09 Aug Air Sick

Let me put my problem simply: I puke on planes. Not frequently. Not every time. But enough to make me finger through the jetliner’s seat pocket, every flight, to make sure there’s a tidy white barf bag. Just in case. Recently, I returned from a trip that made me sick both coming and going. And I continued heaving in the car after each flight. That’s never happened before. Jill  suggests that I may be getting more prone to air sickness as I grow older. Oh, joy.

I first discovered that I suffer from motion sickness when I was nine and attempted to ride The Octopus at an amusement park. I had come to the park with my third grade class for just that kind of turn-‘em-around-and-upside-down fun. As The Octopus began its gyrations, rising and tilting and spinning, I was abruptly surprised and dismayed at my body’s reaction: my dizziness was not a fun dizzy, it was a brain-mashing, stomach-wrenching, limb-quivering dizziness whose analogue I would not discover for another nine years, when reeling with drunkenness, I would puke most of the night into the bushes at the front of my parents’ house until I was weak and weepy from the ordeal. Instead of screaming my delight, like my fellow Octopus riders, I flattened myself against the seat-back and gripped the rails and prayed for the ride to end soon, please, very soon. When the ride ended, I stumbled to the nearest bench and lay down for a good twenty minutes until my pulsing stomach, my spinning head, my trembling limbs settled at last.

I made some experiments. I was fine on the roller coaster because it moved fast in a relatively straight trajectory and its dips and rises were short-lived. I couldn’t tolerate anything that spun me in a circle. This prevented me from enjoying 95% of the rides. It was a devastating discovery not only because it stifled my enjoyment but also because it set me apart from my peers. It marked me as a weakling. On that same school, Ellen Sloan — a sickly mama’s girl — threw up in her cupped hands just as the bus arrived at the amusement park. She was notorious for getting car sick, sometimes after only a few miles of riding. As she rushed out of the bus ahead of us, her cupped hands brimming with her half-digested breakfast, the rest of us exchanged looks of disgust to confirm what we already knew about Ellen: what a loser. Little did I know that twenty minutes later, I’d have more in common with Upchuck Ellen than with my unafflicted buddies.

My oldest brother, Mike, was plagued by motion sickness until he was a teenager. Every car trip we took for the family’s summer vacation guaranteed that Mike would be puking out an open window. This usually happened in the mountains, where winding roads did him in. I had no trouble with car sickness as a child. When the road got too windy, I’d lie down in the way-back of our station wagon. As for air sickness, I was thirteen when I took my first flight. When a too-bumpy flight flattened me finally and I handed my bulging barf bag to the attendant, I was humiliated. Since then, every flight has been a gamble. The worst parts are take-offs and landings. Most of the time, I can ride out the turbulence because most of the time it doesn’t last long. If it persists, I must descend into several circles of agony before I reach the frozen, black lake of absolute air sickness. I am in awe of airline attendants and their ability to work and walk about so casually on a bumpy ride.

I am discreet about vomiting. I open the bag, place it to my mouth as if to inflate it, then let go. I am not loud. I do not cough or spit or retch. That comes later, after I’m on the ground –if the flight has been particularly bad. If, upon arrival, I have to rent a car and get somewhere, I am good to go because I have focus. If, on the other hand, I must ride in a car, especially a long distance and, heaven forbid, on winding roads, I am in danger again. Those who do not suffer from motion sickness may think that this is all in the sufferer’s head. That’s why, as children, we considered the motion-sick to be weaklings. They should have more control. They should tough it out. There is in this assumption something fundamental to evolutionary biology: the sick one must be left behind if he or she cannot keep up with the tribe. That’s why the kid sitting on the bench morosely watching his classmates ride The Octopus with giddy abandon is the kid most likely to get his lunch money stolen and his pants yanked off and tosses into the nearest Dumpster. He’s one who can’t keep up. Twenty thousand years ago, he’d have been left on the veldt as the tiger’s next meal.

You may wonder at my ability to recover if I have to drive a car, for this seems to suggest that motion sickness is just a head game. The most persuasive theory about motion sickness is that it arises from physiological confusion. When the plane starts to buck and pitch, my body can’t reconcile the conflicting signals it receives in three areas: visual, aural (inner ear), and tactile (how sensors in our skin perceive movement). My inner ear — which contains the tiny gyroscope that keeps us balanced and lets us know when we are standing up or lying down — is getting signals that I’m being turned upside down. But my eyes are telling me that I’m maintaining a steady, if a bit bumpy, course. And then my body as a whole is perceiving jarring movements in a different way. The result is nausea. If you’ve ever gotten dizzy from watching an I-MAX movie of flying into a canyon, it’s the same phenomenon: your inner ear is telling you that you’re rock-solid stable while your eyes are telling your brain that you are flying. This contradiction confuses your body. As a result, you get dizzy. If the confusion persists, your body may bail on you altogether and you get sick. This theory seems to explain why I recover more quickly after a bad flight if I have to drive: driving a car realigns my senses as nothing else can.

Apparently most mammals are susceptible to motion sickness. You may have a dog that has trouble riding in a car. There are many remedies, none of them perfect. One scientific study shows that the removal of a part of the brain alleviates the ailment in monkeys. I’ll opt for something less dramatic. Dramamine and its associates suppress your nausea by depressing your senses. Essentially, as it makes you drowsy, it puts you out of your misery. My brother Mike swears by those beaded acupressure wrist-bands. I don’t believe it but I’ll try it. Ginger capsules seem promising but the medical community considers them unproven so far. Supposedly, you can train your body to withstand motion sickness by exposing yourself regularly to turbulent motion. It’s like exercise. But who would want that kind of exercise? By the way, you can go online and buy your own supply of airsick bags, some quite fashionable. The need to carry that large a supply suggests that there are some serious sufferers out there. If you’re interested in the barf bag as cultural artifact, there are many online museums: airsicksack.com

The most sympathetic response I’ve received from an in-flight seat mate after I’ve apologized for puking was: “Hey, you can’t help it.” The least sympathetic was an appalled stare from a teenager. Children are afraid of losing control and don’t want to believe that a normal grown-up like you or I could be reduced to a trembling, sweating mess as a result of a bumpy flight. It’s nothing I can explain easily to a youngster, especially under those circumstances. I can only sit there, barf bag in hand, and wait for deliverance.