In the waning days of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s important to recognize the effect of the pandemic on our psyche.
Recently my daughter asked me, “Are you excited to fly to Florida?” It had been more than a year since I’d seen my sister in Boca Raton, and because we’re both vaccinated it seemed to be the optimal time to make the trip.
Full disclosure. Even in the best of times, I’d morphed into a kind of flying Felix Ungar.
This wasn’t always the case. When I was a 20-something, flying was an adventure in the clouds en route to someplace new and different. I’d toss a bunch of clothes into a suitcase, voila! I was at the airport and ready, willing, and able to travel.
Gradually it changed, life happened, and flying became more complicated and anxiety-producing. Preparation for a flight evolved into a whole ordeal, with my process beginning with the List, which includes all the clothes, toiletries, and different pairs of eyeglasses to take. Yes, there’s even a check-off space where I actually do check each item off. You’d think I was traveling to a third world country or somewhere deep in the desert without pharmacies and stores, when most of the time I’m off to Florida.
It seems with age there is a heightened sense of our vulnerability. And the past several months of the covid pandemic, when our lives were suddenly upended in so many unimaginable ways, it just seemed to add whole new layers to this angsty mix.
According to a story in the Washington Post, “In most travel contexts the pandemic has exacerbated our anxieties. And it’s no longer only fears of contracting the virus. For a significant share of the traveling public, the thought of getting back into the world weighs heavily even after inoculation.”
That story, by travel writer JD Shadel, went on to say, “According to a recent study by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of adults are anxious about returning to in-person activities. Even in the best of times, air travel induces anxiety in many people.”
Are we also suffering to some degree, from post-traumatic stress disorder rearing its head in different ways? Some of my friends who are vaccinated are still afraid to enter stores and dine in restaurants. Normal and regular activities have many of us thinking twice. How are we going to feel when we actually shed those masks for good? Will we feel liberated, or terribly exposed and fearful?
Dr. Pearl Sussman, a dentist based in Riverdale, shared some information she received from Massachusetts General Hospital about post-pandemic anxiety. “Everyone has been exposed to incredible stressors over the past year,” she said. “We know we’re going to be dealing with long-term mental health consequences. Experiencing mixed reactions as we transition back is to be expected.”
My fear of flying also has accelerated a few notches since the pandemic. As much as I wanted to see my sister, the anticipation of the whole airport scenario had me in a tizzy. Bottom line, as with any fear, there’s the realization that you just have to push through it. Because the only thing that’s worse than being fearful, is being regretful of missed opportunities.
A very wise friend once said to me, “Feel the fear but do it anyway.”
To make matters worse, there’s the issue of my delicate sinuses and hypersensitive eardrums, which respond angrily to the fluctuating air pressure during a flight. After check in and security, I typically follow a whole routine of desensitization and decongestion that my ear, nose, and throat doctor recommended. Mind you, it’s not a pretty sight as I attempt an air of nonchalance while spraying and decongesting. Truth is, though, most people sitting in airports are in their own worlds and could care less about my routine.
My ENT also gave me more advice which, of course, I follow in my own inimitable Felix Ungar way. Once I’m seated and buckled up (which I do almost as soon as I hit the seat), I reach into my oversized bag and take out my ear plugs to help with the changing air pressure. After some twisting and turning, the plugs jut out a bit, adding to my slightly Frankenstein look.
Midair, high above the clouds, my need for distraction gravitates toward junk magazines purchased at the airport. But with any kind of turbulence, I’m immediately pivoting from the trials and tribulations of JLo’s love life into deep prayer mode. Then, when it seems all the passengers are fast asleep, I’m whining silently — like our children used to do on those long trips — how much longer? Aren’t we there yet?
So when my daughter asked me about my upcoming flight, Florida’s tall palm trees, its heat, and my pedicured toes in my cute sandals and early morning walks on the beach didn’t come to mind. All I could think about was how to add the mandatory mask to this already convoluted routine.
Remember when people used to clap when the wheels touched the ground, and the airplane was grinding to a halt? Well, that’s the way I felt when this flight was over. I wanted to clap, fling my ear plugs out, and run, not walk, to the nearest restroom because of all the water I drank during the flight’s descent (another piece of advice from my ENT). Try drinking with a mask on — it not easy, and gets pretty soggy.!
But, really there’s something about palm trees that’s so calming. Hours of wearing a mask was worth it all when I finally reunited with my sister. It felt liberating, just sitting outside and sharing lunch together. Almost back to normal. Almost there. All of the preparation was totally worth it.
Feel the fear, and do it anyway. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Mental health awareness has to be front and center every month.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist and freelance writer.