Two of my worst panic attacks have taken place in the air, on a plane. The first was following a major panic attack I had whilst on a weekend away in Madrid.
My panic attack in Madrid was triggered by a bad experience I had whilst I was there. I’ve never written about this before, and have only told those closest to me about it, but one year on I feel I need to put it out there. It’s long, but please stick around.
I was in Madrid with two people I believed to be my friends, however whilst drinking in a bar, they questioned me on being a lesbian. It’s hard to describe what they said without using the actual words, but it was along the lines of me going through a “phase”, that it was a choice, and how hard they found it to accept me as gay. They told me they believed that I would “go back to men”, and that they wouldn’t want their daughters to stay with me for any length of time in case “they came back as lesbians”.
Now, this was not the first time I had felt singled out like this in their company. There had been many occasions where I wasn’t invited to nights out or in, because it was them and their husbands. Many times, their partners wouldn’t come out if it were me and my partner because it was “too girly”.
My so-called best friend treated me as a bit of a joke, and I am sure she still thinks of me that way. My mental illness was growing for years as I found it hard to come out initially, and incredibly hard to deal with the pressures of telling family and friends that I was gay. It was crippling, and I found it hard to be at peace and love myself again. I am only just getting there now after my near breakdown in December of last year. There was little to no support from these friends. Although lip-service was made, they were not supportive and I could not talk to them without being subjected to another lesbian joke.
Following what was said to me in that bar in Madrid, I fought my corner as best I could, given that I was in a strange environment and it was two against one. I’d never done this before. I asked them why they were adding another layer of guilt and pressure to me for coming out as gay five years earlier. I genuinely believed of all the people in my life, my friends would understand and realise that it didn’t matter who I was in a relationship with – I was still Ellie. Apparently it did matter. They said it did alter things, and that it wasn’t the same now I was in relationships with women. This broke my heart, as I could not imagine how or why this would change anything at all.
Still, I questioned myself. I asked myself if I was being unreasonable. I asked myself if I was being harsh on my friends to expect them to accept me as gay. I left the bar and went back to the hotel room.
Waking the next morning, my friends acted as if nothing had happened. One of them said that we should laugh off what happened the night before, and I shouldn’t be so sensitive about things. I sent a text message to my girlfriend, and one to my friend in Edinburgh telling them what had happened. Both were horrified. Both said they couldn’t believe what had happened the night before and I shouldn’t have friends like that. What a relief to know that I wasn’t over reacting and that what I believed about myself was right. What a relief to know that I had such amazing people in my life who loved me back home.
I spent the rest of that final day in Madrid quietly, only interacting when I had to. I was miserable and trapped and I couldn’t wait to get home. My flight was at 8am the following morning, so I was counting down the minutes.
At 2am, the panic attack started. I text my girlfriend and she talked me through it. I have a fear of vomit, but I had to be sick in the toilet; there was no choice. I couldn’t avoid it. I lay on the bathroom floor convulsing until I had to force myself up to get dressed and get into a taxi. Still, my girlfriend was texting me through it, encouraging me to just take it minute by minute, not to think about the future just to concentrate on what was happening around me. What did the floor feel like? What could I see around me? How many colours? I made it to the airport in the taxi, but had no WiFi connection so couldn’t stay in contact with anyone until I landed back in Scotland. I checked in to my flight using a machine, and everywhere I went I stopped in the toilet for respite. I always knew where the nearest bin was in case I needed to be sick. I waited in a toilet until I had to board the plane, listening to music on my headphones which reminded me of home.
I boarded the plane, and sat at the back by a window. I was breathing fast but had to concentrate on that to keep calm. A couple were sitting next to me. I turned away from them, held a sick bag and concentrated on my breath. We took off. I was OK, just. It was about 30 minutes into the flight when panic set in again and I had to ask the couple next to me to grab a flight attendant. I was definitely going to pass out. The couple moved to other seats and I lay down over three seats. I passed out, and woke again to the attendants offering me sugar water. It was so welcome! I had zero energy left and one sip brought me back a little bit. I lay back down and slept the rest of the trip.
We landed. The relief was so immense that I cried. A text message came through from my girlfriend saying she was waiting for me, along with my friend who had driven her there to pick me up. I managed to get off the plane and over to Arrivals, where I burst into tears at seeing her, and couldn’t stop. She carried me to the car, and my friend was there – I cried. They had brought me a blanket, hot water bottle and water to make me feel better in the car. They took me home, and I vowed never to leave ever again.
It took me three days to get over the panic attack. I couldn’t eat, was too anxious to talk to anyone and couldn’t go to work. I was also too scared to sleep in my bed as it took me right back to the bed in Madrid. I had to sleep on the sofa with the television on all night, and my girlfriend set up a bed on the floor so she could be with me. We woke up in the night, watched random films and fell back to sleep. Finally, I was able to eat a rich tea biscuit and things returned to relative normality.
What of my terrible friends? I have never spoken to or seen them again. I cut them out of my life completely, because poisonous people do not deserve anyone’s time. It took me a while to come round to this way of thinking. My girlfriend, Mum, sister, aunties and friends convinced me that people who make you feel inadequate are not friends. I haven’t missed them once in the year since it happened. In fact, I feel better about myself and my life since they’ve been away.
A month later, I was diagnosed with anxiety, panic disorder and PTSD as a result of the incident in Madrid. It affected me deeply, and I was ill for a while. I am now in a completely different place mentally. I am still on medication, but I love myself, and I am not ashamed of who I am or what I have been through to get here. I work on bettering myself daily, and will never be afraid to disconnect with people who dull my shine.
I’m now happily married to the woman who helped me through all of this, have real friends who love me for who I am, and a family that have my back whatever I choose to do with my life.
I’m still afraid of flying, though. More on that next time!
This blog post is dedicated to Sharon, Louise, Alice and Marilyn who told me to tell them to “Get tae f**k”.