Travel Anxiety Sucks, The Kindness Of Others Always Humbles, And I'm Making Free Coloring Pages Because Of Both Of Those Things

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Recently, I had to make a trip to Chicago, Illinois, to accompany my son on his college auditions at Northwestern and DePaul Universities. This trip demanded getting on a plane.

I don't like to fly.

No, really, I don't like flying. 

Yes, I know that it's the safest form of travel, not to mention the swiftest (when you have a direct flight), and I am a big fan of those two things. 

I'm actually not all that afraid of the actual process of flying.

The thing about flying is I can't get out of the plane if I need to and my personal space during a flight is incredibly tight by my standards.

I am extremely claustrophobic, and planes are nothing more than metal boxes with wings designed to trap a bunch of humans inside, humans that don't know each other and who have to sit REALLY close together...with very few lavatories, puny air vents and too-small windows (I really need to stop describing this right now because I feel a panic attack coming on).

But, needs must, as the British say, so I have been flying more this year than I have in the last 20. My son is a senior in high school and a musician, which apparently means he's going places, far away places. If I want to be a part of his life, I have to learn to embrace flying no matter how close to death and out of control it makes me feel.

To that end, during flights I color in books (sometimes ones that are designed for coloring, sometimes in ones that are not), I read books that I know my brain will be thoroughly distracted by, I listen to music that soothes my nerves and reminds me of my power (nothing makes me feel more like a wasted, weak and worthless human being than anxiety and claustrophobia), I stare out the windows at clouds (which, next to trees, are my favorite natural things in this world), and I now take an itsy, bitsy, teeny, tiny dose of Xanax. 

All of the above has served me rather well now for 5 flights in a row.

I thought perhaps, "Wow! I'm a traveler! Look at me going places!"

Ah, hubris.

I had not yet had to fly at night.

Why should flying at night be a problem?

Think of the metaphors writers use to describe night: the cover of night, the bat-black night, the fall of night, the curtain of night, the obscurity of nighttime, the shroud of night, etc.

You get the idea.

The windows of the plane showing the jet-black night (pun intended) added an extra thick layer of feeling trapped I had not anticipated.

Our flight home from my son's successful music performance auditions in Chicago was for 7pm in February, the dead of winter; the sun had gone down hours ago by the time our plane home had taxied up to the gang plank. Getting onto the plane, my heart started to feel tight and poundy (Yes, that's a word no matter what auto-correct says. Here's the definition: when a heart smacks ruthlessly into the rib cage of a creature, demanding said creature's entire attention, causing them to want to find wide open spaces and fresh air, at whatever cost.) even though I had taken my Xanax preemptively. Settling into my seat, all around me were shadows, folks turning off their feeble overhead lights, closing their windows, creating even more darkness. I pulled out my trusty coloring book (Jenny Lawson's You Are Here, a book I can't recommend enough - it's fabulous with or without travel anxiety and claustrophobia!), situated my coloring tools (For this trip I chose to test out how Bic Marking Permanent Markers handled air travel, and I was incredibly pleased - they did great, no leaks or pens bursting, and they come in enough colors that I never felt frustrated, wishing for more sets or shades!), tried to get comfortable, but...all my tricks weren't working. It was too dark to color: there were shadows all over the page, lines obscured, inspiring words muddled.

I leaned into my partner, Steve, and whispered, "It's not working, I can't do this."

He said something encouraging that I don't recall now. All I could focus on was the fact that I had to calm down before my kid, who is also not a huge fan of air travel, found out his mother was on the verge of losing her shit. 

I frantically put all my coloring stuff back in my backpack, pulled out my sketch journal and my set of Staedtler Pigment Liners (drawing pens that also travel in altitudes well, in case you were wondering), and turned to a clean, bright, creamy page and pointed my dim overhead light directly at the paper. I then found the brightest, bass-thumping-est playlist on my phone, put my ear buds on, and set myself on a mission to distract my brain from sending my body increasingly alarming fight-or-flight feedback.

My flight was 2 hours and 45 minutes, and I had come to the conclusion that the only way to get through this bracket of time was to pretend, as best I could, that I wasn't flying at all. So, I wasn't on a plane, I was somewhere else (anywhere else) and I had been given the task of filling up this enormous blank page in my journal with black lines as if I was drawing back home in my studio. I wasn't going to put on my reading glasses so I could see what I was doing (My anxiety was telling me "you need to be able to see in all fields of vision in case of an emergency evacuation, so keep your trifocals on, chica - who cares if your head is throbbing!"), I wasn't going to worry about form, direction or shape, and I was going to draw straight through turbulence as if it was only the nudging of my cats at my elbows. I wasn't going to stop for anything, not for the beverage service, not for the bathroom, not for the beepings and boopings that are customary on a flight, not even for my child who was having difficulty with the turbulence (I am super fortunate that his father, Steve, was traveling with us and knows how to help our son deal with his fear as well as I do).

It was just me, my pens and my paper for 2 hours and 45 minutes (Southwest Airlines, man, they are on time!). I was so deep into my drawing that my son felt the need to reach across the seats and gently tap me on my shoulder to tell me that the touch down of our plane was eminent; he was afraid I had no idea that the impact was coming, and he didn't want it to scare the hell out of me (I really have the best family!). Once our plane settled into the gate, I took a picture of my doodle because that's what I do.

The words in the top left hand corner read:

I was proud of myself: I had made it through another flight, I had filled up the entire page with ink and lines, and I hadn't taken anybody down with me. 

I was also exhausted. 

I'm not sure any human body is meant to have a solid drip of adrenaline for an extended period of time as I did during that flight, but I am positive that my body isn't designed to handle the biochemical aftermath of the adrenaline drop well. I sat in my seat in a daze as passengers exited the plane. While I hate to get on a plane, I am usually the last one off, ironically. I tend to need that quiet time to collect myself before using my legs for walking again, I need to pack away all my flight-survival paraphernalia in an organized way, and I like to say goodbye to my flight crew in peace, not being rushed by folks needing to catch a connecting flight pushing at my back (Flight attendants impress the hell out of me: airplanes as their work place, dealing with folks like me day in and day out?! How do they do it?!?). 
Slowly, I traveled towards the front of the plane, and as I got to the midsection, one of the flight crew smiled directly at me and said, "Are you the passenger who was drawing in the back of the plane?" 

"Yes," I answered. And, before I could explain myself, maybe apologize for not having looked up as I was served snacks and beverages, she continued, "At first I thought you were coloring, but then I realized you were drawing what was in front of you! I would love to color a drawing like that!" I smiled, sheepishly I'm sure (I am still a work-in-progress when it comes to receiving compliments on my work or projects), and somewhere inside of me a bit of courage said, "I create coloring books." She was excited and asked me my name, and in another burst of confidence I offered her my business card instead, stating, "My name is rather common, and searching me out can actually end you in some unsavory places...I'm not those Michelle Johnsons, but this is me." She thanked me and wished me a good rest of my journey, and I walked down the gang-plank feeling even more proud of myself - look at me handing out business cards and stating what I do without apologizing! 

As my partner drove us home on a foggy, misty (and terrifying - I also get claustrophobic when I can't see out car windows) I35 here in Texas, I got to thinking, though: I should have given her that drawing! Such kindness she showed me, not just in taking note of my doodling, but for being so observant of her passengers and to taking a moment to pull me out of my post-adrenaline haze to think about something concrete; as far as she knew, I could have been getting behind the wheel right off the plane, and I am certain that I did not look ready to drive! I needed a moment to think, to clear my head, and she provided me with that.

But, I didn't think to tear out that doodled-up page from my sketch book, and I regret it. So, I have decided to take this experience and begin a new creative practice with my claustrophobia and anxiety because I'm pretty sure it's not going anywhere.  Beginning with this night-flight doodle that I created last week, I am going to post the drawings and doodles I create to distract my brain to survive these episodes as oscillating free coloring pages of the month on my blog. 

These drawing/doodles are very different from the images I create for my coloring books. I prefer to journal on incredibly toothy, textured paper so the ink of the pens I use tends to soak and spread (the paper and pens I use for creating coloring books are designed to create crisper lines and tighter scans). When I am experiencing an anxiety episode, I am not thinking about where my lines are going, what my lines are doing, if they make sense or if the shapes they create will be interesting to color - I am just trying to get from point A to point B, I am trying to survive. I am also not concerned with perfection when I am using drawing/doodling to get through a panic attack; I am trying to fill a piece of paper with lines, I am focusing on the sensation of the pen getting pulled across the paper (it makes a really great scratchy sound/feeling), I am creating shapes and moving them around in my mind to keep my brain distracted. Most of the time, after I have created a drawing from anxiety, I actually color it myself in my journal, usually at a much later date and as procrastination of something that I really don't want to do (paying the bills, calling/going to a doctor, being anywhere on time). 

But, from now on, before I color these pages I am going to make a point of scanning these images so that they can, hopefully, be enjoyed by others.

I just wish that I had had the presence of mind to offer my doodle to that kind flight attendant last week; she really did seem interested in coloring it, and it absolutely makes my day when others want to share their creativity with mine (even after a 3 hour anxiety attack). Another thing I also have really been wishing is that I was already finished with my next two coloring books; I am super lucky to have a collection of folks who are truly interested in and are anticipating (incredibly patiently) my feminist coloring book and my travel-ready coloring book, and they are both taking WAY longer to finish than I'd hoped and planned.

So, to say thank you to the universe for that lovely flight attendant and to say thank you to the folks who have been tirelessly supportive my creative enterprises, I am going to share monthly free illustrations here on my blog. Not all of these images will be perfect, if they are anxiety doodles they won't all be designed with the idea that they are going to be anything other than what they are (I will not be editing or cleaning up images I create in my personal journal after scanning them), but my hope is if I enjoy coloring them, others will too. Access to my free coloring page of the month will be granted immediately to anyone signing up for my email list. Read the instructions of how to download and print up your best copy on the message from me that will pop up after signing up for my email list, and enjoy the fruits of my less-than-perfect brain in action. 

Oh, and thank you for reading this post. It was difficult, emotionally speaking, to write, but, just like that flight, it all feels well worth it in the end.


  1. I am so proud of you! Thank you for sharing your creativity and allowing me to participate.

    1. :) Thank you for sharing my journey with me (creative and otherwise)! I hope you enjoy this coloring experience and the others that are sure to follow soon.

  2. Great doodle, well written story, you are a good mom and human!

    1. :) This comment absolutely made my day! Thank you for reading, truly, and for sharing in my journey with me.


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