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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wanting to Exit the Exit Row

Okay, so yesterday I rode with my dad towards Washington D.C. with a stop over in Indianapolis to pick up my sister and nephew and all in all it was a fun ride with lots of hilarity and hijinks, but I want to go back to two days ago when I was flying from Salt Lake City to Saint Louis.

After a wonderful three hour layover (there was no sarcasm in that, I love layovers; even more so now that I don't have to worry about partaking in America's fastest growing sport, the 100 gate dash) it was time to get on the plane and I sat down in my aisle seat. As I sat down I noticed a college student staring at me. She then spoke up and said, "Would you mind switching with me? My boyfriend is in your row and besides, you can have the exit seat which means more room." More room? That sounded great, and besides that I couldn't say know. No, honestly, in that situation to maintain a level of social safety I have to say yes even if I didn't want to and I didn't really want to move. My ticket said a specific number and that's where I was supposed to be, but regardless I had to say because if I say no this person could say something nasty, become hostile, or yell. All of these are too much for me to bear so I said yes.

It's a traveler's dream, this Eden of a land known as the exit row. With extra spacing for legs one can stretch the night away. That's what I've heard, but as soon as I sat down something was wrong. What was wrong? I had space to move and instantly I felt insecure. I'm used to the close quarters and the minimal ability to move my feet, but in this exit room I could extend my legs all the way out and this sense of freedom created a prison within my mind.

Typically I have no fear while flying. However, instantly, panic set in. I thought of all the horrible ways a plane could go down and then I noticed I was sitting on the wing, which is the fuel tank, and I began to shake. All the while I was trying to get my legs in a position that gave me some sense of security, but there was none. I looked over at the boyfriend/girlfriend and gave a small snarl as while they were living the dream I was no in a state of red alert panic fearing anything and everything.

So... What happened? After flying more times this year than any other in my life and having no issues what created such a change? I can only theorize that the pressure, or tightness of a normal seat creates some sense of safety within my mind. Perhaps this is similar to the squeeze machine Temple Grandin made. I have a blog post somewhere about the time I tried the machine, but it didn't do anything for me. However, we must remember that if you've met one person with autism you've only met one person with autism. Just because the machine did nothing for me doesn't mean that element is out of play completely.

Being in the tight quarters I often forget I am on a plane as my body as the constant sensation of pressure from my legs being against the seat in front of me. This was now gone and the takeoff scared me to an extreme level. Time felt like it was taking longer and I was sure we had an engine problem and were going to sail off the end of the runway. Every motion felt stronger and each crack in the tarmac was felt. Life, I was sure, was over.

Obviously those fears were wrong and after take off I was able to retreat within a television drama show on DVD I had brought along and after the two episodes were over the true drama began as we entered some very rough air. This was the type of turbulence that makes your stomach drop. Each time this happened I said, "This is it, goodbye world... Whew!"

I did mention I was on the aisle seat and this too added to my fears I think. Being in the window seat allows me to see what is going on. The guy seated beside sat in a forward posture which prevented me from seeing anything outside. The unknown isn't a pleasant thing as well so all the elements were in place to make this flight a nightmare.

The routine of landing began and I had flown into Saint Louis enough from this direction to realize that we were nearing the airport and when we did a steep bank to turn left I knew we were over Forest Park. The landing was soon, but when I finally got a glimpse outside all I could see was the gray abyss that is dense fog.

Time, once again, seemed longer to me. I knew we were descending, but surely we weren't going to land in this soupy mess. I went into a hyper mode of looking around much like a cat that is following prey, or a laser pointer. I once again knew that something was wrong with the plane and we were descending into the ground and all was lost.

When I convinced myself that this wasn't happening I stared off to nowhere in front of me and then there was a thud. I thought this thud was going to be the last thing I ever felt, but it actually was the ground; we had landed. The fog was so thick it was hard to make out anything outside, but there I was and I had survived the flight.

I have learned from this experience. The first thing being is that pressure on me does make a difference in the right environment. Well, perhaps it is the pressure or maybe it is the safety of close confines. And the second is this; very shortly after I agreed to take this seat the flight attendant asked each of us, "Do you realize you are seated in an exit row and if so, do you accept the responsibilities and are willing to do the tasks and follow directions as directed?" Next time I ever hear that question I am going to look at the flight attendant in bewilderment and I'm going to say, "Heck no!"

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