Hard To Swallow

Hard To Swallow

Over the past few years, as my general anxiety level heightened, the fear of flying gripped me and could not be ignored.

The more my frequency of flying increased — last year was 40,000 miles — so too grew my nervousness and worry while on board to the point of irrationality. I remember as a teenager feeling excited and intrigued when my family would take trips on an airplane, the thrill of the bird’s-eye perspective. Now, I squeeze the armrest, jump at any unusual noise whirring below me as if I know anything about aviation technology, and spiral into thoughts of malfunction, malice, imminent death. Even though I know that flying is incredibly safe. Even though I know much better than to flip out. Coping mechanisms like listening to music and breathing exercises would only help to a point until my mind kicked into overdrive and overwhelm.

I finally got my ass into talk therapy (thanks, Obamacare!) but I would continue to have anxiety attack episodes. I could identify the issue and discuss my neurosis at length, but all that analysis was useless in the moment where my rational self was whisked away in exchange for my shallow-breathed suspicion and mortal terror. Over lunch, I admitted my chronic flight anxiety to a friend who regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step of the twelve-step program starts: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol. “You have to admit that you are powerless over your situation when you sit down on a plane,” he told me. “What are you going to do, get off the plane?” I admitted that I had considered it countless times, well knowing that my shame would override my panic. In my mind, as the plane goes down, I will be able to say, “I told you so, but I didn’t want to seem crazy!” Even though I was regularly shaken up — I had a two-drink minimum for nearly every flight — I was resistant to considering prescription medication to calm my nerves. My experience in Laura’s garage paired with witnessing the reckless lifestyle normalization of Xanax fueled my distrust.

What if I took it on a plane and I had another horrible experience, amplifying the anxiety? What if I loved it more than I should, and got strung along to addiction? I craved something more natural and trustworthy than a trending tranquilizer, and of course, many people recommended marijuana. But I knew that smoking weed before a flight would spell disaster for me. I smoke frequently, but I knew that were I to get high before a flight, the sensation of detachment would compound with my anxiety and take me to point of disaster… where maybe not even my shame could save me.

I began to experiment with CBD products that became readily available once Washington State legalized cannabis. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana that causes the signature psychoactive effect of feeling consciously stoned/high: the cloudiness, the fuzzing out. But activated CBD allows one to feel clear-headed while experiencing physical relief. The California-based non-profit CBD Project lists over fifty different medical conditions and disorders — from depression and anorexia to epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease — in which CBD has been researched and proven to have a positive impact. And now that the above-ground market has gotten its hands on cannabis production, the CBD products are slick, subtle and delightful. As soon as I plopped down in the seat for take off, I allowed myself one or two of the Mr. Moxey’s Ginger CBD mints and Swifts Edibles Peppermint and Green Tea CBD mints. I also tried the Ethos Remarkable High CBD Spray Tincture, a small spray bottle that looked like cleaning fluid for eyeglasses; two squirts were to be applied under your tongue as a dosage. To me, taking CBD feels like a loosening of tightly wound screws; an unfurling of the worry knotting my muscles. I don’t feel high, but I feel calm… it’s not 100% relief, but it’s a vast improvement over nothing.

What I love most about the legalization of cannabis is not necessarily how accessible it is but how it regulates and clearly informs dosage. I hated any edible for the longest time because it was like chewing up a giant question mark— how strong were these? How much could you take? Now, I am familiar with and can anticipate the impact that milligram dosage of CBD has on me. For a flight under three hours on a familiar route, I take 5 mgs; for a cross-country flight I would take 10mgs.

This was a decent solution, until I was planning for a trip to Korea and Japan. Despite likely being able to explain away CBD mints as melatonin, I didn’t want to be anywhere near an international drug trafficking charge. So begrudgingly, I ended up getting a pharmaceutical prescription for Lorazepam, or Ativan, from my general doctor. An “acceptable” prescription anti-anxiety medication, although the idea of finally taking a prescription for a benzodiazepine was far more stressful than relieving. But even after I had twenty pills in an orange vial with printed clear instructions, in practice I’d only bite off and swallow a fraction of the pill, taking the correct amount only if I had riled myself up particularly bad, and usually after the worst was over.

What if I take the pill and we have an emergency evacuation and I’m too sluggish to save myself? What if I fall asleep and the person next to me tries to hijack the plane?

For some reason, I chose the familiar wring of morbid flight anxiety over the fear of the unknown: the effect of a drug that could possibly take me beyond my own reach. My anxiety is catalyzed by the experience of losing control.

Flying enables me to have a rich multi-city life as a working artist; it makes it possible for me to live the life I want, a life that as a freelancer I largely control. And yet, when I sit down and buckle my seatbelt, I must forfeit control. I must surrender to the circumstance. Ironically, even the practice of consuming a prescription drug that is potentially habit-forming and addictive is an exercise in surrender. I surrender my pride in thinking I can overcome my anxiety by pure will or that I’m capable of overcoming it by myself. I surrender full lucidity, the sharpness of my capacities. I have to release the fight, the buzz in my head that I didn’t realize I identified so strongly with. I have to believe myself deserving of relief.

I have to get out of my own way. Finally, I allowed myself to see a psychiatrist. After discussing non-addictive, non-daily options for anxiety management, I now carry a prescription for Gabapentin, a medication to control nerve pain primarily used to control and prevent seizures that is not habit forming. I find its effect only barely perceptible, dulling my nerves but not sedating my thoughts; if I take it on an more empty stomach, I feel a light, warm lifting sensation. But I try to use my CBD products as the more sustainable remedy for my flight anxiety. The precision in quality and dosage feels more natural, gentler in impact and more fundamentally ethical than a nerve pain medication from the pharmacy. As I continue on my journey of anxiety management, digging deeper into the why behind my panic, I know that much of it is learning to admit that I need help.

While I’m not hooked on the feeling of anxiety attacks by any means, I also must reckon with how my anxiety will often cloud and undermine my own relief. Finding a manageable solution to my anxiety will never be as simple as swallowing a pill for me, but I am learning to embrace the place that medication — whether high-CBD cannabis products or prescription — can have in my path towards peace of mind.

Full print interview in UNDO MAG: Issue 7 

Writer: Hollis Wong
Illustrator: Grace Hwang

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