The Most Horrific Airport Experience I've Ever Had—And What You Can Learn From It
I pictured this post being a lot different when I started writing it a few weeks ago. As someone with high-functioning anxiety, I imagined I would write about how generally stressful airports can be--from being jostled around at TSA to getting situated at your boarding gate--and tips that I have found helpful to overcome the travel jitters.
Then I experienced the absolute worst and most horrific 48 hours of my life, and that changed my entire perspective on airport anxiety.
On Saturday, I showed up to JFK International Airport excited to begin my journey. I was getting ready to fly to Madrid by myself for a 10 day vacation with my boyfriend Tim, who is studying abroad there for the month. I show up the usual 2-3 hours early, get checked in, fly through TSA, and sit at my gate, waiting to board. They had originally delayed my flight with American Airlines from 7pm to 7:50pm due to the incoming flight being delayed from Zurich. No big deal, I thought, what's 50 minutes?
That flight was delayed for 5 hours, with all of us expected to board the flight wandering around our boarding gate like zombie who were tired, hungry, stressed, and in desperate need of relaxation. They said there was a valve issue on the plane and that it should be resolved shortly. At 12am, they cancelled my flight, and that is when the true nightmare began.
Besides being upset that I wasn't going to get to Madrid on time, I starting having intense panic attacks and waves of nausea, because I was waiting on line for 3 hours, waiting to get rebooked. Finally, they tell me they can get me on a flight at 9pm that same day (because I have been there so long that it is now a new day), and get me a hotel in Times Square at the Holiday Inn to stay in.
You read that correctly. They were going to shuttle me back and forth from Queens to Times Square. But I had no choice, I accepted the hotel and rebooking, and waited another hour to get my luggage back and get on a shuttle, then an hour from Queens to Times Square.
By the time we get to the Holiday Inn, they tell us that we have to be checked out of our rooms in a few hours, and we can not have late check out unless we pay for another night of rooms. So I will only get a few hours sleep, and then I have to wander around Times Square for 6 hours until a shuttle comes to pick me up and bring me back to JFK. I start to break down at this point. My high level of anxiety and frequent panic attacks combined with my lack of sleep and lack of help or compassion from anyone around me made me break down into tears. I go to my room, sleep for a few hours, get myself scheduled on an earlier shuttle to the airport, and decide to sleep walk my way to Starbucks for some tea. At this point, I'm feeling pretty broken.
I take two steps out of the hotel to go to Starbucks, and a bird takes a giant shit on my shoulder. Yes, you also read that correctly. In the middle of this nightmare, a bird used my shoulder as a toilet.
I didn't cry. I didn't scream. I laughed. And I laughed hard. So hard in fact, that people around me were staring at me as though I was insane. I laughed back into the hotel, changed my shirt, and went to Starbucks, still laughing. A bird pooping on you in a sign of good luck, isn't it? Well, unfortunately for me, the bird didn't exactly tell me what the luck was directed towards, because this story was far from over.
I get on an early shuttle to the airport with three other solo travelers who I have noticed throughout this hellish nightmare, two men from Spain and a woman from New Jersey, and we quickly become friends. We have all been through the same exact nightmare, and it was comforting to not feel so alone in that moment. We got to the airport, went through TSA, and and went to a bar by our gates and took pictures and drank some much deserved cocktails. It was pretty fun, actually.
But then two from our group had earlier flights, and went on their way, leaving me and one of the men from Spain, who was very nice but spoke no English. We didn't do much talking after that, just pantomiming words to each other, but we stuck together anyway, and I am thankful that I had him to go through that experience with.
We sat at our gate for our 9pm flight for about 5 hours. The crew boarded the plane, the flight was labeled as on time, and then we boarded the plane. Everything seemed fine. We started to taxi away from the terminal, when we suddenly stopped and the plane shut off. I knew in that moment that I wasn't going to Madrid that night, but I held out hope.
The pilot came over the loud speaker and said, in Spanish, that the plane had some engine problems that they were going to look into. I turned to the man sitting next to me, who I later learned was named Yaron, and asked him what he thought about all of this. He confirmed my suspicions--there was no way this plane was taking off.
But, we weren't allowed off of the plane, so we sat there together, talking about our trips. I told him how I was trying to go visit Tim in Spain, he told me about how he was trying to get to Israel, and we Skyped my sister, who tried to distract us from our frustrations by talking about food she cooked recently and the episode of the Kardashians she was watching. The distraction was actually super helpful, because when the captain ultimately came over the loud speaker and officially canceled the flight, I was eerily calm about it all, and Yaron was, too. We exited the plane and went to the baggage area to get our bags. No rebookings were going to be happening that night.
I went home, waiting for information from American Airlines or Iberia about a rebooking. I slept for a few hours and woke up to find that they had rebooked me for a flight at 3pm out of LaGuardia without telling me, and that flight was also cancelled for reasons I will never know.
The customer service woman from American Airlines put me on a British Airways flight, leaving in a few hours, with a connection in London. This is my last shot. I do not have the mental stamina to go through all of this again.
So, how have I been handling this craziness? Well, it's varied pretty widely between being polite to everyone and completely, eerily calm, and having full on panic attacks.
I didn't realize just how greatly I was effected by this until I got in the shower an hour ago. I turned on the water, and as soon as it hit me, I had a huge panic attack, centered entirely around being terrified to fly. I've just dealt with two, possibly three planes with maintenance issues. Maybe I'm just not supposed to fly. What if this is a sign that if I get on a plane, something horrible will happen to me?
Or, what if I was blessed by the mystical lucky bird shit on my shoulder and was not supposed to be on those flights because of their problems, and this the flight I am meant to be on?
I'm not quite sure how to feel, but I knew I had to write about it, for anyone that experiences extreme panic attacks like this all the time.
Now, I could tell you to take deep breaths and think happy thoughts and you'll calm down, but I think that's bullshit. When you are deep in the depths of a panic attack, struggling for air and feeling lonely and helpless, none of that helps you. My advice is going to seem a bit strange.
Talk to people.
I know, I know. When you are freaking out, the last thing you want to do is talk to people, but the only times I felt truely calm were when I was talking to other passengers, expressing how I felt and hearing their feelings out. My airport friends, Yaron, and any other passenger I spoke two during my past 48 hours of living at the airport helped me to feel less lonely, become a bit distracted, and become comfortable with the fact that I have no control over anything that happens. Taking to my sister, my mother, my father, and Tim over the phone helped, too. No amount of deep breathing or positive thoughts helped me with that.
I'm currently en route to the airport, Newark this time (thank goodness), and I'm feeling hopeful but also deflated. I'm tired, and anxious, and honestly scared of planes, but I have to try. I didn't go through this hell hole and suffer through all of these panic attacks to just stay home. Plus, Tim says that he'll take me out dancing if I make it there, and he hates dancing, so I need to get to Madrid and take him up on his offer.
I know that I'm going to have more panic attacks before the day is over, and I know I'm scared, but if I've learned anything throughout the past 48 hours, it's that for all of my anxiety, I am resilient as fuck.