High Anxiety: How A Panic Attack On A Flight Saved My Life

Jo Harvey-Graham

Aug 04, 2016

What I hadn’t picked up on all my life – apparently many others had – yes, I’m a tad slow on the uptake – I suffered anxiety.

My light-bulb moment finally came as I was waiting to board a Qantas flight from Sydney to New Zealand for work.

I watched as the queue to board got longer and longer; my palms started to sweat and I remember thinking all these people were not going to fit onto that small 737.

How come so many fat people fly? – it’s going to weigh the plane down. Why-oh-why had I not booked the Emirates double-decker?

High Anxiety: How A Panic Attack On A Flight Saved My Life3

I decided to hang back and board last, hoping that I’d be in a row by myself (what on earth was I thinking). The flight was packed! I was squeezed between two large men.

My hands, feet and in fact everything were sweating. I gingerly sat down and could feel myself getting more worked up. The thoughts going through my head were extremely irrational. The plane won’t be able to take off, it was too full, we’ll crash etc.

I was working myself up into a real state. Every noise had me on high alert, every person in my eyes was a terrorist – even the lovely Mum with twins and the old lady whose walking stick I was convinced was a concealed weapon.

As we were about to taxi off, I bolted. I was heading for the door and would have jumped off the plane mid take-off, I just wanted off!

The air hostess asked what was wrong, and I said I need to get off, it was a mistake and I just can’t fly on this flight.

She asked me why – I told her all my reasons (which there were many) and then promptly started to ball my eyes out like a baby.

My in-flight lifesaver

To say I was mortified was an understatement – here I was making the biggest fool of myself.

Margie (the air hostess) who I can still remember clearly just hugged me, asked if this had happened before, to which I replied no (it really hadn’t).

She told me I was having a panic attack and it would all be over in a few minutes. Margie took me to meet the pilot who assured me the plane could take double the amount of weight it was currently carrying, and in reply to my question, no he had not been out partying the night before and no he wasn’t drunk and he was fine to fly (bloody hell, what on earth did I ask that for!).

Margie suggested I visit my local GP and have a chat when I returned home (and it was probably a good idea to get some sedatives for the return trip!)

This was the best advice I have ever received.

I was put in business class with a few Panadols and a glass of bubbly. I asked why I was in business, and she replied so I wouldn’t disrupt the rest of the passengers!

I have since been receiving counselling for anxiety and can categorically say that was the best move I have ever made.

Coping with anxiety

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I am a different person. Life is so much more enjoyable. I no longer live in fear (which I thought was completely normal), I am no longer scared of strangers, I can go in a lift, I can go into a car park without fear of it collapsing, I can take a complement now, I can walk to the shops without fear of being attacked.

Yes, I was completely mucked up. There were many events which led up to me finally snapping; four miscarriages didn’t help.

I didn’t know how to exist or live a normal life. I do now. I could write a book on the strange way my mind worked, how I didn’t live my life – but now’s not the place, or the time.

What I can tell you, is that one episode on a Qantas flight, and the kindness of Margie (super hostess) saved my life. I was in a hole so dark I couldn’t see out. It took the honestly and kindness of a total stranger for me to get help (and a great doctor, wonderful phycologist and extremely understanding husband).

I can assure you that living with extreme anxiety (and not even knowing I had it) was horrific.

Living in my shoes was tiring. I was on high alert 24/7. For me this was my normal. I don’t know how, or why, my husband stuck around.

There are many reasons people suffer anxiety, but I can now say help is the best medicine. Coming to terms with who you are, understanding, accepting, forgiving and realising there is always a way and always people to help – should offer some comfort.

Never be afraid, or embarrassed, to ask for help.

Ps. I am now a super flyer – no sedatives needed!

By Jo Harvey-Graham


By Jo Harvey-Graham

A one-time colleague of The Carousel's publisher Robyn Foyster while they worked together at New Idea, Jo has been in publishing for most of her working life. She ran a successful boutique media publishing house in New Zealand for several years and boasts an impeccable sales, marketing and management background. When she’s not road-testing the latest cosmetic procedures, or investigating the hottest lifestyle, fashion and beauty trends, Jo is invariably sunning herself in tropical climes, back home in NZ catching up with family and friends, or working on her golf swing!



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