That’s it. I’m done. No more. Not good at it? Not true. I’ve spent a long time telling myself and other people that I’m not a good flyer. Am I scared of putting myself in a giant metal tube with wings and speeding through the clouds at 37,000 feet above earth? Yeah. I’m scared alright. I don’t sleep well the night before a flight (okay…the week before a flight) and I do whatever I can to avoid a layover. If I have to take off, land, deplane, wait, re-board, take off again, and land again, I end up with bloody cuticles and a throat as dry as the Sahara. It seems to take me a while to recover from my frayed nerves. So I don’t thoroughly enjoy airline travel, but damn it, I’m good at it!!
Take my most recent adventure for example. I flew 5,462 miles round trip in a 737 for a coast to coast continental crossing. Five and half hours one way. With a 17-year-old with autism. A 17-year-old who obsesses about luggage and bags and zippers. That right there alone should tell me I’ve got at least some moxie when it comes to flying. It would be so much easier to remain home with those suitcases sequestered on a shelf. But that would mean my life is on a shelf as well, and I’m not okay with that. So I travel.
I travel with the largest backpacks I can find that still meet the airlines’ size restrictions of 22″ x 14″ x 9″. These backpacks have pockets in their pockets, padded shoulder straps, retractable handles, and donut sized wheels. I pack them to the brim: Rescue Remedy (the stuff works!), travel games, gluten free snack bars, coloring books, essential oils, earbuds, magazines. (Gone are the days when airlines provided reading material). I also travel with a plan in my head for every fiasco I might have to face. I’m that person who carries a copy of the passenger rights in a folder along with the trip’s entire itinerary. I am a confirmation number queen. And I learned a long time ago to bring a doctor’s letter (on official letterhead of course) explaining a little bit about autism and listing the medication my son needs. I asked the doctor to add a sentence about sensory meltdowns in the event one occurs in the metal tube. I don’t know if it would help, but if I had to explain a meltdown, a doctor’s back up would be nice. One day I’d like to just get on a plane with my purse and a jacket and pick up what I need at my destination (wouldn’t that be freeing?) but for now, it’s just not reality.
So with backpacks stuffed like turkeys and boarding passes in a pocket-within-a-pocket, we exited the hotel quickly that morning. With the brass luggage cart wobbling its way to the car, we dodged raindrops. We shoved the luggage into the trunk quickly. We quickly returned the cart. Then we quickly drove away and onto the highway toward the airport. Quickly is how travel prep must go; never mind neatly packing and knowing where you put everything. When there’s autism and obsessions about things with zippers, you must move fast. I operate like a whirlwind on steroids the last morning in a hotel – clothing launches like missiles out of drawers, flip-flops get torpedoed into plastic bags, toothbrushes are thrown like darts into toiletry bags. I could win a gold medal for fastest final check of a hotel room.
With no breakfast in our bellies but already beat from battling bag obsession, we drove toward the airport in search of food. We spotted a place in a strip mall but a quick check told us we’d strike out with all our food allergies. So we kept driving and ended up on a 13 mile stretch of highway that took us straight to the airport and didn’t allow for exiting. Our decision made for us, we returned the rental car and ate in the terminal.
Ahhh yes. Moving the luggage from the rental car to the shuttle bus. Another opportunity for zipper checking. We arrived three hours ahead of our flight – not by plan but by restaurant misfortune. So the first thing we did was eat. And all through the meal we tried to appease the mad zipperer. There’s only so many distractions though. And French fries don’t hold a candle to zippers. Fast forward to the baggage check-in. Somehow we always seem to end up on the very line where the person at the counter is having a critical problem that requires several employees and a supervisor to resolve. We eventually dragged the suitcases to the scale, and after a final check of all zippers, we scooted to security.
If the plane ride is nerve wracking, going through security primes my nerves. I hate it. It’s not only the Virgo in me that despises all my stuff being tossed about haphazardly, it’s the anxiety I feel for Zach who himself is full of anxiety about bags being taken, opened, unzipped, rifled through, and scattered. It’s a noisy place, it’s dotted with lots of people (some with weapons), and it’s chaotic. They really ought to spray everyone with lavender as they walk through the metal detectors.
It was at that moment that Zach decided he had to break away and make a run for the ticket counter where our luggage was left. I had just removed my shoes and had no traction for standing firm when I grabbed his arm to prevent the run. Well that only served to make him emit a scream that sounded like someone being tortured. My socks slid along the linoleum as I felt ALL eyes on us. I uttered 50 assurances into his ear that the luggage would be fine. It was all zipped. We’d get it back after the flight. He didn’t seem to trust that. Somehow we were able to move on to the gate, but I was a sweaty mess, and my backpacks were disheveled.
We thought a bathroom visit was in order. Voila! A family restroom. As I went to open the door, someone inside immediately slammed it shut and locked it. Alrighty then. Maybe the guy could have locked it when he entered. We waited, and soon a tall man exited, by himself, leaving a horrendous odor in the doorway. No thanks. Not using that restroom. So we headed to the handicapped stall in the ladies’ room. I’ve done this a million times before, but for some reason, all eyes were again on us. I went into instructional mode so that anyone watching could comprehend that I was helping someone. At one point I bent over to tie a shoe and whacked my forehead on the toilet paper dispenser.
At the gate, we had to switch our seat assignments because the computer had separated us. Thankfully, a kind ticketing agent understood and made the change. I was feeling better. One hour until boarding. Time to walk around and do some yoga. But just as I got Zach into tree pose, his brain told him he must return to the front and get those bags zipped more tightly. This time, in sneakers on carpet, I had traction. Ten more reassurances…
Then, warrior pose. We were tucked in a hidden corner, thankfully. I shouldn’t have said it, but I did: Good job Zach! And I received a swift head butt. Lately, statements of praise set him off. Damn it. At least it landed on the opposite side of the TP dispenser bump.
We took a walk, and I heard from behind me, “Umm, I’m having an allergic reaction.” There was my husband red-faced and panting a bit from inhaling the spicy odor coming from the pizza place. GREAT! I made him use his hoodie as a mask, and we rapidly left the scene.
With my eyes checking my husband and my hand gripping Zach’s arm, I glanced outside and saw dark clouds and rain pelting the pavement. Splendid. I so enjoy active weather when I’m about to fly up into it. I uttered a quick prayer that my pilot was not the stinky guy from the family restroom who was in need of Pepto Bismol. And that the clouds would dissipate.
Returning to the gate, they had already begun pre-boarding. I inspected the area for babies and hoped that any we’d encounter in the next five and a half hours would be sleeping babies. In addition to bags and zippers, we have a “thing” about babies crying. You know that security area high pitched I’m being tortured scream? That also happens when babies cry full force. There were three small children running amuck (good strategy…get it out before sitting down) but no babies in sight.
We took our backpacks and boarded. In the gateway, Zach’s anxiety returned and he began pointing furiously behind us. Luckily, I was able to show him that the luggage trucks were putting luggage on our plane, and I told him it was all coming with us. God help me. The anxiety. The screaming. The allergic reaction. The thunderstorm. Seats with no leg room. The claustrophobic feeling of it all. The potential for delay. And my own nerves. It was chilly in the gateway, but I was sweating bullets.
“Good afternoon folks,” piped the captain. He gave his customary report, and I heard “mostly smooth flight.” I never know if I should rest easy in the words smooth flight or allow my mind to perseverate on the word mostly. As I tried deep breathing, someone came down the aisle and clipped my already injured elbow. Owwwwwch!But I stifled a groan because guess what? Saying ouch is a trigger, just like good job. I didn’t need another knock to the noggin.
“Flight attendants take your seats.” If I could not hear one thing, it’s that. My body coils up like a pissed-off rattler. Then the engines roar and you are catapulting down pavement at 100, 200, 300 mph with that lift off feeling about to happen. I used to like that lift off feeling, where suddenly it’s a release from earthly bindings and you are soaring with the birds. (Birds??? Please don’t let there be any geese or seagulls in the area! They clog up plane engines in a mighty bad way). But something changed along the way, and I no longer like that.
As earth fell behind us, Zach began shutting the shades on other’s windows and pushing the tray table to make sure it was closed. The lady in front of him jerked around and glared. And then I noticed two rows in front of us were the three little kids. One began yelping Maaaahh meeeeee repeatedly. One had a bloody nose and was using a plastic baggie to catch the blood. The third was saying Eeeeewwww Jacob that’s gross! And mommy was oblivious. Jacob tried to get her attention as blood oozed into the baggie. She was engaged in a conversation and waved Jacob off like a bothersome mosquito.
With all the water Zach drank, he had to pee. With the seatbelt light off, we ventured to the back where he proceeded to clean up the teensy bathroom before using it. He can’t stand tissue on the floor or sticking out of the trash receptacle. I figured I ought to go too, but I couldn’t let him just wait for me outside the door where flight attendants were preparing beverage carts. He’d start reorganizing them. So I slid in and somehow managed to pee with Zach standing there in the teacup sized lavatory. Coming out of the closet, I slammed my other elbow into the doorframe.
Back in row 23, I decided I needed something from the backpack in the overhead bin. As I attempted to slide it towards me, it gave way a bit and a donut-wheel bonked me squarely on the forehead. Just how many injuries was I going to have before reaching Sacramento that night? I needed a score card.
Jacob’s bloody baggie was sticking out of the seat pocket and his sister was still wailing Maaaahh meeeeee. Time for some arts and crafts!! Thank you Sticky Mosaics for keeping Zach occupied for about 45 minutes. I drank water to keep hydrated and noticed things were calm. Be mindful of the moment. If I can stay in the moment and avoid anticipating bad things, I am alright. BAM! Jacob had been to the lavatory and back, and crashed into my bad elbow perched on the armrest, sending my ice water all over my lap. Now it would appear I had peed in my pants.
Bingbingbing. “Take your seats and fasten your seat belts.” The captain sounded dead serious. Ohhhh man. I peeked out a window and saw gigantic cumulus clouds surrounding us. A plane doesn’t mind clouds. But Keri minds clouds. Especially when they look like anvils and enormous mushroom caps! I shoved a bottle of lavender essential oil under my nose and took deep breaths. I concentrated on simple mantras like it’s temporary and the pilot is used to this. If the turbulence kept up, I would be bleeding from my cuticles the way little Jacob’s nose was. We were bouncing along as if the clouds produced potholes. I glanced at Zach who was happily designing a mosaic board.
A thought popped into my mind. He doesn’t know fear about this. At all. He is just fine. He proceeds and pays no attention to the clouds, to the captain’s call, to the rocking and jolting going on. He is peaceful. He is trusting. And two new ideas entered my mind. One, if he sees or feels my fear, it could set him off. Not only now, but for all future flights. And I don’t want that to happen and hinder our ability to go places. Two, if I could trust the pilot to keep us safe, then I could let go a little. I admit I am one of those who thinks what if the pilot had a few too many last night or had champagne at brunch before reporting to work? I realized I have to KNOW people to trust them. For the most part. And I don’t trust easily. If something or someone is unfamiliar, I proceed with caution. The way Zach is with bags and zippers…needing to check them, needing to know they are okay in the way that brings him contentment, needing them to feel just right, secure, and “on duty”…that’s how I am with trust. And Zach can be okay one minute, but in the next, the contentment he felt evaporates for some reason, and it’s scary. Things become uncertain and anxious. Same goes for me in a plane. Flying in an airplane is one big put-your-trust-in-a-stranger experience. I can be okay one moment, and then turbulence happens and I’m left not trusting the air, the weather, the hydraulics, the pilot, the control towers. It’s irrational. Just as checking zippers over and over is. The underlying mechanism is the same.
I tried being like Zach just then. Removing my shoulder bones from my earlobes, I focused on a picture in a magazine. I couldn’t read the article but that’s okay. I dealt with the shaking and tried trusting. And the more I tried, the better it felt. My elbows were sore, my head had some bumps, my pants were soaked, and my throat dry, but my nerves were soothed. Soon the potholes disappeared, and I actually fell asleep for a while. I made sure to keep my elbow tucked in.
Once on the ground, my fingers with in-tact cuticles snatched our belongings from all crevices, pockets, and bins. Gotta get to baggage claim quickly. Showing Zach that our luggage was there was of prime importance. If I could soothe his weary nerves over that matter, so much the better. I covered my lap with my purse to disguise the wetness. But I actually didn’t care if anyone saw; I just made it through a long cross country flight on a short plane with my not-so-little boy and enough nervousness to fill the Washington Monument. As I looked down to make sure Zach’s shoelaces were tied, I saw an array of pink, green, orange, blue, yellow, silver, and white squares dotting the carpet. Leftover mosaics he sprinkled underneath his chair. If each one were a worry I had over the course of this day, I too was ready to sprinkle them beneath me. The plain truth is, I will always worry, and I will always try to plan around that. But I will also make an effort to recognize that lack of trust can breed anxiety, in both myself and my precious boy. I think it’s safe to say that for every lesson I try to teach him, he teaches me ten. Plane and simple.
Subscribe to Blog via Email
Click here for KeriMeHome’s Facebook Page
Click here for Sacramento4Kids articles about autism