Do you believe in angels? I definitely do, because I recently met one in London Heathrow’s Terminal 2.
Here’s how it happened.
In late September, I was transiting in London Heathrow, en route from Beirut to Toronto. I had just spent two weeks visiting family and friends in the beautiful mountain villages of Lebanon — something I hadn’t done in a couple of summers.
The Lebanon trip was my second in 6 months, and it was a trip with a purpose: my brother and his wife had just had preemie twins and I wanted to see the babies and lend any support given the babies would be in the neo-natal intensive care unit for the foreseeable future. My mother had fractured her back and had been going through a hard time. And, selfishly, I wanted to visit during warmer months of the year, versus my annual trip in March.
Because I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and because my biggest trigger is travel-related, this long trip from Canada takes a lot out of me and it takes a lot of preparation on my part. I see my family doctor and my therapist regularly before I leave. I visit with our priest. I watch the news like a hawk, assessing the political and economic situation in Lebanon and supplementing my understanding by consulting family members who are closer to the action.
It’s very very hard for me to get ready for the trip. It often weighs on me for a couple of months beforehand, and the anxiety reaches its height the two weeks and several days before I get on the plane. Over time, I’ve gotten more used to the long trip because I’ve done it many times. I try to go through London or Paris because I know the layout of the airports and being familiar with the routine helps ease my anxiety tremendously.
I also have PSVT, which means that sometimes my heart beats fast for a few seconds, then it settles. It’s not dangerous, but it doesn’t feel good and I have a fear of it happening on the plane, somewhere over the Atlantic. I don’t like to think about this at all, but I’ve been to see my doctor and a specialist, and I’m comfortable that this is common for me and that I know what to do about it. The thing is, a fast heart beat and a panic attack can sometimes feel the same, and they can both come on suddenly and without warning.
My two week stay in Lebanon was amazing in terms of beautiful hot weather. We got to take several day trips in the glorious sunshine and I loved every minute of being outside in the shade, on a swing on my parents’ balcony with spectacular mountain views, eating lunch on a patio with beautiful Mediterranean views, or sitting outside at Starbucks into the late evening hours. I got to see my family and relatives in their summer routine, which is truly special, because the season is short and sweet in terms of tourists and the hustle and bustle of summer activities. I also took a few trips to Beirut, where I discovered some new-to-me neighborhoods.
It was warm, which was great, but sleeping at night without air conditioning took a toll on me and I didn’t sleep properly. I stayed up late to chat with my husband and daughters back home. The 7 hour time difference meant that I didn’t sleep much. I also got up for daily walks with my dad, who likes to walk early in the cool mornings. And, a very emotional event happened that I didn’t quite see coming. All of this meant my sleep routine was at its absolute worst. I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of the trip.
When I got on the Beirut to London early morning flight, I had had about 4 hours of sleep. There was an interesting documentary on the Central Bank of Lebanon, which I wanted to see, and I wanted to catch the last of the Arabic-language movies, so I didn’t sleep on the flight. When we landed in Heathrow, I noticed that I was walking very very slowly. I attributed it to being tired, but it was definitely not like me: I usually walk very fast and with purpose.
I took it easy in the terminal, doing some duty-free shopping, but I was acutely aware of how slowly I was moving. By the time I had to walk the one kilometer to the gate to board the second flight, I knew something else was wrong because my heart was beating faster than usual. I tried to figure out how fast it was beating, but it was hard because it’s loud in the terminal. There’s a general din, announcements, and lots of passengers. I went to the washroom to use the tricks my doctor gave me to address a fast heart beat, which I assumed was the issue. But, I couldn’t stop my heart from racing.
As the Air Canada staff was boarding the plane, I just had a feeling that I should not get on that plane. I didn’t really know what to do, but my anxiety training and therapy and experience told me to talk to someone. Looking around for a friendly face among the staff, I saw a lady who looked like she was the perfect person to talk to about my issue. This lady is the angel I’m talking about.
I went up to her and told her that I didn’t think I could get on the plane because I was feeling unwell and my heart was racing. I told her I didn’t know what was wrong, but she definitely seemed to know what was happening, just by looking at me. She told me to sit down and not board, assuring me that if I mentioned this to the flight attendants in the airplane, they would not allow me to board either. It was better for me to stay in the terminal rather than to try to go down the ramp. She also told me she would get me some water and come back to me.
How had this angel found me? I don’t know, but Kellie is a professional and an empath. She is a kind and sentient human being. This was not her first time talking to someone with anxiety. I asked her not to leave me (!). And, she didn’t. She told me exactly what she was going to do and where she would be for the next few hours (how she knew that this would bring down my anxiety several notches, I don’t know).
Kellie had to board the flight, off-load my luggage, file a delay report (in addition to me, there was a no-show, so I can’t take full responsibility for delaying the flight), and take care of getting me on the next flight. She took charge and she listened.
I explained everything that had been going on for the last two weeks and what I was going through, in details that few people still don’t know, even to this day. I told her I hadn’t slept much and that, yes, despite suffering from anxiety and tachycardia, I couldn’t tell what was happening to me at the moment. I also told her that I didn’t realize that I was anxious at the time, which is when we figured out that my exhaustion had triggered a panic attack. Let me be clear: I do have anxiety around flying, but I didn’t have fearful thoughts at the time. I wasn’t worried about the upcoming flight. But, my body thought otherwise because I was having a physical breakdown.
My mind quickly went back a few months to when I had had a similar panic attack, again with no obvious triggers. The lack of sleep had precipitated a panic attack in July, and now again in September, as if my body knew better than my mind that it needed to slow down. Both times, the panic attacks were clear as day: my big muscles, in my thighs, started to shake, and my heart was pounding in a way that was different from a racing heart.
Kellie told me to drink the water and sit down and relax and that we would talk once she finished boarding the flight. I later found out that Kellie is the duty manager for Air Canada at Heathrow. She only shared this me when I asked her. She was reluctant because she didn’t think what she did to help me was a big deal, but I’m here to tell you that it was a very big deal for me.
She knew how to calm me down and how to listen. She told me that I should forgive myself and that it’s okay to have this happen: after all, I’d been through a lot. She told me it was normal to feel all of these emotions. I was feeling like a loser and told her that. She let me read my automatic thoughts to her that I had compiled while I was calming down and using my anxiety tools. She told me the story of others to whom this had happened.
Once the plane had pulled away from the gate and was reversing, I started to tear up and was about to cry. I was facing the plane but Kellie was facing me, listening to me and telling me everything was fine. It was so hard to watch that plane pull away because I felt like such a weak person and that I should’ve been on that plane. She let me talk, for quite a few minutes, never letting me feel rushed. She had time for me. I felt so lucky. How had I found someone to hold my hand during such a difficult time?
It took about 20 minutes for the adrenaline to leave my body and for me to feel better and calmer. By that time, Kellie had arranged for me to take the later flight. She told me she would leave for a bit and come back. She also told every staff member there about me and they all knew that I was going to be first onboard or last. They came to find me when it was time, without judgment, and without letting other passengers know what happened to me. They were professionals, just like their team leader.
I was still feeling fragile and having trouble deciding whether I should sit on an empty plane and wait for others to board or whether I should be the last person on. I was a bit scared about triggering another attack. Kellie helped me make the decision and then escorted me to the plane and handed me off to the flight attendants, who kept an extra eye on me throughout the flight.
Sometimes I think back on this experience and wonder what might’ve happened if I hadn’t met Kellie. I might’ve been too embarrassed at the door of the plane to say anything, or I might’ve said something and been turned back, feeling ashamed. Had I kept quiet, would the plane have had to make an emergency landing later? Would I have had a panic attack lasting 7 hours or longer? Would I ever get on a plane again? Luckily, I have since taken a flight.
Meeting Kellie has made a huge difference in how I think about the trip: I accept that I was exhausted and had a bad experience. I don’t want to dwell on it too much because having anxiety is about acceptance and moving on. It’s about feeling and experiencing what happens to me and seeing it as part of my journey, as part of my life with anxiety. It’s about feeling empowered enough to tell someone that I need help, without being embarrassed.
Here’s what else I know about my anxiety: this is me. This is who I am. I live with anxiety every day. I function pretty well and I’m working on myself constantly. I forgive myself. I appreciate all the people in my life who support and help me to find my best self. I know when I need help. I know that most days are good days. And, I know that living with anxiety is so much easier when angels like Kellie come into my life.
If you or anyone you know suffers from anxiety or mental illness, you might want to visit the Bell’s Let’s Talk site to learn more. If you want to read more of what I’ve shared about living with anxiety, you can read this post or this post. And, please contact me if you want to talk more about anxiety. I’m a pretty good listener.Email This Post