Thursday, 22 March 2012

Fear Of Flying

I had two things to consider; the trip to Barcelona to be with two of my dearest friends in the whole world, who both live on different continents from me, and the proctectomy - the operation to remove various other bits of gut and sew up my anus.  I realise that sounds like one fantastic thing and one awful and scary thing, but for me there was almost as much fear involved in the trip to Barcelona as the operation, possibly more.  Because I hate flying and although the flight to Spain is only a couple of hours, I would have to be awake for them, whereas the several hours of surgery I would spend asleep.  Not that there was exactly a choice between the two, you understand.  I was probably going to have to do both of them, but I wasn’t sure; I hadn’t exhausted all the possibilities yet.

I decided to pay one more visit to the surgeon. I wanted to confirm that I was definitely going to have the proctectomy, and see when he wanted to do it; I’d have to abide by that decision, obviously; if he wanted to do it in, say, June, when I was supposed to be going to Barcelona, then I’d just have to go along with that, wouldn’t I?  And if you think I’m being mad, and can’t imagine why I’d be trying to get out of such an amazing trip, then you’ve clearly never been afraid of flying.  I suppose it’s not flying I’m afraid of, if I’m honest; it’s crashing.  It’s just not the way I want to die, and every time I set foot on a plane I feel one step closer to that happening.  I know all the arguments; I realise it’s like rolling a dice, and that every time you do it, the odds are exactly the same.  And that those odds – the odds that everyone on board will die a painful, fiery, terrifying death – are very, very small.  But I can’t help it.  People say it’s irrational, because we know about those tiny odds, and that statistically aeroplane travel is the safest form of getting from one place to another, but I think it’s rational because what the hell makes sense about being inside a heavy chunk of metal that soars safely through the sky without plummeting to earth?  I do realise I’m being ridiculous in the face of overwhelming evidence that I’ll be perfectly fine, but I can’t help it and nothing and nobody so far has managed to convince me otherwise.  And also now if I die in a plane crash, I’m likely to die covered in poo.  I duly made another appointment with my surgeon.

‘I definitely want the proctectomy,’ I told him.  ‘I thought we decided you’d take the summer to decide’, he told me.  ‘I don’t need to,’ I assured him.  ‘I know I want to have it.’

He asked if I was sure I’d really given it enough thought; told me to think about how I’d felt when I first got home with the stoma, so I did think about that.  And I remembered that it was not dissimilar to going home with the teen when he was first born.  Going home with this tiny little creature who was totally dependent on us; who couldn’t function and wouldn’t survive without our input.  It wasn’t totally the same, obviously.  I didn’t have to breastfeed my stoma and, as I’ve said previously, I didn’t choose to name it either.  And it wasn’t both of us it depended on; it was just me.  But I did have to change it regularly – not as regularly as we’d had to change the baby, but then not for a finite amount of time either; I was going to be changing my stoma forever.  The thing that really felt the same was that unreality.  You probably only feel it with your first baby, but then I never got beyond just one – that odd feeling that this probably won’t be forever.  That somehow, within a short, unspecified period of time, things will change; the baby won’t be there any more and things will go back to how they were before and you’ll just have that memory – that ‘hey, remember when we had that baby in the house?’ thing.  It’s nonsense, obviously, but the profundity of having a new baby and the reality of having a new stoma truly shared that unreal quality for me.  At first.  Gradually, I got used to both, and I was now as prepared to live with my stoma forever as I am to live with the fact that I have a son.  I prefer my son, but I’m fully prepared to keep my stoma around as well.  I told the surgeon all this, and it seemed to convince him that I’d given it enough thought.

‘So, when shall we do it?’ I asked.  ‘Soon?’  He pointed out that being in hospital in the autumn or winter was probably a sensible idea, given that I was probably going to need a few months to recover afterwards.  We might be in for some good weather any moment now, and I hadn’t been ‘healthy’ for that long, had I?  ‘I think we should stick with what we said, and you should enjoy the summer.’ He told me. 

It looked like I was going to be getting on that plane.

I called Australia and told my friend I wouldn’t be having the operation ‘til later in the year, so perhaps we should start looking into places to stay in Barcelona.  Our American friend was definitely coming too, and there was a glimmer of hope for me there – what if she came to London first?  We could fly together – I wouldn’t have to do it alone.  If my bag did something weird, and it could, couldn’t it?  I mean, air pressure and a bag of poo – bursting balloons and flying faeces sprung to mind, and that would be so much less embarrassing if I had someone to share the horror with.  Not to mention that I wouldn’t be flying on my own so I wouldn’t be so scared of that bit.  I let Australian get on with researching hotels and apartments while I called American to suggest she stopped off in the UK. 

Remember I said I’d seen both of them several times while they hadn’t seen each other for twenty years?  Of course nobody was coming to London first.  They were meeting each other in Amsterdam for a couple of days before coming on to hook up with me in Spain.  I tried not to sound whingey when I pointed out to American that I was a bit scared of getting on the plane with my bag; that I’d never done it before; that even going through customs was daunting, because what if they wanted to know what that lump was under my clothes? All the people in the queue would see … But she wasn’t to be swayed – she was just so damned excited about this whole trip. There was one good thing, though – they were both going to come to London afterwards, so maybe we could all do that journey on the same plane.  Of course, I’d have to book that.  To make sure it happened

Within what seemed like a very short space of time, we were booked into a three person room in a hotel that my sister had recommended, Australian and American had reservations organised for the Amsterdam leg of their trip and I was left with the task of booking the flights back for all of us.  And the one there for me.  I wasn’t getting out of this.  I was going to have to take that first step of getting on a plane with my bag and being petrified and hoping like hell nothing happened and that I didn’t end up pooing on some stranger who had the misfortune to sit next to me. 

Have you ever tried booking tickets one way from Barcelona to London for people with three different nationalities, only one of which is British?  It’s not easy.  My advice is don’t.  Ever.  I spent three and a half hours on my Mac one afternoon, got precisely nowhere, and had nothing but tearful frustration and a very full bag to show for it.  The next day, I opened three different tabs, all with a website based in Spain (and yes, written in Spanish), and hoped like hell I was doing the right thing.  When I clicked ‘reservada’ on all three in rapid succession and actually ended up with us all booked on the same flight, it was like some kind of miracle.  I squealed with joy and danced around the room shouting ‘Yes!  I’m so clever! I’ve done it!’ feeling quite dizzy with my own success for quite some time before the husband and the teen came
in to see what all the noise was about.  I boasted of my successful endeavours and gave them a blow by blow account of just how I’d managed such a marvellous and complicated thing.

‘Wow,’ said husband.  ‘Yeah,’ said teen, ‘You’re really going to Barcelona.’

He was right. The hotel was booked, the flights were reserved, everything was paid for.  Fuck.  I was really going to Barcelona.

And so was my stoma.


  1. 'Breastfeed my stoma'!!! What a gaz, this made me laugh so much - so much so my family wanted to know what I was reading. So I read the whole blog out loud to much tittering.
    Absolutely brilliant - thank you. Can't wait 'till the next episode! xx

  2. @angrybutsmiling23 March 2012 at 13:55

    Your writing is amazing. My dad had his stoma - as an unexpected, emergency procedure - 6 years ago. It has become an elephant in the room. We're not allowed to talk about it. Thank you for an insight. x

  3. You can always count on Ms Lee to talk about ALL the elephants.
    looking forward to the next instalment.......;~) ha ha

  4. My son, up until this year, had a dread fear of sudden noises or, rather, the potential for sudden noises. This meant anything involving balooons, crackers, fireworks were out and many parties were missed out on.

    This year, thanks to a very simple series of consultations, he is no longer worried about them. No hypnotism, no BS, just a series of professional discussions and some gradual exposure.

    I'm a bit of an advocate for this now - not for any individual or any particular methodology - I've just found that, if we address these niggling fears, we can knock em on the head and have a better time.

    Thanks for honest human insight. :)

  5. I took my first flight (to Portugal) about six months after my op. I was totally unconcerned by it until I was packing. I think I pre-cut about ten bags for my hand luggage and packed about thirty in my suitcase.

    Flight passed without incident. I even sunbathed by the pool and swam.

    Since then I've traveled to South Africa four times (twice with twin babies/toddlers) and to the US once. Flying isn't a problem. I'm still waiting for the security guy that decides that there's something suspicious bulging around my waist/groin.

    My only advice is to just go for it. There are very few things I can't do now (scuba diving and white water rafting seem like a bit of a push and anything - like climbing - that needs straps to go through your legs).

    You've done the most important thing, though - you've done something that you were afraid of. That's what bravery is. Not being unafraid, but doing something even though you are.