Last week, Steven Goldman was set to board a plane to St. Louis. At the last minute, he could not bring himself to get on the flight.
I have boarded many planes, though it has never been something I enjoy doing. I used to be afraid of crashing, but except for a brief moment or two of involuntary alarm during takeoff, I no longer worry about that, and once the plane is in the air I always feel fine. My problem is that I have an anxiety disorder centered around claustrophobia. I get into any small space, like a small airplane, and my limbic system goes haywire. My heart rate shoots up. My chest tightens. The ironically named flight response is incredible.
The plane to St. Louis was quite small, not quite a puddle-jumper, but the next step up. The low ceiling scraped my head. My overly large frame barely fit in the seat. The way the aisle was blocked by incoming passengers made me feel as if there was no exit. I imagined what I would feel like when they closed the door. The thought was terrible. I did not panic… but realized I probably would if I stayed, and that even if I was able to tough out the three-hour ride to St. Louis, I might never be able to convince myself to board the plane back home. I had taken two Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, an hour before boarding, because I have been dealing with this stupid, frustrating, annoying thing for eight years now, and I knew it was possible that I might feel this way. The pills did not help. I felt helpless.
…The frustrating thing is that I still feel like myself. I don’t feel afraid inside. Even when I was in the grips of the worst of the attacks, the rational me was still in here, trying to manage the situation. On the plane to St. Louis I was, at least mentally, completely calm. The physiological reaction was like an overlay, a computer virus that was attacking the mainframe. I wasn’t thinking, “Aaagh! Let me out of here!” I was thinking, “Okay, how do I deal with this? How do I overcome this feeling?” It was a measured weighing of pros and cons that led me, in this instance, to get off of the plane. It was the right decision, but I still felt immensely disappointed that I had not been able to push it away, to rise above.
Goldman sat at the gate and watched the plane roll away, “excoriating myself, filled with self-disgust.”
The self-disgust is what jumped off the screen at me as I read this honest and uncompromising account of what is like to have a clinical anxiety disorder. (On a slightly related note, Joe Pos has the SI cover story this week on Zack Greinke, who has managed to come to grips with his social anxiety disorder.) Frustration, anger, which Goldman felt too, that’s understandable, but self-disgust? That’s crazy talk. That’s being in love with your own masochism.
I should know. I do it all of the time. And curse myself for doing it! Most of us, even those who do not suffer from a crippling chemical imbalance, not knowing what to do with frustration, turn our anger inward. Of course these things are easier to see in others than in ourselves necessarily. It’s easier for me to say, Steve, why are you beating yourself up?, instead of changing my own behavior.
But self-disgust seems entirely inappropriate here. Goldman was actually taking care of himself, he protected himself and so, no matter how upset or disappointed he may have been (and legitimately so), he deserved to give himself some credit for his actions. Even if he still yearns to overcome his illness, which is admirable.
And if he isn’t willing to give himself that credit, I will.