I’m not sure if there is any place on the face of the planet that holds the power to arouse a more diverse range of emotions than the airport. Over the years, I’ve seen the best and worst of life gazing out of those broad terminal windows. There is something very magical about this place. It’s the epicenter of emotional hellos and goodbyes. It’s the birthplace of escapes from our day to day reality. It’s an exciting new place, and it’s also the comfort of home. Each and every day the airport becomes a temporary resting place for a unique group of people. Look to your right and you’ll catch a glance at a young family full of life that’s spent years socking away every penny to afford their children the vacation of a lifetime. Look to your left and you’ll see a wet behind the ears and anxious salesman living on a Ramen noodle budget, hoping to close his first deal so that he can get out of his father’s loaner suit and into one of his own. As you line to board the plane, you’ll notice a clean shaven man of 18 years dressed in fatigues heading off to serve our great nation, and you’ll nod in appreciation and allow him on ahead of you. You’ll see eyes filled with tears, you’ll hear “I love you” on someone’s last phone call, and you’ll feel the magnitude of all that’s happening around you, and it’ll give a gentle tug to your heart.
My first distinct memories of the airport probably go back to when I was around 9 or 10 years old and my sister was a student at the University of Notre Dame. She would fly home for breaks and we would head off to Lehigh Valley or Harrisburg to await her arrival. This was always a very intriguing experience for me as kid. We’d often have dinner at the restaurant in the airport and then would head over to the monitors to check on the timing of her flight. I’d gaze up at the big board with wide eyes. The world always felt completely limitless in the airport. It was exciting. “I wonder who is on that flight from Chicago? What do they do for a living that allows them to travel? Where do they live?”
During that time, we were still able to wait at the gate for the passengers to arrive. So my Mom and Dad and I would head over and sit by the windows and make our best efforts to guess which flicker in the distant sky was carrying my sister. And then her plane would taxi in, and the fun would begin. Usually we would make our best effort to embarrass her and sometimes we’d even hide. “Welcome home” to the usual cast of characters!
Those were great memories, and they most definitely encouraged my interest in travel. Because those trips to the airport left me feeling inspired. They taught me to dream and to want more. Perhaps that’s part of what led me to a desire to leave my hometown and explore southern California at 18. I felt alive when I was on a plane because literally, the sky was the limit. You could walk into an airport without a plan, buy a ticket, and head off to somewhere new with endless possibilities. You could leave the past behind and within a few hours step off the plane with a brand new start in front of you. No one at your destination would have preconceived notions of who you could and couldn’t be, because no one knew you. It was innocence. It was the same feeling that I had as a kid staring at the monitor of arrivals and departures. Life felt boundless and plentiful. Nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was like carrying a winning lottery ticket, and you just needed to have the guts to go cash it in.
When anxiety and panic disorder began severely disrupting my life in the summer of 2002, my view of the airport became a bit jaded. I was introduced to all of the dark emotions that could accompany this seemingly magical place. I remember it like it was yesterday. My best friend from back home had been out visiting me for a week and it was during his stay that I encountered my first bout with severe anxiety and panic. I had no idea what was happening to me. I truly became a different person overnight. Just 24 hours earlier, I had been a confident, independent, and secure young man, and now I was finding myself feeling as helpless as a lost child. When I pulled into LAX to bid my buddy farewell, my body shook with fear. I walked him inside the terminal, and as I headed back to my car, I found myself to be a complete wreck. That very moment was the birth of an entirely new and painful way of living for me. The airport was transitioning into a symbol of destruction and I’d soon learn that it would become a lightning rod for painful experiences in my life.
Flights home during my times of struggle in California were very difficult on me. Fear would confront me every time that I boarded the plane. I would feel confined, trapped, and completely panicked. There was nothing pleasant about the experience. It was five or six hours of hell. But the thought of my family waiting at baggage claim in Philadelphia would carry me through it. Coming back however, was a different story. Not only did I need to confront all of those feelings previously mentioned, but now there was only loneliness and isolation awaiting my return. There was no family at the gate. I was alone in California, and I was scared to death that I would completely fall apart there. Thank the Lord for my girlfriend at the time for holding me together for as long as she could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until one of those return trips became too much for me to bear. It was Thanksgiving of 2002 when I abandoned a drive to the airport, had my father turn the car around, and soon after made the decision to move back to Pennsylvania to regain my strength.
It was not until the winter of 2007 that I felt comfortable challenging my fear of that return trip. I had planned a vacation with my fiancé at the time to warm and sunny southern California. I needed to make peace with my past, and I wanted to show her around the places that I had once adored. I remember that flight very well. Sweaty palms, racing heart, nausea; I had no idea how my body would react when I stepped off the plane. But as we passed through the gate and into the terminal at LAX, I felt completely alive. It was familiar and welcoming. I was back, and it was still home.
Unfortunately, not all of my experiences with my fiancé at the airport were quite as uplifting and positive. For it was in Philadelphia, just steps outside of security that I said goodbye to her forever, less than six months after that incredibly redeeming trip to California. It was there that I held her hand for the last time…it’s where we last kissed, hugged, and shared an “I love you.” And today when I pass through that terminal, I often remember that moment, and it sends a shiver up my spine.
Since that time, I’ve spent a lot of my days traveling. I’ve had the opportunity to see a great bit of the country, and I have enjoyed most of my experiences visiting places old and new. But during the past year of my life in particular, flights here and there once again became a real stumbling block for me. Amazingly, nearly every experience that I had in the airport during that time led to a dramatic turn of events in my life.
Almost exactly one year ago, I traveled to Lincoln, NE to meet up with a customer from California for a press check. On the flight out to Lincoln, I began feeling some pretty intense anxiety. This was a bit uncharacteristic for me. It had been years since I really had any difficulties flying. But in an instant, panic was knocking at the door. It was only hours later that evening when I found myself back at the hotel in an argument on the phone with my girlfriend of nearly a year in a half. That night that I discovered that she had been lying to me when I left town. And less than one month later, we broke up.
This past May on a week-long visit to both northern and southern California for business, I found myself convinced that my positive experiences on the road were going to allow me to leave my anxiety in the rearview. I felt alive during that trip, and I overcame all kinds of fear. But when I arrived at LAX on Saturday morning for my return flight to PA, I could sense something dramatic happening. And upon our descent into Philadelphia, everything fell apart. Light turned to darkness. I found myself on the freeway to destruction. That drive home was a precursor for the deep abyss eagerly awaiting me…rock bottom.
Throughout the summer, things went from bad to worse. But as I took responsibility for my past I became far more self-aware and I found myself gaining some clarity and understanding. I was slowly working my way back onto the right track, but God wasn’t nearly finished refining me. I had left a real mess in His hands. This was going to take time, patience, and trust.
At the end of September, I hopped back on a plane to California. I met my boss out in San Jose and we ran a couple of client meetings nearby, and then by mid-week we headed south to San Diego for a dinner. That night in the Gaslamp, an otherwise very positive week went haywire. Anxiety struck me with tremendous intensity. I struggled to swallow at dinner, and had to excuse myself several times from the table. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I was a complete disaster inside. The next morning we caught a cab to the airport and headed to the gates for our separate departures. My boss boarded about a half hour ahead of me, and I was very thankful for that. Because I could barely hold in for another minute the severe anguish that I was burrowing inside. I was about to crack. The room began to feel like it was spinning. My throat closed up. I couldn’t breathe and I felt faint. With nowhere to turn, I called my Dad and he calmed me down with some words of encouragement. I had been ready to abandon ship, but ultimately I made the decision to trust in God, and I got on the plane and headed home. It was one of the longest days of my life. But I made it. Just a few weeks later however, I hit a wall physically. The chronic nature of my intense anxiety had beaten me to my knees. This is the time in my life when I really found God.
Today I hold in my hands a free airline ticket that I’ve earned with frequent flyer miles from all of the business and personal travel that I’ve done over the past couple of years. I’ve been holding onto it for about eight months, and in another four, it will expire. My fear has broken and exhausted me. I’ve learned to only survive in my comfort zone, and the thought of stepping outside of it often scares me to death. Because too many times I’ve seen the dark side of the place that I once considered the birthplace of dreams and limitless possibilities. I haven’t forgotten those positive memories. I just wish that I could somehow discover that innocence in my life again and find the strength to believe that the sky truly is the limit.
I’m holding a winning lottery ticket. I can go anywhere that I want and be whoever I want to be. The problem is that I don’t quite have the guts to cash it in. I pray that someday soon I will…and I hope that you will in your life too. Because when you do, it is then that you will truly fly.