Jenna sat on the plane, at the start of her two hour flight home. She’d been away for a few weeks, and was eager to get back to her world. As she at buckled into her window seat, she began to think about her life.
Always a bright girl, she had just finished four weeks at a prestigious summer program for teens who were entering college the next year. She had graduated as the valedictorian of her high school a month earlier, and had forgone the summer of partying with her friends for the two week program. In those four weeks she had taken two accelerated college courses, which would transfer to her college in the fall, exempting her from two requirements she would otherwise have to take. The coursework was exhausting, and she was drained tonight as she had taken (and passed) the two final exams for the courses just hours earlier.
The plane taxied to the runway and before Jenna knew it, they were in the air. She peered out the window at the darkness, seeing the lights of the airport and city begin to disappear as the plane went higher and higher into the pitch black sky. She felt the attack starting as she mused in her mind the next few weeks.
Jenna was first diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder when she was 12. She had been having trouble sleeping, and her mother had noticed quite a few behavior changes in her. She became irate every time something went wrong, couldn’t concentrate in school, and seemed tired mid-day, well before her quite active siblings even began to peter out. Since the diagnosis, she had worked with a therapist employing cognitive behavioral therapies to try to control her anxiety. Tonight as she squirmed in her seat, she began to go over the techniques they had worked on.
But alas, not much of it worked. Around an hour into the flight, the woman sitting next to Jenna reached down and picked up something off the floor. Jenna saw it was her own cell phone, which must have shifted off of her lap as she moved around in the seat. She had been so pre-occupied by her own thoughts, that she hadn’t noticed it had fallen.
“Is this yours, dear?”, the lady asked.
“Yes, thank you”, Jenna replied as she took the phone back and put it into her purse.
“Are you alright?”, the lady asked.
Jenna was a bit annoyed – it was obvious that she wasn’t doing alright based on her body language, but the last thing she wanted was to get into a conversation with the lady next to her about her own psychological issues. But in the end, she figured the remaining hour of the flight might be better with an ally rather than the enemy that lived within her mind, so she decided to talk.
“I’m just a bit anxious”, Jenna said.
“You don’t like flying?”, the lady replied.
“No, it’s not flying. It’s just that I have a lot of things going on right now, and I don’t handle them especially well”.
Over the next hour, Jenna told the lady, whose name was June, about her life. June listened attentively as Jenna detailed the expectations she had of herself, the problems she perceived, and the stress she was dealing with. In the end, as they began preparing to land, Jenna finally finished talking and allowed June to get a word in.
“GAD?”, June said.
Jenna was a bit shocked – she hadn’t told June specifically what she had been diagnosed with. When June said the abbreviation, Jenna was taken aback.
“Me too”, June said reassuringly.
“How do you deal with it?”, Jenna said.
“It’s all about control”, June said.
“I know that I should be able to control it”, Jenna said sadly.
“That’s not what I meant”, June began, “I mean, you might not be able to control how your mind obsesses about things, or how distorted your world seems, or how the smallest thing can become a catastrophe. But you can control how you feel about the whole state of it”.
“What do you mean?”, Jenna said.
“I simply mean that when you find yourself falling into all of it, you shouldn’t become angry at yourself for how you feel. You should just understand that those feelings are how your mind operates. I found that once I let myself ‘off the hook’, I felt more in control of the whole thing. And once I had that, I could begin to rationally think about things. But if you’re too angry with yourself for how you feel, you’ll simply spiral out. I know, I did it too many times before I stopped yelling at myself for what I was feeling”.
By the time they finished talking, they’d both sat at the arriving gate for 30 minutes. They walked to baggage claim and found their bags had been taken to an airline office, where they retrieved them a few moments later. They then exchanged email addresses and went their separate ways.
Author Note: There is still quite a bit of stigma associated with mental illness, especially disorders like GAD and other anxiety/depression/mood conditions (By those who think “just suck it up and deal with it”). If you know someone who needs help, please help them. You don’t need to understand why they feel the way they do to be supportive.