When did I decide to stop living in denial? While lying on a plane gangway during a panic attack

I had refused to accept my PTSD had returned. But on a flight to Budapest it became impossible to ignore

It is hard to pinpoint the worst moment of your life. But when I think about my lowest ebb, a certain image begins to solidify: me, lying in the gangway of a plane, the cabin crew administering oxygen via a canister and a mask as we descend to Budapest airport and other passengers look on (bemused or horrified, I couldn’t say). A couple of minutes previously, a fog had descended on me as I sat in the seat next to my boyfriend; peculiar black clouds coalesced at the margins of my vision. I was passing out. “I need to lie down,” I said, with some urgency. “I need to lie down, now.”

Why does this image stand out? I suppose it is because, ultimately, it is about denial – and the point at which that stops being possible. The thing I didn’t want to know was that I was ill. Again. I had no business being on a plane. I had only been able to get on the plane at all as a result of the large white wine and two co-codamol tablets I had necked at the airport. It was no doubt the chemical effects of these that led to me almost blacking out. That and the fact I had been hyperventilating for the duration of the flight.

Those who have had panic attacks know that appealing to rationality rarely works. As far as I was concerned, being on that plane meant that I was about to die. There was no arguing with this. This didn’t manifest only psychologically; physiologically, extreme anxiety has all kinds of dramatic effects. My body knew the score.

Since the Paris terror attacks two months prior, I had refused to accept that the post-traumatic stress disorder with which I had been diagnosed as a student – and which I had recovered from – had come back. The first time I had it was because I was strangled by a stranger on a dark street as I made my way home. But, with treatment, I had recovered well. For the most part, I put it behind me and got on with my life.

Then, in my late 20s, I was in close proximity to the Paris attacks. Once more, I was forced to face the notion that I might be about to die. It sent my system into meltdown. The belief that I was safe, which had taken many hours of therapy – not to mention medication – to build back up, had been demolished. It was as though my mind and my body were not going to be fooled this time.

In a way, post-traumatic stress is like time travel. You are walking around, living your life in the present, but a part of you is back there in the traumatic event, reliving that night again and again, your body responding accordingly. I had convinced myself after Paris that I was simply in shock and that the symptoms would fade, but a part of me must have known in the run-up to the Budapest press trip that it wasn’t a good sign that I was hearing French sirens in my sleep, that every time I got on a bus or went to a bar I expected to be shot dead.

I must also have known that I should see a doctor, get back on the meds, join the waiting list for therapy, but I was resisting. To do so would mean admitting that I was ill. More than anything, I did not want to be ill again.

So, instead, I decided to carry on as though everything were normal. I continued to arrange the trip to Budapest despite feeling paralysing horror at the thought of it. Once I got there, after recovering enough to walk off the plane, I spent the entire time convinced there were gunmen around every corner. The only respite was the discovery that I could order very cheap, very strong martinis to our hotel room. This meant that, at least in the evenings, I was sufficiently tipsy not to feel afraid when I went out. I returned to the UK exhausted.

My experience on the plane was humiliating, but it was also the beginning of my acceptance of the fact that I was not OK. I had become interested in the psychology of trauma after I was attacked, but I didn’t seem to be applying any of that knowledge to myself. My trip to Hungary, and its effects, changed that. It made me accept that I needed help.

It took a year of intensive treatment, including exposure therapy, for me to be able to leave the house without fear. I was very lucky to receive the help I did so quickly, and for the therapy to have continued past the usual 12 free sessions. Gardening and writing also helped; I spent much of the time confined to my home working on a novel about trauma.

The following January, I went to Vietnam and Cambodia, a trip that involved six flights, all of which I took without needing to self-medicate through the fear – unthinkable when I was at my most agoraphobic. I didn’t have a panic attack that meant I needed to lie in the gangway; the plane didn’t fall out of the sky. Not only did I live, but I got to see a bit of that world that I had been missing for those long months.

That year, my novel found a publisher and I got married. Since then, I have been writing another book and working on a creative nonfiction project that, among other things, looks at what it means to contemplate motherhood when you have experienced mental illness. I am wary of recovery stories, partly because I don’t take it for granted that I will always be well.

When I look back on that young woman lying in the aisle of a plane, she isn’t exactly a stranger, but she does belong to a different phase of my life. And she taught me an important lesson: never deny yourself help out of fear and pride. If I get ill again, I will do my best to remember that.

The mental health charity Mind can be contacted on 0300 123 3393 or by visiting mind.org.uk


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

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