It happens at 40,000 feet on 7th February, somewhere between Melbourne and Singapore. I double over, kneel on the carpeted floor of the back of the plane, wipe away the tears that have found their way onto my cheeks and throw up into the white paper bag I’ve been hyperventilating into for the past two hours.
I’m alone. I feel so alone. And I wish I didn’t have to travel back to England from New Zealand to go to a funeral.
Minutes later, when I’ve carefully found my way back to my seat, there is a flight attendant at my side insisting that I see a doctor when we arrive in Singapore.
“It’s just a bit of travel sickness” I tell her but she’s not convinced.
I grip the armrests of my chair, desperate to get back on the ground and breathe a sigh of relief when the plane lands in Singapore.
I will see the doctor, I think to myself as I’m whisked from one end of the terminal to the other in an airport car, I’ll get them to give me a note saying I’m fit to travel and get back on the plane to England.
Getting the certificate of fitness is easy. I tell the doctor my symptoms; sickness, stomach ache. He prescribes me medication for vomiting and nausea, for gastric acid brought on by not being able to eat anything.
I run back to the gate, note in hand, fully believing that despite not feeling any better than when I got off the plane, I’m fit to continue the 13.5 hour journey to London.
I go through security faster than I’ve ever done before, run down the corridor connected to the plane and step into the aircraft ready to find my way back to my seat.
Except I never actually make it that far.
“Let’s have a chat shall we? Sit down there for me.”
A different flight attendant corners me and I find myself sitting awkwardly in one of the crew seats in the business class gallery.
I’m offered a glass of water in an actual glass. They must think I’m fit to travel if they’re giving me a drink in an actual glass, I think.
“I’ve spoken to the pilot,” she says, her heavily made-up face just inches away from mine “and he doesn’t think you should fly.”
“Oh”, I say, because that’s all the energy I can muster right now as I double over from another stomach cramp.
Then, as the realisation sets in that I won’t actually be arriving home when I thought I would be, the questions about where I will stay and how much it’s going to cost me and when I’ll be able to fly next roll off my tongue in a panic until I’m being ushered off the plane and into the grasp of a girl who can’t be much older than I am.
She’s wearing a pink jacket and walking way too fast so I scurry alongside her with my backpack on until we arrive at the departure lounge I was in not more than ten minutes ago.
Minutes pass. I watch the plane I should have been on taxi towards the runway. I notice how quiet the airport is and realise it’s 11:30pm.
Suddenly another girl in a pink jacket is in front of me telling me that we’re going to the hotel and I suddenly realise how tired I am, how amazing curling up in a freshly made bed sounds right now.
When we get to the check-in desk of the transit hotel inside the airport, I find out that Qantas is footing the bill and the knot of worry inside my stomach unwinds itself a little.
Exhausted, I sleep like a baby until 8am Singapore time when I go and buy a phone card so I can call my parents and let them know to pick me up from the airport a day later than planned.
I take full advantage of Changi airport’s free wifi and sit in Starbucks doing some work until tiredness creeps in again and I retire to bed with MTV humming in the background.
None of this seems real. Singapore airport’s lovely, it’s literally the nicest airport I’ve ever been in, but the novelty of the nice hotel room and the free wi-fi has worn off.
I glance towards the empty bed next to my own in the twin room I’ve been given and a pang of loneliness hits me, knowing that if things had been different the bed might not have been empty. But that’s in the past, I’ve moved on, I just want to be home.
At 3pm the same lady who escorted me to the hotel last night comes by my room. I have to go to the doctor again to get another certificate of fitness to give to Qantas when I catch my flight later tonight.
She brings me my new boarding pass and I instantly have an awful feeling in my stomach again. It’s not sickness though; it’s the thought of having to get on another flight. It’s nerves and anxiety and I can’t seem to shake it off.
At 10:30pm I go to the gate, board my flight and spend the next 8 hours drifting in and out of sleep. The anxiety of the possibility of getting travel sick again keeps me from properly resting and by the time the (disgusting) breakfast is served I’m restless, exhausted and itching to land in London.
Even the smell of pre-cooked sausages and perfect little squares of scrambled eggs are making me nauseous.
OMIGOD when can I get off this STUPID plane?!
It’s at this point that I begin to wonder how I will ever get back to New Zealand. I mean, obviously, I’m totally done with plane travel. Totally, completely over it. If I never see a plane again it will be too soon.
I toy with the idea of taking myself on a nice, relaxing cruise in ten days time when I plan to leave England again but then realise that my boss will probably want me back at work, y’know, in less time it takes to get to Auckland on a cruise ship.
I briefly consider not going back to Auckland, to my apartment and my job and my friends but I love New Zealand too much not to go back and I can’t just leave my flatmate and workmates in the lurch.
No, I will go back to New Zealand. I’ll worry about it when I have to. Right now I have to try not be sick and pray that there won’t be any turbulence and try to relax.
Deep breaths. It will all be over soon.
I find myself repeating a little mantra in my head over and over;
I don’t feel sick
I don’t feel sick
I don’t feel sick
It works for a little while but the anxiety is still there. It won’t go away. It sits on my shoulder telling me that if I start to feel sick I’ll feel sick for the whole flight. It tells me that the cabin’s too hot, that the plane’s shaking too much. It laughs when I try and pretend I’m okay and snickers at any attempt I make at eating any of the plane food.
It makes flying a horrible, horrible nightmare.
It wasn’t there when I took my first ever flight (London to Sydney) and it wasn’t there last time I had to unexpectedly fly home. Why has it just crept up on me now? I wonder with deep frustration. Why can’t I just be a great flyer like everyone else?
Then, just as I’m about to give up hope of ever making it home without staring into the bottom of another sick bag, I hear my favourite in-flight announcement:
“Cabin staff prepare the aircraft for landing.”
Sweet mother of Jesus I might actually get through this flight.
And then we really do land. The tyres hit the ground, the cabin shakes as we hurtle down the runaway and the roar of the engines dies down.
I wipe the palms of my hands on my jogging pants, take a deep breath and try not to burst into tears.
Instead I try and find a smile. It won’t be long until I walk through the arrivals door and into the arms of my parents who I haven’t seen in a year.
I can forget about flying for now because I’m not at home for me. I travelled all this way to be with my family and to say goodbye to my Grandfather who I know was so proud of me travelling and working abroad.
I leave my travel-sickness and anxiety on the plane and hope that I never have to see them again.