Bullying, Sexism, and Panic Attacks on Planes
It’s a little past six a.m. here in Seattle, but I’ve been up for more than three hours, trying to sleep, but inadvertently writing this post in my head. We returned from Scotland yesterday, connecting through London to Seattle – the last leg of the trip now so familiar to us, I know the menus and the in-flight security video, and even some of the faces I see on the plane by heart.
And while I’ve taken that route many times before, yesterday’s flight was, without question, the worst flight of my life. It was not because of delays (there weren’t any), or screaming children (that’s what children do), or due to any fault of the flight crew, who were incredibly supportive and wonderful and kind.
Yesterday’s flight was terrible because I – a fully grown woman and pretty damn seasoned traveler – was bullied by another passenger to the point of a panic attack. I need to tell you all what happened, because I think it’s an important story to tell, and if I’m perfectly honest, I’m still terrified of this man. His words keep echoing in my head, and I’m not sure how to get them out. I’m hoping that if I write them down here, I’ll exorcise them from my head. That usually works. That’s what my friend Celeste would tell me to do, and she’s an expert at self-exorcism.
Before I begin, I need to include a trigger warning (yes, seriously. These damn events are triggering for me.) If you have panic attacks, please note that I will be describing mine in depth below. I will also be talking about emotional abuse, hostility, misogyny, violation of personal physical space and boundaries, as well as some latent threats, all at 36,000 feet. Whee.
I was traveling in World Traveler Plus with my beloved (yes, we splurged for a little more legroom!) in two seats off to the side – a window and an aisle on the right side of the plane. We had our in-flight meal, dozing now and then, and I’d noticed that I was occasionally having trouble reclining my seat – it would recline a little bit, then fully, then not at all. Rand seemed to be having similar issues.
I suspected something might be going on, then decided it was simply paranoia on my part. The overhead lights went off after dinner, the passengers around me began to drop off into snoozing or TV watching, and I tried reclining my chair. This time it didn’t budge. Weird.
“Can you recline your chair?” I asked Rand, gently.
“Yeah, of course I can,” he said, and to demonstrate, he did so. The second his chair reclined, the row behind us came alive. The man seated behind me began to bark at us. He was somewhat unintelligible due to his volume and slurring of words.
“Can you put your seat up? Can you put your seat up? Can you put your seat up?”
The man spoke rapidly and harshly without waiting for Rand to reply and it soon became obvious that he wasn’t asking. I should note – he wasn’t seated behind Rand – he was seated behind me in the aisle. The woman next to him, directly behind Rand, wasn’t actually traveling with him. They’d been chatting on the flight, but I heard intros between the two of them.
“I’m gonna need you to put your seat up.”
“Uh, sure,” Rand said, thinking it was just some temporary thing – that perhaps some item was caught that needed to be retrieved. People who travel a lot understand these things – the man in front of me just reclined his seat and cracked me on the skull (I’d been leaning over). That shit happens. It’s a plane, and planes are crowded places.
Rand gently pulled his seat up a little and the man behind us quieted down.
“Mine reclines fine,” Rand said to me, still unclear on what was happening. By then I’d started putting the pieces together, and was somewhat petrified. The guy behind us was not going to let us recline our chairs. And he was willing to be aggressive about it.
I was exhausted. I need to sleep. So I tried reclining my chair again. I pushed the button in, but nothing. I tried pressing back, and it would wiggle a bit, but wouldn’t budge.
“Mine isn’t working,” I said to Rand. He tried pressing the button without any luck.
“I’ll figure it out,” I told him. I kept trying for a while.
Finally, with sudden jarring, it reclined. I curled up, and the second I did, the man behind me shook the back of my chair violently. I started.
“You’re going to put your seat up.”
I looked at him over the back of my seat, confused.
“This isn’t working for me. You need to put your seat up.”
I tried to understand what he was talking about.
“Wait, what?” I repeated.
“You need to put your seat up now.”
Was this actually happening? I’d heard about this sort of thing, but despite traveling roughly 80,000 miles ever year for the better part of a decade, I’d never seen it in real life. I certainly didn’t expect to be caught in the middle of it. I took a deep breath. I’m not great at advocating for myself. It’s something I struggle with in virtually every facet of my life.
“I’m sorry, but I’m very tired, and I need to recline to sleep.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head with a mocking grin. “You aren’t going to sleep. It’s 7:30pm. It isn’t sleepy-time,” he said, in creepy sing-song. Then his voice dropped. “Unless you’re three.”
“Well, I got up very early and – you know what? I don’t need to explain myself,” I said, after realizing I was starting to do just that. We were, after all, on a plane. People sleep on planes at all hours. And it wasn’t 7:30 in the sky somewhere over Nova Scotia. Everyone around me was asleep. THE OVERHEAD LIGHTS WERE OFF.
“I’m tired, and I have every right to recline my chair and sleep.”
I cannot tell you how difficult it is to say this sort of thing to an angry, irrational man who is literally locked in an enclosed space with me.
“Typical American reaction,” he said.
Here’s the kicker: while this was all happening, THE GUY HAD HIS CHAIR RECLINED. I kid you not.
We went back and forth. He continued to tell me that I wasn’t going to recline my chair, that it wasn’t time for me to sleep, that I wasn’t allowed, and that he wouldn’t let me. He occasionally returned to the mocking, sing-song voice.
“You know,” I said, “If you had asked me nicely, I would have been happy to make something work. But you’ve been so incredibly rude-”
“Excuse me? I haven’t cursed at you once.”
“Wha …” I was dumbfounded. “You. Can. Be. Rude. Without. Cursing.” It was like talking to a seven-year-old.
“Oh, yeah, I’m the worst person in the world. I’m the wrong one here,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“I’m sorry, but I need to sleep, and I’m going to recline my chair.”
“Then I’m going to do this,” he said, grabbing the back of the seat and shaking it (and me with it) violently up and down.
And then he grinned at me, and. Fuck. Fuck. I can’t write this without losing it.
Deep breath, Geraldine. Deep breath.
He grinned, he looked at me, and he said the following:
“I can go all night.”
(And here’s where I take break, calm my breathing down, have a good cry. Maybe look and see if that jacket I wanted went on sale … Nope. Oh, well.)
Being a woman can be a terrifying thing. It doesn’t have to be, it shouldn’t be, but most of the time, it is. From the time that we are very small, whether we be male or female or anywhere on the spectrum in between, we are taught to identify what’s ours. When we are babies, our parents ask us where our noses are, and we gleefully point it out with various degrees of accuracy. Where’s your nose? Where’s your tummy? Where are your toes? When we are small, we are taught these things, and it carries with it an important lesson: your body is your own, and no one else’s. These parts of you are yours and yours alone.
But inevitably, if you are a woman, a stranger will make you feel at some point like that isn’t the case. And it starts when you are very, very young. I can speak in general terms about this: every single woman I know, I mean EVERY SINGLE WOMAN IN MY ENTIRE LIFE has had that happen to them. Some creepy comment from a stranger (or, fuck, sometimes not a stranger) received at an incredibly young age that makes us think: maybe everyone was wrong. Maybe these aren’t my legs. Maybe these aren’t my arms or my thighs or my butt or my breasts. Maybe that dude mumbling to me in the park has some claim to them, because he sure as hell is acting like he does.
Sometimes we cover these parts of us up, so that those people don’t see, so that we can pretend they are ours. We hide away ourselves, believing (erroneously, I should note, and that is part of the fucked-up-ness of it all) that will keep us safe. After all, that’s the impression everyone gives us. It’s why “What were you wearing?” was (and in some places, remains) the first question that some many women are asked after an assault.
(Here’s the worse part: we, as women, do it to ourselves. Because the second we accept the truth that this shit happens regardless of what we do, we lose one of those mental constructs we’ve created to help us feel safer. When I hear women’s stories of assault or abuse I immediately want to downplay it. Not because I don’t think she’s telling the truth, but because I know she is, and that scares the hell out of me. I try to come up with extenuating and mitigating circumstances EVEN THOUGH THERE ARE NONE, otherwise I can’t come up with a reason for why it won’t happen to me. Newsflash: there aren’t any. It happens to all of us.)
We walk away, we go someplace where we feel safer. We creep into our beds and hug our knees to our chest and we try to stop shaking and thinking about what was said. We try to create boundaries, we try to put physical space between us and them.
But what happens when you can’t do that? What happens when someone is literally inches away from you, telling you that the space you thought was yours – SPACE THAT YOU LITERALLY FUCKING PAID FOR – is not? That you aren’t going to sleep unless you do what he says? That he will physically shake you in order to make you do what he wants?
I know that people are going to tell me that I’m making ridiculous parallels here. That telling a woman she isn’t going to sleep on a plane doesn’t contribute to rape culture, right? Maybe not – at least, not as significantly as all the other shit we deal with. But it sure as fuck doesn’t help women, either. It’s pretty safe to say that this dude is not at the forefront of the feminist movement. He’s not listening when a woman presents clear boundaries.
Yesterday, while all this was happening, while my brain struggled to be consciously present, my body did something else.
My body was terrified. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. I could barely breathe. My heart was racing. Because it knew that it needed to be scared. Because it knew, even as my brain tried to calm it down, that this was very dangerous situation, and one that I couldn’t escape from.
Don’t believe me? Here is what my heart rate did as I sat in a fucking chair being harassed by this guy:
THE FUCKER PUT ME IN FAT BURN MODE WHILE I WAS SITTING DOWN IN A CHAIR. (And spare me the fucking jokes. I’d take six hours on the treadmill over him.) The point is: I had seen how this guy spoke to Rand. It was still rude, but there was a difference. He pretended like Rand had a choice. With me, he made it clear I didn’t. With me, he physically invaded my space. He shook me, literally and figuratively.
“You don’t get to talk to me that way,” I said. And again, “I have a right to recline my chair.”
“No, you don’t,” he said. “That’s not going to work for me, and you need to find a compromise I can live with.”
In other words: change your actions until I’m happy, or suffer the consequences.
“You are the rudest person I have ever met,” I said, standing up. It was all I could say. My words had long ago left me, and every one that I managed to get out was a struggle. “I’m going to take a walk to calm down and get away from you for a while.”
“Yeah, I’m the rude one,” he said, laughing. And then, then the clincher, the words every single woman has heard in some form or another while trying to stand up for herself:
You need to calm down. You’re hysterical. You are blowing this out of proportion.
I immediately walked to the back of the plane, shaking. I told the flight crew what was happening. They crowded around me, concerned. They brought me water. They told me I was right to tell them. They held my hand.
Later, I would ask Rand why he didn’t check on me, why he didn’t say something to defend me when I was obviously terrified, and he told me that he had no idea that I was panicked. I seemed fine. He thought I had handled it well, and that I was simply walking away from “a dude who was clearly crazy.” We get so good at concealing our own terror – we don’t just succeed in hiding it from ourselves, we hide it from people who know us best.
I’ve complained about British Airways in the past, I’m sad to say. But after yesterday, I can’t imagine doing that again. The crew was amazing, if confused as to why I was shaking (later this week: an in-depth look at panic attacks on planes. FUN READING FOR ALL.) They went and talked to the guy who sat behind me.
I will hand it to him: he was nothing if not a consistent sack of shit. He told them point blank that if I came back and tried reclining my chair, he would do it again.
“Sir, I strongly advise you not to do that.”
The head of flight crew, a petite woman named Petra, came back not long after.
“He’s … he’s … HE’S SUCH A BULLY!” she finally said, shaking her head. “I can’t believe it.” She told me that her male colleague had to take over, because she was making no headway. The guy sitting behind me did not back down. He certainly wasn’t going to listen to a woman, even if she was in charge of the entire goddamn cabin. I heard the crew temporarily discuss whether or not they would need to have police meet us at the airport and escort him off the plane.
I listened, replaying everything that happened, trying not to drown in my own panic. There were hours of the flight left, and I was stuck sitting in front of this guy. I imagined everything he could say and do. How he had point blank told flight crew that he wouldn’t stop. I tried to stop shaking. But the thing is, if your body does something involuntarily, it’s really hard to get it to stop. I tried to stop crying. I tried to breathe. I couldn’t.
Another member of the flight crew calmly told me that they’d be getting me and Rand new seats – that the man was insufferable, and no one should have to sit through his abuse.
Later, I found out that the man behind me told Rand that he had done us a favor.
“I just got you upgraded,” he said.
Let’s just see exactly the nature of his favor. Here’s me before the flight, with Rand, in World Traveler Plus:
We look pretty cute, right? Exhausted and running on 5 hours of sleep, but cute.
And here is me, post-panic attack, in Business Class:
Thanks for the favor, asshole. Here’s a brief chart for next time:
Business class with a panic attack < World Traveler Plus
Business class with a panic attack < Economy
Business class with a panic attack < Economy sandwiched between members of the US Olympic Synchronized Farting Team
To the crew of BA flight #49, flying into Seattle yesterday: Thank you. To Kelly, Petra, Suzie, Anthony, and Laura, I do not know what I would have done without your intervention. I am terrified just thinking about it. You went above and beyond and we are very grateful.
To those that say I am overreacting, that I should have told him before lowering my chair, that I should have compromised: No. I did nothing wrong. I was calm, I was clear, I was doing what literally every person around me INCLUDING THE ASSHOLE WHO HARASSED ME was doing. I was left shaking and crying and terrified and told that he did me a favor.
And in the end, he was left with a vacant seat in front of him. In the end, he got exactly what he wanted.