The Fear of Flight

I’ve compared the feeling to a tidal wave.

It’s a dark band of pressure that looms over your body before crashing down, hard. It makes you a prisoner in your own skin: difficult to see, impossible to breathe. You're tumbling and tumbling, with what feels like ice running down your veins. The surrounding sounds turn into a cluster of white noise. Amidst the chaos, you're somehow standing still.

This is what, to me, a panic attack is like. 

I have a terrible fear of flying, and was traveling the next evening for a work trip to Nepal. As I was leaving the gym, a CNN headline on the locker room's TV caught my eye: 

Worst Blizzard since 1980's Hitting
New York Monday Afternoon

I ran out of the gym and looked up to the ironically clear sky, which is when the wave hit.

I quickly tucked my body into a corner on 18th street between 9th and 10th avenue and held my head in my hands. It was below 40 degrees, but I was sweating profusely.

I slowly began losing my vision as I stared into the street. The apartments were fading from my eyesight, blending in with one another. Colorful swabs of yellow taxi cabs painted the road. 

The sky was bright, but all went black.

---

A man wanted to get over his fear of rejection by getting rejected. He made a point to get rejected every day: 

“Without knowing it, Jason had used a standard tool of psychotherapy called exposure therapy. You force yourself to be exposed to exactly the thing you fear, and eventually you recognize that the thing you fear isn’t hurting you. You become desensitized. It’s used in treating phobias like fear of flying.

Unfortunately for me, the opposite has happened. In the last 15 months, I've been on 28 flights, and in the next three months I have 16 more to endure. But the increase in plane rides hasn't equated to a dampened fear; rather, the more flights I take, the more fearful I become. 

It doesn’t help that in the last year and a half I’ve meticulously followed the tragedies of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, AirAsia flight QZ8501, TransAsia GE235 (heard there was a video which I avoided), and Germanwings A320. 

It doesn’t matter that 475,000 planes take off a year, or that my chances of being in a fatal accident is one in seven million

I get the stats. That's why this thing is irrational.

The way I currently cope is some blend of anxiety or sleeping pills with one to two/too many drinks. I’m fully aware I’m more likely to die from overdosing on my ambien-champagne combo than I am in a crash, but ... again: It's why this thing is irrational.

Still, I tend to shrug off the fear around others, and some people actually think it's funny. I don't blame them: The girl who loves to travel all over the world and needs two ambiens and a flask to get there! Someone who is so insanely fearful of something, but puts herself through it practically every month! It is a bit bizarre. 

In a weird way, I’ve become fascinated with my own fear.

I know it’s not logical. And my thought process while flying gives me a view into the illogical me, something that's scary but also really interesting.

On the scary side: I don't want to be confined to self-prescribed cocktails. A lot of people are concerned about this lil' habit of mine, but they don't realize that the person who's most concerned is myself. I hate the fact I become a crazy person on a plane. It sucks so much. And even with meds and Maker's I'm still a mess, running to the bathroom when I feel a panic attack coming on, or embarrassingly calling a flight attendant during turbulence, barely able to keep it together.

On the fascination side: I turn into a different person that I can view from the outside in. I've always been pretty rational and even-keeled, but planes? Throw all that out the (emergency exit) window. I become obsessed with things like flight numbers and the way the wings look when boarding. I picture newspaper headlines featuring the date and my airline—the next major aviation tragedy to hit North America! I wonder if the gods I don't believe in will spare us based on the number of children on board, and think back to the documentary I watched on The Weather Channel, "Why Planes Crash," while looking out to the ominous sky (aka three clouds). 

This = DANGER. 

This = DANGER. 

On the outside looking in, I can't really believe my mind can travel to such weird places, and I can be so completely unconvinced that something's so extremely safe. 

I'm working on getting, shall we say, professional help, but there are two things I've been doing on my own that may prove to be just as effective/life saving:

learning more about the physics of flying, and learning more about the magic of it.

I know next to nothing about the technical aspect of flying. All I know is planes weigh around 12,600 pounds, and cruise at a speed of 500 mph, 40,000 feet in the air.

Just me, or is that NUTS? 

I don't understand how it works. I get in a plane and I succumb to the mercy of this strange vessel that somehow manages to sprint down a runway and glide into the air. It shakes terribly during turbulence but doesn't fall from the sky.

Being ignorant of plane mechanics, even just the basics, also gravely affects this liiittle problem I have called control. If something were to happen in the air, I would have zero ability to do anything about it, which freaks me out. I could memorize the safety manual, strap on the life vest Usain Bolt style, grab the oxygen mask (before assisting others, duh), and head for the emergency exit like a CHAMP, but still die.

I board a plane and completely place my fate into the hands of strangers. So maybe I should learn more about what these "strangers" know, and understand it's better I leave it all to them.

On the more mystical side, this past weekend I read a Q&A in the NYTimes travel section, What It's Really Like to Be an Airline Pilot. The article came out to compliment a book just released by the pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker, which is less a technical story and more a poetic one. I read the article then immediately walked to the bookstore so I could dive deeper into the mind of the pilot.

The book is about the magic of flight: seeing multiple sunrises in a day, the incredible ability to cross cultures, language, and life through the air, and how we humans can travel silently and peacefully over incredibly mountain ranges, deserts, and oceans. I'm about 85 pages in and it's already helped tremendously. The pilot talks about flying as if he's in a car. He flies to Libya and back in a day. He describes the highways in the skies and the language pilots use—the other world that exists thousands of feat above our own tiny steps. 

One of my favorite parts is when he talks about being on stand-by, as if it's the most non-chalant thing on the planet. He explains he'll be home cleaning, at the supermarket, or running in the park, when the phone rings: "A voice tells me that I'm bound for Bangkok or Boston or Bangalore. I return home, pick up my bag, and fly there."

“Most fears aren’t real in the way you think they are. They’re just a story you tell yourself, and you can choose to stop repeating it. Choose to stop listening.”

So maybe this is the route I take. I could spill thousands of dollars into behavioral therapy, thousands of brain cells into binge drinking, or thousands of wasted minutes panicking in the air. 

Or maybe, just maybe, I can tell myself a different story. Try to find solace in the fear, in the flight, and the ability to escape through the vast skies only to land in another beautiful part of the world.

If anything, I'm open to trying.