Crying on an airplane: How to lose friends and alienate people

I see a lot of strange behavior on airplanes. Intoxicated jerks breaking norms of personal space. Overly-perfumed Texas belles screeching about impending Vegas fun-times. Giggly teenagers talking and texting about giggly teenager business. What I do not typically see, however, are presentation-preparing travelers spontaneously bursting into tears at the drop of a tray. Apparently I am that woman.

Last night I found myself taking a two-legged journey home. My original direct flight was two-hours delayed, so I signed up for a longer, but ultimately time-saving route. Last minute switching meant I lost my early A-boarding number and ended up swiping one of the last aisle seats in the back of the plane, a long way from my preferred window seat on row seven.

Midway through the one-hour flight, I was heads-down poring over a textbook, writing lecture notes for next week and waiting for my ginger ale. Without warning, a loud clanging jarred me from my reading. All of a sudden, I had a momentarily-disoriented flight attendant in my face, using me for balance. The attendant laughed off the disruption. She’d tripped over someone’s bag in the aisle which sent her and her thankfully-empty drink tray flying. The experience left me, however, flying into an unexpected flurry of emotion.

There on the aisle seat of row 20, leaning over my tray table, face covered, I burst into tears. Red hot mortifying tears of panic.

You see, for the other 99% of people on board, the loud banging tray and falling flight attendant were blips on the radar. For me, for some reason, the noises took me back to Southwest Flight 812 with its dangling oxygen masks and explosive decompression and big tear in the fuselage. And for the very first time, I shed big ugly tears about the experience.

A couple weeks ago, a documentary filmmaker asked me if being on Southwest 812 still affected me nine months later…if I still thought about it. On a day-to-day, I said no, probably not. I work and go to school and am myself, I don’t dwell. But myself is also someone who flies once a week. And every time, every time I fly, I wonder if it will happen again. I look at the ceiling panels, envisioning one of them flapping down, again. I peer up at the panel above me–the one with the light button, air vent, and flight attendant call sign–and picture the orange masks dangling down, again. I always–even though I could give the presentation by heart–carefully watch the safety demonstration because I may need that information, again.

I am completely aware that this thinking is irrational. The likelihood of me being in another emergency like 812 is so minute. But the feeling of it? The feeling of being in an airplane barreling toward the ground, of trying not to hyperventilate with an orange mask on my face, of not knowing if I get to see my loved ones again–that lives with me. Whether I like it or not.

So last night I cried for a good five minutes feeling my entire body go red and hot. I breathed deeply to relax and slow my heart rate, surreptitiously wiping tears away. Then I pulled myself together and tried to pretend–like the passengers sitting directly near me–that nothing happened.

I hope next time when something surprising does occur, that it’s just that. A surprise. A momentary skip of a heart beat. No big deal.

Until then…

Your favorite public crybaby,

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