After evacuating from her home to a hotel ahead of Hurricane Dorian and seeking a few hours of respite with her kids at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., a mother of two had her claustrophobia triggered on a ride — but was luckily comforted by a kind employee who she has since publicly thanked in a Facebook post.
While the worker has earned plenty of praise on the now-viral post, mothers who relate to the struggle of raising children and having anxiety, are also sounding off in the comment section.
The mother, Jessica D. Thomas of Orlando, runs her own family law firm, Thomas Law Firm PLLC, sits on the board of both the Central Florida Association for Women Lawyers and the statewide board for the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, serves as a guardian ad litem pro bono, and was just appointed by the Supreme Court to the Florida Mediator Qualifications Discipline & Review Board.
Despite her many accomplishments, she found herself “triggered” while attempting to navigate the Na'vi River Journey indoor boat ride, based on James Cameron's movie, Avatar, at the Disney theme park.
Thomas, her husband David Patrick, and their two children — 3-year-old David and 1-year-old Julia — had recently evacuated, opting to take a break at the park with their friends.
"We thought at least they have generators, it's Disney, so at least they can't lose power. We thought it was safer," Thomas tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "But, if you're at a hotel with your kids for an extended period of time, you wonder what you can do to keep them entertained."
Thomas, who has always felt trapped by the enclosures and safety belts of rides, adds that her husband and friends assured she wouldn’t have to get on any rides.
"My children have never been to any Disney Parks. Today was their first time," Thomas wrote on Facebook. "As a mom we feel a TON of pressure to create these 'memories' for our children. We feel obligated to overcome our shortcomings for them. We do everything in our power to remove their worries or fears, so ours take a backseat."
Thomas was eventually talked into joining the group on the safari ride, which is what started to make her feel anxious. As soon as the door closed , she almost asked to be let off — but the worker allowed her to sit in the open handicapped spot, which calmed her nerves.
The Na'vi River Journey was next. Thomas was able to sit down in the boat, but eventually, she became overwhelmed by the cave.
"My heart was racing, my breathing was hard and I felt genuinely scared of being trapped. It looked like a small cave. I stood up and got off asking my friends... and husband... to take our 1 year old so she could ride," Thomas wrote on Facebook. "She cried as I got off. So, I grabbed her and headed for the exit."
Thomas said that as she was leaving the ride, she felt embarrassed and sad.
"I had already messed up the day for everybody — in my opinion, not to them, but to me," Thomas says. "I had already messed it up at the safari."
As she was making her way toward the exit, a worker, Samantha Burns, noticed that she was crying and approached her. Burns stopped Thomas to ask her if she was okay and Thomas "blurted it all out."
"She told the [ride operator] to stop the ride and said, 'Oh, let her sit down,'" Thomas says. "She asked me if it was okay, how did I feel, to try to make me feel better about the ride. It was not working."
Then Burns asked Thomas, "Do you want me to ride with you?"
"She said it so nice," Thomas said. "It was the most sincere, nonjudgmental... You think that as an adult, no one is looking out for you and your wellbeing.”
Thomas says that Burns allowed her to hold her hand through the ride, and that she talked her through all of her fears.
"When I asked about the water, she told me it was only 15 inches deep, how it is painted darker to make it look deeper,” Thomas said. “She said if the ride stopped, the sides are wide enough to walk on and that they would get us out safely."
At the same time, she was pointing out details on the ride to entertain Julia. While showing Julia the animals and the lights, she would continuously check in with Thomas to ask if she was doing okay and to point out the nearest exits.
"At 33, I don't mind missing rides at parks. I am happy to take the stairs. I am always content to wait for the next bus or for a tight spot to pass for a more open option," Thomas wrote. "But I am a mom now. And I don't want my children to miss out on anything or me to miss moments of their childhood. So as I was trying to breathe and get through this, my baby didn't miss a beat. Because Samantha was gripping my hand and using her other hand to point at fun things for my daughter and making her laugh and smile the whole ride... I just can't thank her enough."
Thomas was hopeful that her social media post would be able to find Burns, as it was too late to find a manager to pay her a compliment at the park. Within 20 to 30 comments, Thomas told Yahoo, Burns had been identified.
"Hi Jessica, thank you so much for taking the time to write that post. Guests like you are the reason I work at Disney," Burns sent in a message to Thomas. "I’m so happy that I could impact your vacation in the slighted. I hope you had a great rest of your day and stay safe during the hurricane."
Immediately, Thomas wrote Burns back thanking her again, but it was Burns' follow-up message that made it click for Thomas.
"She wrote back, 'You're leaving out that you are brave. This post is about you, too. The post isn't just going viral because of me, it's because people are proud of you.' ... As a mom, you don't always think about yourself," Thomas says. "It wasn't until that message, and all of the messages from other moms, that it clicked."
Soon, the comment section of the post wasn't just praising Burns; it was filled with praises for Thomas for conquering her fears and comments from other moms who experience anxiety.
"One mom talked about how she got all the way to the top of a water slide, and she couldn’t do it. She was crying and had to walk back down. Another mom was posting about how she’s afraid of movie theaters," Thomas said. "Another mom talked about crowds and taking her baby to orientation."
A message from a daughter of a mother who also has claustrophobia stuck out to Thomas.
"To hear from a grown daughter, that to see her mom consistently face her fears, it meant the world to her. It taught her how to be strong," Thomas says.
The experience, she adds, may inspire her next project, although her husband jokes that she has plenty on her plate. She's considering starting a group for other moms with anxiety, where they can provide tips for how they handle overwhelming situations.
"There are groups for us to learn how to cut the sandwich into Hello Kitty, there are groups that teach us how to organize lunches… I’ve seen every single post, they inundate you as a mom. But no group teaches moms techniques for controlling anxiety," Thomas says. "There's got to be someplace, and some way, for us to give each other advice as moms living with anxiety."
Samantha Burns and representatives for Disney Parks did not immediately respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment.
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