What happens when an irrational fear becomes real?
One of my favorite sayings comes from the classic animated film Kung Fu Panda , sagely stated by Grand Master Oogway — “one often meets his fate on the road he takes to avoid it.” And avoid it I have.
This is what occurred when, for the first time in over three years, I boarded an early morning flight in Philadelphia with my daughter to look at colleges in Chapel Hill, NC. I have a severe inhalation allergy to shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster, etc.), preventing me from regularly flying. I try to mitigate the risk of exposure by not flying on airlines serving food, taking very early morning flights, and watching every food bag that other passengers bring onto the plane. It is an extremely anxiety-ridden experience that, luckily for the past few years of the pandemic, I did not have to deal with — a very nice reprieve indeed. But with the world returning to “normal,” air travel has reluctantly become a necessary evil in my life once again.
I booked a 6:30a flight; it was not as early as I would have liked, but the earliest flight we could get from Philadelphia to Raleigh-Durham on Frontier Airlines. Most of the terminals in the Philadelphia Airport have the restaurant Chickie & Petes, who specialize in crab and shrimp, and my departure terminal was no different. I thought they did not start serving food until 6a (they actually start serving at 5:15a) and we were boarding at 6a, so I thought I would be safe. Plus, my thinking has always been, who is going to order shrimp and then bring it on an airplane to eat that early in the morning? Like seriously, who would do that?
Well, a lot of people, actually. And on this particular early morning flight, the gentleman seated directly behind me.
As my daughter and I waited to board the plane, I did my usual scanning of food bags to make sure I didn't see anyone with a Chickie & Petes bag. We also opted to board last so that we could make sure to scan all passengers. As soon as we sat down on the plane though, the person behind me said something to his companion to the effect of: "we have chicken and shrimp.” Well, of course, my ears perked up, and my anxiety level shot up — I turned and asked him: “Did you say you have shrimp” to which he said, “no,” — so I said, “oh good, because I have a severe inhalation allergy and would need to leave the plane,” to which he replied, laughing, “oh, in that case I do have shrimp, I didn't want you asking me for any.”
At that point, I became “that passanger” the one we all can’t help but watch as they try to navigate an uncomfortable airline situation. I jumped out of my seat and grabbed my bag, and without thinking started exiting the plane before they could shut the cabin door. My daughter, however, calmly turned around and asked if the man would be willing to throw out his shrimp, offering to pay for it. He was not happy and very hesitant to throw it away. However, the person he was with didn't hesitate and told him to just get rid of it. He went over to the flight attendant to tell her what was happening; the flight attendant came over to me and offered to move my seat — I told her that wouldn't work and that I would leave the plane if the shrimp weren't removed. She rolled her eyes and returned to the man, who again was hesitant to throw away his food and whose companion was again telling him to just throw it away. After confirming that we would, in fact, pay him for the shrimp, he gave it to the flight attendant, who removed it from the plane. My daughter gave the man $20, and the scene de-escalated.
But not in time to halt my ensuing panic attack.
It took another five minutes or so for other passengers having airline issues to board, and in that time, I started feeling like a caged animal, needing nothing more than to get…off…the plane. My heart was racing; I felt like I couldn't breathe and like I was going to pass out. I called my wife to try and get her to help talk me down. In that time my daughter started playing videos of pandas eating bamboo (if you haven’t seen these videos, I highly recommend them regardless of ensuing panic attacks). The videos helped — but not until after I told her and my wife that I was getting off the plane. Luckily just as I said that, they closed the cabin door — at that point, I knew I was going to need to pull it together and calm down (easier said than done, but done it was).
I didn't actually want to get off the plane and let my kid down — we had a full weekend ahead of college tours — but anxiety and panic are a strong force to be reckoned with — a force that has always had a very strong grip on me. It was a short flight to Raleigh-Durham Airport, when all was said and done, about an hour and a half of a lot of deep breathing and panda’s eating things.
When we exited the plane, I apologized again and thanked the couple for disposing of their shrimp. The kid and I got our bags, found our rental car, and made it to the Airbnb, where I finally had time to decompress, but not before a lot of tears, chest pain and heart palpitations which lasted for hours. Anxiety is mental and physical.
Unfortunately, that was only half of the travel experience — I still had to get home. My motto for decades of dealing with this inhalation allergy and the anxiety that comes with it has always been “feel the fear and do it anyway” and hope for the best. It had always felt a bit like an irrational fear, again, how likely is it to have someone eating shrimp on an early morning flight? But, what happens when an irrational fear becomes real? Thinking about the flight home, I no longer knew what was rational and what was irrational. What fear I could feel and do anyway and what was there to protect me?
Frontier Airlines only had one flight from Raleigh-Durham to Philly, a 6:50p return flight, prime dinner time. The departure terminal contained a Popeyes fast food restaurant, which of course sells shrimp. Should I have felt the fear and took the flight or ditched it and drove home? My irrational fear became real on that first flight and, right or wrong, I chose to ditch and drive. I will now have to figure out how to discern irrational from rational and what that means for my relationship to air travel moving forward. This is what people with severe food allergies struggle with every time they travel.