“Would you care for a mimosa?” were the first words I heard upon sitting down in my seat on the airplane. The air from the open door—stale airport air—mixed with the stale airplane air, creating an altogether heady aroma of plastic and synthetic fabrics. Here I was, nineteen years old, and being asked if I wanted orange juice and champagne mixed in a delicate little glass to sip on while I waited for the rest of the plane to be boarded. My aunt and uncle had used their air miles to buy me a first-class seat on an international flight to Japan.
Before you stop reading, pause with me to reflect on how magnificent it is to be given such a luxurious gift when on a day-to-day basis you struggle to make rent for the upcoming months. I had never and probably will never again fly first class in domestic or international flights, and so I strive to keep this memory of fleeting luxury alive for the reason of having had some extravagance amongst my daily monetary struggles.
I was on my way to Japan, where I would live for three months while intensively studying intermediate Japanese and living in a dormitory with other people in my program—all Americans. I knew two of the boys my age going as well, although we weren’t anything more than passing acquaintances from Japanese classes. I looked towards the months of learning about new people and, hopefully, making lasting attachments.
Let’s take another break to discuss where I was coming from at the time. I was a student at the University of South Carolina, studied Japanese for approximately two years—I could speak close to nothing, and I remain that way to this day—and I was terrified out of my mind. I had recently been diagnosed as someone with bipolar disorder and high anxiety, and it is only upon reflection that I recognize that it was the high ambition of mania that brought me onto this airplane with plans to live, study, and travel alone in Japan for a quarter of a year. Fear ruled my experiences for the entirety of my life, and I had absolutely no coping mechanisms ready for the days and days and days to come.
The plane ride was as decadent as imaginable: four meals, including a snack, chosen from a menu provided to me at my seat, and an assortment of items available to me for free—a blanket, a pillow, another blanket, slippers, pajamas, headphones, and a sleep mask. The television screen came out from one of my two tables, alongside my three (three!) windows. The chair reclined, and I—terrified of airplanes—passed the time in as much comfort as someone who is convinced they’re going to die any minute is able to manage. I, to this day, have no idea what it’s like to do a twelve-hour flight without leg room, and that is a goddamn blessing.
Upon landing, our plane was forced to circle and circle the airport, waiting for an opening, and amidst the clouds, I felt my stomach grow dizzy. I hadn’t slept more than an hour, and it was early evening in Tokyo. I now felt sick, tired, and a little bit trapped. Still, ask anyone afraid of flying and you’ll know that the promise of the ground beneath the wheels any minute is enough to keep us going for just a few minutes longer, hanging on through the certainty that the wheels probably won’t work anyway or the turbulence on our approach will tear us out of the sky.
Fear is a huge, looming giant in my life, and it always has been. In order to achieve anything or have new experiences, I have to struggle against the terror that the worst will happen at all times. I have terrible fears of flying, of heights, of cockroaches, of meeting new people, and just about anything else you can imagine. I have never known if my terror led to high anxiety or if high anxiety spoon-fed my terror until it loomed large enough in my life to stop me from trying new things. As a child, I had only begun to participate in events and activities as a way to avoid being teased for being afraid, not for their own enjoyment. Don’t mistake me, I gained many valuable and precious memories as a result of these brave attempts at engaging in life, but I can’t honestly tell anyone that I would have tried anything if I hadn’t also had a terrible fear of judgment.
So that’s where it all began: circling an airport in Tokyo, terrified out of my mind for the future—will the plane land? Will I make friends? Will I be able to find food?
We landed without event, and, despite my horrible exhaustion and stomach upset by the belated landing, I was ready to get moving. No matter how comfy the chair, after twelve hours your body craves freedom.
The terminal was bustling, as most terminals are during the early evening in one of the world’s largest cities. I had to get to a meeting spot of which my program had notified me, and so I stared at the screenshot on my phone of the map to the location. Pulling my horrifically heavy suitcase behind me and my—I honestly don’t know how—even heavier carry on my shoulder, I stumbled through the airport. I nearly crashed into three people grouped in front of me, and was immediately bombarded with questions. Sweating, tired, and queasy, I agreed to whatever it is they asked me without thinking.
It had been a T.V. interview that they had asked me to do. So, I—in my red-faced, huffing-and-puffing, all-American glory—gave a short T.V. interview. I answered questions like why I had come to Japan and if I was studying Japanese and how much I understood. It wasn’t until sometime later that I reflected on just how embarrassed I’d be if I or anyone I knew ever happened across that awkward interaction while flipping through television channels. In Any other state, fear would have kept me walking, not even responding to their requests, but in my beleaguered condition I had simply agreed to allow whatever happened to whisk me away.
I met with my program at the right spot after quite a bit of searching for the right location. Immediately, I felt the awkward tension of meeting many new people all at once. Some of the students had already met on their flights, and I sat by the wayside, waiting for the conversation to come to me rather than reaching out to anyone else. Anxiety had sealed my lips and persistent thoughts of being unwanted parroted around and around in my head.
During my arrival to Japan, I faced my fear of flying. I distinctly remember that everyone in first class kept their window shades strictly closed—creating a false night that permeated the very atmosphere. However, after I finished watching my first film of the flight to pass the time, I dared a glimpse out of one of my windows. Opening the shade a tiny amount, a shaft of sunlight darted in, and I felt the rest of the cabin groan inwardly at the visual disturbance. However, my breath was wiped out of me in an instant, along with my cares and my fears. We were above Alaska, and I stared down at the most beautiful mountains I had ever seen. Their white peaks looked like great waves upon an ocean of ever-rippling glory. I threw open the rest of the shade and pressed my face to the window, looking down with widened eyes. How could I—in my reclining chair next to two tables and my menu of foods and wines from which to choose—be so blessed as to have seen this?