Since I mentioned anxiety yesterday, I thought I would write about my experience with it. I’ve always found some benefit in reading other people’s perspectives.
When I was still very young, and at boarding school in Cambodia, I prided myself on being strong-minded. I was aware that I had experienced a number of things most young western children perhaps did not, and I thought it had broadened and strengthened my mind.
Pride, of course, was the operative word. Don’t they say that it goes before a fall?
Being at school in England was not particularly enjoyable, but in itself it caused me no harm.
Then I arrived in America.
One thing that was immediately obvious to me when I moved in with my aunt and uncle was that my aunt was a nervous wreck.
She told me stories about being a WAAF in WW2. She was in charge of a communications panel…you’ve seen pictures probably, all those wires with plugs that had to be transferred around in order to connect two calls.
It must have been horribly stressful at times when the world was at war and what you did was going to contribute in some way. At the same time bombs were apt to fall on your head and on any given day some young lad that you knew might go out on a call and not come back.
No wonder her nerves were shaky. My parents had lived through the war too and my mother always seemed to take everything in stride but she had not been in the Air Force.
I suspect my aunt was also a lot more prone to anxiety, and meeting her mother-in-law would not have been a great help.
By the time I met her, my aunt had been living with her difficult husband and his mother for a long time.
This was when I became acquainted with tranquilizers.
My aunt had a prescription for Librium at that time.
And my uncle couldn’t wait to feed me some.
It never occurred to me that I would be given something that could potentially harm me. I don’t even know why it was pressed upon me. I certainly don’t recall feeling nervous right then.
It didn’t become a daily thing, fortunately, just an introduction.
While I wasn’t consciously anxious, living in this strange set-up, I certainly developed some nervous habits.
Anytime I was alone in a room with my uncle, I began chewing the insides of my cheeks and this became a habit. I had to remind myself not to do it in public as it wasn’t awfully attractive.
Whether or not I was inclined to be obsessive-compulsive before this, I can’t really say but I developed a bunch of ridiculous habits, little things I had to do in order to keep my world revolving.
Like not stepping on the join between 2 pavement blocks. I wouldn’t become panic-stricken if I put my foot down on one, but it would set me up for a bad day, expecting something to go wrong.
It was ridiculous and I knew it, but thinking about it only made me find other things to be compulsive about. I would decide, for example, that if I lined my desk items up in a particular way, that I was “making a deal with destiny” for nothing to go wrong that day. Crazy.
Then I would tell myself things like: “If I see another school bus before I get home, everything will be alright.” Knowing full well that it couldn’t possibly make the slightest difference. Even more crazy.
But these were my techniques for dealing with anxiety throughout my college years.
By the time I graduated, that strong-minded 16-year old was maybe not feeling as confident. My self-esteem, for one thing, had been totally destroyed by the year of High School.
Still, when I needed to find employment in a hurry, I got myself together and went off under my own steam to find myself a job.
The idea of working at an airport had always appealed to me as I had found such places to be exciting, full of interesting people going to wonderful exotic destinations.
Would I like dealing with the travelling public? I didn’t expect that it would be a problem. My first job had been as a supermarket checkout clerk. One thing I had learned, one way or another, was how to address people who were customers. Maybe “please” and “thank you” were part of any English child’s vocabulary then. (“Sorry” certainly was. I seemed ready to apologise for absolutely everything…I think that is a whole subject on its own.) At any rate, I had manners.
Off I went to JFK, for the first time experiencing being on the other side of the check-in counter. My parents had never made a big fuss when we travelled, except when their baggage was overweight and my dad didn’t have enough of the right kind of currency to pay the charge!
The first days were not so bad. We had a seat chart on display so passengers were asked to choose their own seat and what-do-you-know…when only middle seats were left, they took them without comment.
It was only when the seat chart was concealed, computerized, that passengers started to distrust us.
My first “irate” wasn’t even a passenger, just someone waiting for one and he was angry at me over a delay that was caused by the air traffic controllers strike.
Consequently, he didn’t bother me a bit, because I was not the source of his anger. It wasn’t something I, personally, had done.
People who raged at us because of weather delays, as far as I was concerned were too stupid to worry about.
Then, not too many days in to my employ, I discovered that over-sales were not “mistakes” or “reservations glitches” as we were told to say. Lies. They wanted us to tell lies. It didn’t sit well, but I could hardly say the airline did it deliberately. In those days such a thing was still a dark secret.
That is when I began to feel anxious. “What will I say if I get a passenger we don’t have a seat for?” I think I thought I would be stabbed through the heart and lie dying on the floor. That is how anxious I became when flights were oversold. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?
Why did I not just flee? Lots of reasons. And I probably thought days like that would be only occasional dramas to get through. What a fool.
Perhaps, if there had not been all the other stuff at home. If I had had a refuge from the insanity of the airport. But when I got home from work my uncle was waiting.
First he would check the clock in case he needed to interrogate me for being late. If it had been a bad day, though, somehow he always knew and he would start berating me about the ills of the airline industry and British Airways in particular. Everything we did was wrong.
It was a few years before I consulted a doctor about the state of my nerves and was prescribed whatever the popular drug was then. Librium, Valium, Xanax….I don’t remember where I started. I don’t recall the doctor being at all concerned about giving me the drug and he certainly did not explain its possible addictive nature.
At the same time, the headaches I had always suffered from had become a problem, and for these I was prescribed Fiorinal. Well. Now I had my magic potion. A friend who was a chemist told me I would kill myself with this combination of drugs. All I knew was that it made the difference to me of getting through a day or running away.
In 1977 at least I finally got my independence and began living alone.
As things progressed through the 1980’s I became a supervisor which made life both easier and harder. In total I had fewer passengers to deal with but on the other hand, the ones that came to me were generally irate over something. And often they had intractable problems that I could find no satisfactory solution to. So now failure was totally my fault.
British Airways had gone from being state-owned to being owned by share holders. Now we were expected to make a profit. Now we were expected to become multi-qualified. The airline could no longer afford to have staff dedicated to particular tasks. We morphed into an airline where everyone knew a little about a lot and not a lot about anything.
We had our old timers who were experts in particular fields, like ticketing or baggage tracing or operations but even they were expected to “rotate” so that no one had any confidence anymore in what they were doing, least of all me, and I internalized it. I became terribly conscious of my deficiencies. To be seen as such by a passenger made me feel sick to my stomach.
That is when the panic attacks became an issue and the worst part of it was that my colleagues didn’t believe me. “Why does this sound familiar,” I thought. “Nobody ever believes me.”
Then for a few years I got a reprieve. I have no idea who decided to use me for administrative functions nor why, but suddenly I was detached from the passenger service team. I was given the job of sorting out staff vacation rosters and the paperwork that was involved. From there it progressed to doing the daily rosters and sorting out weekly attendance. With an ever-increasing workforce it was a challenge my colleagues did not begin to appreciate.
It was a job I enjoyed because I was able to work out many staffing problems, helping people to get time off when they needed it. I often stuck my neck out thinking it was to the airline’s benefit to have staff that were happy. I worked really hard. Unfortunately many of my colleagues weren’t happy with the fact that I was doing the job. No-one else wanted it. They just didn’t want me having it.
So eventually the Union forced the issue and one day without forewarning my desk was packed up and I was sent back to passenger service although I was still expected to fulfill the administrative role. It was a fiasco.
Finally, and very reluctantly, I consulted my therapist who requested a six-month reprieve for me from the areas in which I felt crippled by panic. When my colleagues learned this I was scorned as being a shirker, something I have never been in my life. I was almost as panic-stricken by their reaction as by the job itself but I decided, frankly, that they could go to hell.
I continued to do my job, assisted by my magic potion that did strange stuff to my mind. It made me feel at times invincible but then of course I would come down from that to being depressed and feeling incompetent and useless.
During these years I met a man who became a very dear friend. I think if it had not been for him I would have had a nervous breakdown at some stage. As well as my problems at work, I had to deal with aging parents and the aging aunt and uncle. My friend was the only person who gave me love and support. It wasn’t ever going to be a long-time relationship, but it was what I needed and apparently he needed it too. Better to love and lose. Something like that.
With my aunt and uncle gone in 1999, I no longer had any ties to the east coast. Taking the job in Seattle came out of left field. I had never considered leaving New York but suddenly getting out of JFK seemed like the best option for me.
The most interesting part of my transfer to what we used to refer to as “an out-station” was the fact that the panic-attacks did not transfer with me. It wasn’t because there were no stressful situations at SEATAC. One of the worst days I ever experienced in my 38 years with British Airways was in Seattle. But while I was certainly subject to plenty of stress, I no longer had moments when I felt paralyzed by panic. I also left half of my “magic potion” behind. The year I moved to Seattle I stopped taking Fioricet (as it had transitioned to). Surprisingly, I do not recall suffering from withdrawal.