During the summer after 7th grade a friend and I were invited to go along on a bus trip with the Girl Scouts. We would be spending 3 full days in Washington D.C., doing the full tourist experience, with the added benefit of being a part of a touring group, which would allow us access to tour guides and a more immersive experience as we visited the Smithsonian museums. It also included a guided tour of the white house. It seems pretty special now because touring the white house is an invitation-only thing nowadays.
The white house being what it is, there was a series of security measures in place before anyone or any group could enter, even before 9/11. Even though we had tickets enough for our group, we still had to wait outside for several hours, sitting on a set of bleachers in the sun, until our group was scheduled to enter. It wasn’t fun. At one point during our waiting period we were called over to a set of airport-style x-ray machines and walk-through metal detectors, so we dutifully put our purses and fanny packs (note: this is when they were cool the first time) on the conveyor belts and stepped through the metal detectors. Keep in mind, though, that this was the early 90s and I was a 12 year old country girl. I played it cool, but I’m sure there was some anxiety happening for me at this point, and it was likely combined with a good deal of impatience after sitting in the sun for hours. But what I didn’t know was that I was about to be called out, and laughed at, right there are the white house lawn.
So as our bags rolled their way through the x-ray machine, one of the security employees hit the stop button – and then laughed out loud. He laughed loudly enough to turn heads, and then as all eyes are focused on him and wondering whose bag might have caused the commotion, the security employee who stopped the machine, who was still laughing, yelled across the lawn to one of his fellow security staff, “Yo! One of the girl scouts brought a can of mase!”
Yep, it was me. I’m the girl in the girl scout uniform who brought a can of mase to the white house. Around that time there had been a lot of media discussion about dangers to young women being out and about alone after dark. We were all scared that we’d walk out of the 7-11 and get attacked, so America being what it is, manufacturers immediately began marketing pocket-sized containers of mase, that stuff the police use in riots and spray in people’s faces. And so we women were in danger, and everyone carried a non-lethal weapon. I probably would have had no idea how to use it, but I’d put it in the fanny pack because I was going to a big city and there were bad guys around every corner. But after I put it in the fanny pack I totally forgot it was there.
12-year-old me was horrified and ashamed at that moment, but as an adult I realize that it wasn’t a big deal, actually. No one even knew it was my bag; they tossed the mase out and I got my bag back. Even in the girl scout tour group only one or two people knew it had been me. But for a preteen girl, image-conscious to a fault, it was awful.
As stupid and silly as that story is, experiences like this can imbed themselves in our minds and lay dormant for years. It’s just a moment from when I was little, when a combination of humiliation and embarrassment came suddenly and loudly, but it left its mark. That little 5-minute trauma sat in my brain and became a shame magnet. So the next time I had to do something that required a bag search or walking through a metal detector, I got scared. And then years later, on my honeymoon, a grouchy, overworked, post-9/11 airport employee said something mean to my husband, and BAM, there’s the mase back in the fanny pack again. (I didn’t actually carry a fanny pack in 2002. It’s a fanny-pack metaphor for me getting scared and embarrassed.)
From there, airports, airport employees, and especially TSA agents, became huge anxiety triggers. The worst part is that, while it may not be true for everyone, my appearance and speech when I’m anxious seem tense and short, and to some people, rude, and this in turn leads to more attention from security personnel, and more negativity coming my direction.
When you think of the people, places, or situations that consistently make your anxiety levels spike, do you recognize a pivotal moment in your past when that fear first bit into you? Sometimes these connections are quite obvious; for example, someone who had an abusive parent may be scared to become a parent himself, worried that he may repeat the parent’s actions with his own kids. But other times the associations may be very broad, like my fear of security personnel and machines that seems to date back to a relatively insignificant moment that only caused me brief embarrassment, but at a time in life when embarrassment was what I feared most. These mental connections seem to feed the fear stuck inside me, complicating and broadening the scope of my anxiety and the situations where it might come up. I’m afraid of airport security and TSA because of a single embarrassing moment that happened almost thirty years ago. It seems absurd even as I write this, but nevertheless, it’s the truth.
The good news, though, is that being aware of not only the people, places, and situations that incite my anxiety, but also the ugly old memories and emotions that built it, give me the chance to confront my anxiety in the moment as well. For example, before I go to the airport I can make sure that my (literal) baggage is manageable for me, I can check in ahead of time to avoid waiting in line at the airline counter and use that time to relax in a chair near my terminal. I can carry just a personal item (sans mase), no carry-on to stow, and rest assured that I am as unencumbered as possible during the trip. It’s an over-the-top response to fears I need to heal from, but it helps me feel more confident when I can reduce the potential for an anxiety spike by knowing my triggers and setting myself up in a way that helps me avoid them.