This summer all I heard about from my friends was Ebola.
I had a few friends who regularly shared concerns about it, but one in particular who wouldn't fail to mention it to me on an almost daily basis. And it got to me.
OK, disclaimer, I'm a leeeetle bit of a hypochondriac.
I read WebMD for some kind of thrill, almost, when I get sick. In grammar through high school, I swore I had cancer, AIDS and even Ebola later when it hit the scene. When I see anything weird on my skin, I swear it's skin cancer, I am constantly checking my boobs for lumps and I have gone to the Emergency Room at least 2-3 times this year, but once because I was bit by a rat, so that was pretty legit.
I am afraid of death, and not just afraid of it, but petrified of it. So I did what I always do in these situations. The wheels started turning in a bad way. I stayed up reading late about Ebola on more than one evening. I followed the news and social media overzealously and I even purchased gear-like rubber gloves, hazmat suits and way too much hand sanitizer, just in case. Maybe there's this part of me that thinks maybe I can outsmart Ebola, and ultimately, death, as ludicrous as that sounds.
So every night, instead of just falling asleep, there was a little nagging voice that kept saying, "You should just check CNN quick..." An old friend of mine once called it "stinkin' thinkin'." I came to recognize it as that, and I started to feel ashamed. I decided that maybe there was a way I could use all the time and energy that I'd put into researching Ebola to somehow help: myself, others, anyone I could.
At this point I was still feeling scared and completely out of control. I had a flight coming up and I had read many articles about it being possible -- not necessarily plausible, but possible -- to catch Ebola on a plane, and I decided that, well, then, I might have to fly from NYC to LA in a goddamn hazmat suit and that's all there was to it.
But it dawned on me as I continued reading that wearing a hazmat suit wasn't going to keep me from catching Ebola, as it hadn't the two nurses who caught it from patients though they were in head to toe protective gear, due to the painstaking process of "donning and doffing" the suit, or in normal speak, putting it on and taking it off, and how if it isn't done just right, you'll get Ebola all over your god damn self.
As my fears began to plateau, I spoke to my friend who was turning her fright into fight by arranging a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders. I decided to follow in her footsteps and figure out how I, as a comedian and performer, could use my fear to help fight the disease. I decided I would wear the suit anyway, but I'd use it as a billboard to direct people to information about how to avoid Ebola and to encourage them to donate money to Doctors Without Borders.
By altering the hazmat suit, I would not only be turning my fears into art, but I'd be hopefully also be preventing people from becoming afraid at the sight of the suit. I also chose a V. Stiviano style face cover in place of the actual face piece to further fashion-ize the suit.
On the front and back of the suit, I wrote in large pink sticker letters "DON'T PANIC," a message to myself as much as to everyone else. On the back, I wrote in black sticker letters, "WASH HANDS," "DONATE $ / TIME," "LIVE * LAUGH * LOVE" (sure, kinda corny but still I felt it nailed an idea in as few characters as possible).
As my flight date came closer, I fluctuated between feeling scared and excited about wearing the suit on the plane. I spoke to my mom, my husband and a few close friends about it and got their blessings. They laughed when I told them my plan and insisted I let them know the outcome as soon as I could.
Last Thursday, I arrived at JFK airport at 3 a.m., four full hours before my flight left at 7. I had a breakfast of pancakes in the downstairs diner and thought over my plan. I'd go through security as normal to avoid hassle, and then put the suit on in the bathroom. Around 5 a.m., I arrived at the ladies bathroom on the other side of security, not far from my gate and put the outfit on. I had a full on attack of the what ifs as I left the stall. Would I get arrested? Would I get a body cavity search? Would people yell at me? I began to get cold feet, but I wasn't backing out now.
I left the stall and the first person I saw was a beautiful, dark haired woman, about my age. She smiled at me from ear to ear.
I breathed a sigh of relief and walked out into the airport. Next, I was passed by a team of security police. They took me in cautiously, but kept walking. As I headed to my gate, I heard people's comments: "Look at that," and "What's up with that person's outfit?" and "Halloween is here early."
I arrived at my gate and sat down. The woman I'd seen in the bathroom approached me. "You look great," she said. "Thank you," I responded. She told me that she was a fashion designer and had once owned a hip clothing store in the Lower East Side that I'd shopped in when it was still part of the neighborhood I call home. She sat beside me and asked me many questions, and took my picture, and made me feel more calm about the ridiculous get-up I was wearing.
Slowly, the airport started to fill up. Police officers, FAA staff, JFK personnel, tourists, families, hipsters and more passed by and did double takes, or took pictures, or gave me a thumbs up. When people stared at me with confusion on their faces, I'd give a little wave to try to bring them some comfort and convey, Hey, I'm just a freak hangin' out in a goofy outfit -- I wasn't there to scare anyone.
More people approached me, took my picture, asked me questions and told me they liked the outfit. As they began boarding the plane, I feared that I'd get stopped, but the woman at the desk whisked me on with a quick glance at my ID and a scan of my boarding pass, just like everyone else.
Once on the plane, I got some looks from people, but no one seemed to be freaking out. Cool. I settled into my seat and prepared for take off. As I sat completely boxed off to the world in my outfit, I had a few realizations. One was that I had really enjoyed having my face covered. No one could see my fear, sense my emotions, make snap judgments based on my appearance or even really tell if I was male or female, as long as I was not speaking. It was incredibly freeing.
As the plane began to rumble for take-off, I thought about all the things that could go wrong, as I normally do. What if the wings snap off? What if the pilot has a heart attack? What if the plane spontaneously combusts? What if? What if?
Then, you'll die, I responded to myself. It was unexpected.
Then you'll have to suck it up and fucking die, I said again. Look, Jessica, I continued. People die everywhere. Every day. It's a part of life, and it's going to happen to you, too. It. Will. Happen. So, sit back and fucking relax. Right now, you are not dying. Right now, you're in a plane, about to go to California. But until then, you're on this plane, and there's nothing you can do about it. So take a deep breath. If the plane starts crashing, freak out! You can scream, or cry, or pray, or do any of the things that people do when they are staring their mortality in the face. But until then, just take a breath and chill the fuck out.
And then I did that. It was the bumpiest, scariest flight to LA I've had in awhile. The take-off was rocky as fuck, and we launched into the sky in cold, rainy, windy conditions, rocking back and forth with uncertainty like a ship on the high seas. There was turbulence almost all the way there. Tough, rough and tumble turbulence. The kind that makes people ralph into their airbags. I don't usually get sick on flights but at one point even I was like: Hm, I might vomit. But one thing I didn't get was scared. As the flight progressed, people began to ask me questions and take my photo, as they had at the airport.
The flight attendants were very nice to me. I lifted the visor and allowed people to see my face. A group of young, handsome jocks on their way to celebrate a bachelor party in LA bought me drinks and took photos with me. And for the first time ever, I wasn't cold on the plane. When we landed at LAX, I collected my stuff and scooted off the plane. People took my picture, asked me questions and pointed at me as I exited the airport.
I went to get my rental car and as I unloaded into the Toyota Corolla, I peeled off the pieces of the get up and tossed them into the back seat, weighing the experience and trying to make heads and tails of it all. Ultimately, I determined the project had been successful. I had the best flight ever and made a personal breakthrough in terms of fear. I started the project with the intention of maybe shedding light and information about Ebola to others, but I was actually the one who had the biggest epiphany of all.
I was also surprised at how wonderful people were. Everyone I encountered was kind, curious, supportive or at least tolerant. It reconfirmed my faith in humanity. Only one person, ONE, out of the hundreds I encountered reacted with pure hatred, a comedian, no less. She posted photos of me on Instagram, calling me an idiot and said "FUCK YOU" and "NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR PROTEST" -- as if fear of Ebola was only my personal concern -- ripped me to shreds with her friends, even called me out by name and tagged me to make sure I got to read the vitriol, as if there wasn't an actual person inside of the suit at all.
As I scrolled through her photos to try to identify her (her name sounded familiar to me, turns out we have 199 friends in common on Facebook), I was confused and amused to see one that said "FEMINIST" on it in big bold letters. I responded to her thread of hate by redirecting her to Doctors without Borders, asking her to donate, and apologizing for scaring her.
So, that is what happens if you wear a hazmat suit on a plane. Nothing, really.
Security doesn't fuck with you, people go about their business, and the world keeps turning. You might have a personal revelation and get a little hate thrown your way, but for the most part, life goes on as is. If you do want to wear a hazmat suit anywhere for real, because you're actually protecting yourself, I recommend this very informative BuzzFeed piece on how to "don and doff" a suit. It's light years better than the CDC's.
In the meantime, stay calm, educate yourself, donate money or time to Doctors Without Borders, live your life, spend time doing the things you love with the people who you love and don't forget to remind the people who you care about that you care about them. Those are the best ways I can think of to fight Ebola.