Have I mentioned yet that I’m just back from a Florida vacation? Oh, only a couple of hundred times, huh? Well, it was our first vacation in five years and so it was quite the shake up of my routine – both in terms of my eBay business, and also for my mental health.
*I just want to quickly say that this blog post is simply my experience with taking valium for the first time, of course, people can react differently to medication so please discuss any questions you have with your doctor prior to obtaining or using a prescription.*
Why was I considering taking Valium?
On the previous two occasions that I have attempted to board a plane – in 2016 and 2017 – I’ve had panic attacks so severe that I’ve had to do a runner – letting people down that I love and holding up a frigging jumbo jet while my bags were removed. Not my favourite memories ever to be honest.
So that’s probably a decent enough explanation as to why I needed some help to fly this time, and I don’t want to turn this intro into a novel, but I should probably also just point out that I am actually not afraid of flying, like, at all. Yeah, I know, but hear me out. My issue is actually that I suffer from cleithrophobia – which is the fear of being trapped. It’s like a sister to claustrophobia – which is the fear of enclosed spaces. So, I have no fear of take-off or landing, of turbulence, or a worry about terror threats, no, for me, a flight is a nightmare simply because I’m stuck in one space for an extended period of time – it would be just as intense if I was locked in a huge gym hall on the ground, or a bus, or aything like that!
Because the fear for me is of being trapped rather than being on a plane, the panic attacks start much earlier than actually being near a plane, for example, once you go through security in an airport you are “trapped” in the departure lounge, so that’s also a big trigger for me. In fact, just having a holiday booked and knowing I “have” to go is enough to make me feel trapped and triggered (I’ll write a lot more about cleithrophobia at another time, I promise).
Why did I decide to take Valium?
So, I prepared for this holiday in a lot of ways beyond just buying a swimsuit – I began a medititation practice, I started doing yoga again, and I even tried EFT with the help of my mum. I became confident that I could handle most of the journey on my own, like getting through check-in, security and such, but I still just had this gut-wrenching fear that when push came to shove, I would still be unable to board the plane.
I wrestled with the feeling for months, but eventually decided to go and speak to my doctor. In all honesty, I felt like a bit of a failure for having to go and get valium prescribed to go on holiday – I felt like it was “supposed” to be this happy treat and not something that should require pharmacutical intervention, as in, it’s not a “necessary” thing to go on holiday, is it?
My experience with my doctor
My doctor was amazing though, he helped me to see things in a different light by explaining that anxiety is a battle I face every single day, and I deserve to have a holiday, to relax, that it will overall do good for my mental health. He was also very much of the opinion that because of my previous failure to board experiences I was building the experience up in my head and it was weighing on my mind a lot – and that I’d feel a lot better once I’d conquered this fear, even if I needed a little help to do it. He also let me know that people needing sedation to fly is actually fairly common – either in the form of prescribed medication, or a few strong drinks before they board, which I’d never really thought of before!
He gave me some tablets, that were a pretty low dose, explaining that because I’d never been sedated before, I probably wouldn’t need much – but, he enouraged me to test them out before we traveled so that I’d know how they make me feel, and also be able to go back to him if I needed a higher dosage.
The actual travel experience
Testing out the valium actually didn’t work super well for me – it allowed me to realise that I didn’t experience any mad side-effects, but I couldn’t tell if they “worked” when it came to sedating me – I think this is because I didn’t try taking them when I was in a super-anxious state, so it was hard to measure the effect because I was already calm when I took them.
However, when it came time to travel, I put a lot of faith in the tablets, not least because my doctor had explained I could take two of the tablets, if one didn’t cut it, so I felt like I had some control over the situation. On the day, I made it through check-in and security with some deep-breathing and focus exercises, I was proud of myself, but, as boarding time approached I could feel the adrenaline flooding through my system and I was losing the ability to think rationally about things – time to take a pill.
I took one pill at this point and I would say it hit me very quickly – within 10-15 minutes – although this was on a completely empty stomach as I’d been unable to eat or drink anything that day because of the anxiety. How did it make me feel? It’s strange because it doesn’t really make me feel anything, it’s more like the abscence of a feeling. Basically, when I take valium I don’t feel drowsy, or drunk or happy, for me, all it does is turn off the adrenaline.
For anyone who has had a panic attack, you know the feeling, where adrenaline is rushing into your system, your heart is racing, your stomach churning, brain running 100 miles an hour – it’s a battle to keep your mind rational. You feel like you’re going to vomit or die and all your internal alarms are going off, yes, you can fight it, and I have, many, many times, but it is exhausting and upsetting and just a constant struggle. So for me, valium just turned off the adrenaline and with it, the physical symptoms.
I wasn’t suddenly happy about boarding a flight – mentally, I was still really scared, but my body didn’t respond with all the physical stuff, so it meant that I was much more able to control my thoughts to focus on something else, and to speak rationally to myself. In other words, the valium stopped me from having a panic response, and just downgraded the whole experience to “nervousness”, which is a vast improvement.
What happened when it wore off?
My doctor had told me that valium typically lasts 4-6 hours in the system, although it’s a little difficult to say precisely, as different people react to it differently. I decided that since it kicked in super fast for me, I wasn’t going to set a timer or anything to take another one, I was just going to see how it felt.
I think really, my hope was that once it wore off part-way through the flight, I would feel fine and not need to take another one – I think I still felt like I had something to prove, or that I could handle this on my own. As it turned out, I did become aware of the valium wearing off. The restlessness in my legs, the anxious wringing of hands, the increased heart rate and breathing speed, the nausea – could I have talked myself down and done the rest of the flight valium free? Maybe, but I was so exhausted from the days of worry leading up to the flight and so keen to just not have a negative experience with flying that I decided to take another pill. Again, it kicked in quickly (although by this point I did have food in my stomach!) and felt exactly the same as the first time. I think I definitely made the right decision to take another one – not least because we faced big delays when we landed and I needed my mental strength to stay calm and manage those.
So, what about next time I fly?
The news that I had managed to board a plane reached my family and those close to me, who were very proud of me and relieved about the whole thing, however, in conversation with them since coming home, there seems to be a lot of feeling that, “well you’ve overcome that fear now, all sorted”, but, erm, I have to say unfortunately I don’t agree.
We actually already have travel plans booked for next year, and while I do feel more optimistic about it all, including the plane-boarding part, I think I have to remember that I do suffer from cleithrophobia and in a lot of ways the whole airport, long-haul flight situation is the biggest trigger that I can face. Anyone who flies long-haul knows it’s a long day, but to experience intermittent panic attacks on that day just makes it absolutely brutal, and soul-breaking.
Honestly, I feel like next time I fly I would still like to have valium with me – maybe I’ll take it, maybe I won’t, but I want to give myself the option and to give myself back the feeling of control over the day. I really, really don’t want to spend 11 months looking forward to this trip and thinking I’ll be fine with the flight only to have it all come crashing down in the 30 minutes of boarding time – been there, done that, have the nightmares about it.
Yes, ideally in the long run, I won’t have to be sedated everytime I fly, but one flight does not a phobia cure, as they say… probably. I think this is a baby-steps scenario and I feel comfortable with that. I don’t feel ashamed for having to take a sedative, and I don’t feel like I need to prove myself to other people – I’m just going to take this at a pace that feels right for me.