When Anxiety First Hit me in the Face

I remember the exact moment it started. I was in a Portuguese airport, excited to get home. I left the airport building and was walking across the tarmac towards the aeroplane. I was following a stream of people all strolling leisurely, unwilling to let the holiday end too soon. I felt carefree. I felt in control. As my eyes fell on the tubular body of the plane a thought suddenly struck me:

“What if planes don’t work?”

That’s all it took, that simple sentence, etched into my brain.

“What if planes don’t work?”

I was returning to Dublin from Portugal where I had lived, mainly on alcohol, for the past three months. I was by myself as I had left my two friends who I had lived with behind me. I had just started to perform comedy with a sketch group in Dublin before I left and I wanted to get back early so I wouldn’t miss too many shows.

When you are fresh on the comedy scene a few months of not performing feels like a lifetime, it’s only after a while that you realise it takes years to even make a tiny dent in comedy, so a few months off is actually no biggie. But we were twenty and eager, so I was on the plane alone.

My forehead was glued to my tray-table and I couldn’t find the strength to lift my face up for the whole three and a half hour journey, even though I wanted a glass of water more than anything in the world. Well, what I wanted more than anything in the world was to get off that plane, but a glass of water came in a close second.

The passengers beside me were concerned in a very silent, staring way, and although I felt self conscious about the whole ‘face-planting the seat in front of me fighting to breathe’ situation, I couldn’t move so they could stare to their hearts content.

I’ll try to describe how I was feeling but, as everyone who has had a panic attack knows, it’s very hard to pinpoint it exactly without just calling it ‘out and out despair’:

I was paralysed from the stomach out. My skin had turned into steel. My hands were numb but also had pins and needles. My face was hot but cold chills circled around my head. My feet felt weak but also made of cement blocks. I wanted to throw up but also felt so out of my body that I wasn’t sure if I was even in it any more.

How was that? I have no idea if I’ve just described a panic attack or giving birth, but that’s exactly how I felt for over three hours stuck in a metal tube flying across the ocean.

And that panic attack didn’t stop for another two weeks.

I was on that emotional rollercoaster for half a month, without a break. I lay in bed every day for those two weeks, petrified to fall asleep, convince I would feel that way forever. And that’s when I realised that this was more than a panic attack. I had something called anxiety. And that something would plague me for years.

“What if planes don’t work?”

It was that one thought that hit me like a piano falling out of an eleventh story window onto me. It unraveled into a series of thoughts about reality and science and whether anything really exists at all and maybe we were about to hit a black hole in the universe and everything would be wiped out forever, a shiny new blank hole left where our planet once spun.

I have heard people describe moments they suddenly were struck with depression or a mental illness. That it all fell down on them in one second. Sarah Silverman talks about it in her book when she’s discussing depression through her teenage years.

That’s what happened to me. One moment I was a normal air travel passenger and the next I was certain me and my fellow passengers we were all about to plummet to our deaths.

I had always flirted with the idea of anxiety. I was fretful at times, and extremely gullible to the point where you could convince me of anything, like seeing a ghost in my house, and it would haunt me for months.

I have a really early memory of my Dad standing on the little mental ladder that led up to my bunk bed. It was covered in stickers I got free in Top of The Pops magazine of pop stars I didn’t know, so I must have been around seven or eight. He was holding the ladder with one hand while I clung to the other. Tears swept down my throbbing face as I gasped repeatedly:

“I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!”

But that panic that I had as a child diluted itself over the years, and that anxious voice in my head that talked about death and the never ending universe above my head softened.

Until that balmy evening, walking towards my plane home.

For some reason that thought triggered something inside me that caused my stomach curl and knot itself, making me sit on that seat in the plane sweating, my clammy forehead pressed into the tray-table. My eyes wide open, hoping and praying that that wasn’t the moment I was going to die.

My step-Dad picked me up from the airport and I sat in the front seat of the car, looking out at the Dublin I hadn’t seen for three months. I kept thinking “I made it, it’s over. I don’t need to feel this way anymore.”

But I did.

And the more I fought it, the harder it got. This marked the beginning of me trying to take care of myself so anxiety couldn’t take over me.

When people ask me why I eat so healthily all the time, I always think that it began during that long walk I took across hot tarmac, towards anxiety.

Leave a comment…