more than happy to donate to my cause. I will never forget one literary festival where a charming novelist lovingly shared a wide array of sleep aids and anxiety meds with me, six kinds, all different sizes and colors. Everyone’s holding at a literary festival. It used to be weed, now it’s anxiety meds. A whole new world opened up to me.
I wasn’t addicted to the Xanax, but I was deeply absorbed by the anxiety, and how to deal with it on a regular basis. And I had let it shape my life. And what was I so anxious about anyway? Could I even remember?
For my fifth book, I finally got a prescription from a new doctor. I explained to her I was going on tour, and that I was afraid of flying. I had twenty flights, and wanted one pill for each. She gave me ten. A friend gave me five more. And then I left on tour.
On shorter flights I chipped at quarter pills. I began to hate Xanax, and hate my dependency on it, even though when I look back at it, I wasn’t even taking that much. It was the times when I had flights day after day after day in a row that were toughest. Even if I was taking only half a pill, at those times, I had to take it every day. I wasn’t addicted to the Xanax, but I was deeply absorbed by the anxiety, and how to deal with it on a regular basis. And I had let it shape my life. And what was I so anxious about anyway? Could I even remember?
I was anxious about being seen, for starters. About having to put myself out there in front of an audience. About my work being reviewed in a more critical fashion. I had a vulnerability about my public/private persona, and about having to engage an audience in a specific way, not just as a person who had written a book, but as a personality, as an Author with a capital A. I always described having success as an author as like getting a promotion, only they didn’t hire anyone to replace me at my old job. I had to be a good writer and I had to be a good salesperson. No one told me this specifically, I imposed this on myself, but I did not want to take a step back, because back meant couch-surfing and disappointing my editors and my publishers and even my family. I had to sustain this momentum.
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Again, these are not extraordinary circumstances, just specific ones. A promotion at work, the myriad pressures that come with that to prove your bosses were right in believing in you. An increase in income after a long financial struggle — who ever enjoys that fully? Don’t we all live with a little fear that it will be taken away from us again? I remember a conversation with another writer with a comparable amount of success where we talked about our Plan Bs. His was to be a UPS man. He’s a big enough guy, and he knew he could reliably lift heavy objects. There was not a day he didn’t worry all his success would go away.
That last tour, I began to collapse near the end of it. I was on the road for five weeks straight. Again, I had imposed it on myself. I’d had a lackluster publicist during the initial launch, so I set up a fall tour for myself with speaking engagements and literary festivals and college campuses. I was just going to go out there and do the work and make this book happen all on my own, because I believed in what I had written. The Xanax rattled in the pill bottle.
In Texas I missed one leg of a flight because I decided to drive with a friend from Houston to Dallas so I could have one day free from the claustrophobic confines of a plane. This set off a chain of events because all my other flights were linked together by the same travel agent. They booted me from the next leg in Austin, and I couldn’t catch a flight to Portland until later that night. A stranger mercifully gave me her pass to an airline lounge, where I spent seven hours watching the first season of Master of None and snacking on limp pasta and sweaty cheese. I arrived at the hotel around midnight.
The next day I waded through rain and massive crowds at a literary festival. At my event I was introduced as being from Brooklyn, prompting someone to boo me, and it threw me off. I had traveled so far (for what, to me, felt like weeks, even though technically it was just the one day) to get there only to be booed because of where I lived. (I would just like to say now, publically, screw you Portland guy.)
That night I gave a public reading in a packed bar so noisy I couldn’t hear my voice as I read. I had no idea if my words were being heard at all. I felt entirely disconnected from whatever it was that I was doing with my life. Someone I hadn’t seen in ten years, from many cities ago in my life, came to the reading with his wife and I was so happy to see them, but again felt detached from the moment. I had no idea how I was supposed to be anymore. In fact, I don’t remember much from that night. It was as if my brain had sizzled.
I flew back to Brooklyn the next day, but had only a few days at home, and then was off to Atlanta. The flight out, predictably, was delayed, and so I spent another four hours in an airport. A driver took me straight to the hotel upon my arrival. I did not even stop for some fresh air. I ate in the hotel restaurant and crashed. The next morning, another car took me to the event. A breath of air before I got in the car, and then a few breaths as I got out at my destination. I did my event. I sold a whole five books. I cursed my life. I got in a car and went to the airport, two hours before my flight. And there I sat.
An hour before boarding I took my half a Xanax. Then the flight was delayed for an hour. I nodded off. I woke up as they closed the doors to the plane.
An hour before boarding I took my half a Xanax. Then the flight was delayed for an hour. I nodded off. I woke up as they closed the doors to the plane. In a panic, I ran and banged on the doors, but the flight attendants told me it was too late. I begged them. I just wanted to go home. They told me they could get me on a later flight. I went to a quiet corner of the airport and I sobbed. This was it; this was the end. I could not take it anymore. I couldn’t do this anymore, whatever this was. Be afraid to be on a plane? Take these drugs? Travel non-stop? Be this person? Whoever this person was?
I didn’t fly again for six months after that. The next time I did, it was to Australia for a festival. A 24-hour flight. On the way out I took a Xanax but it didn’t even seem to matter because time moved differently on this plane ride. I was truly just alone with myself. On the way back I took absolutely nothing. And I am here to tell you, if you can survive a 24-hour flight on nothing but yourself, you can survive any plane ride.
I took most of the rest of the next year off from touring. I blew off promoting my paperback launch; no one seemed to care or notice, really. I moved to a new city. I finished a new book. I was quiet and calm. I flew a few more times after my Australian trip, sans medication, and I was fine. The vacation I took from that version of myself was the most valuable time off. Just as I had been the one to impose all the hard work on myself, I was also the only one who could impose the time sitting still.
This spring I did two months on the road again to promote my sixth book. I took no pills to fly on the planes. A few weeks into the tour I was on a flight where the plane started to shake a bit — nothing too dramatic but it was enough that I briefly imagined a dire ending for myself. And I thought, “If I die, it will be OK. I’ve done a lot with my life. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever believed that before, but I believe it now. Perhaps I was so busy working and questioning myself and judging and assessing my own moves through my own eyes and the imagined eyes of others that I was unable to reflect on what I had accomplished in my life. And I was only able to finally do that because I stood still for a moment. And this is maybe the only extraordinary part, this self-reflection, this healing, this forgiveness, this willingness to move forward in my life. But it shouldn’t be. We should all be allowed to feel safe in our lives and love ourselves. We should let ourselves feel free to fly.
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Jami Attenberg is the author of six books of fiction including The Middlesteins, and most recently, All Grown Up.
Editor: Sari Botton