in my mind, on a plane
People often ask me what goes through my mind when I'm on a plane.
I typically refrain from going into detail because a) they would think I'm crazy and b) I would lose a lot of friends*. But the thing is c) I fly all the time and d) I'm told writing may help me process some of these emotions, so I come out a bit stronger.
This fear has been with me for awhile. By awhile, I think I mean my whole life. I remember a specific flight where I was listening to Hatchet on tape. I think I was 11 years old? The opening scene, which I started listened to as the plane took off, was a plane crash. Should have read the back cover.
16 years later and flying is the most terrifying thing I do on a regular basis (followed by working in the Financial District and long lines at Trader Joes).
For your entertainment and my mental health, here's a play by play of what the mind of a phobic-person endures, laced with a bit of humor and a lot of real-talk.
Pre-flight, aka the final moments on solid earth
I triple-check for the 17th time that I have everything I need in my carry-on: noise canceling headphones, passport, wallet, pack of gum, and a tiny Altoids tin filled with pills that mimic the palette of a sunrise, a swirling of light blues, soft yellows, and blush pink tablets.
I'm usually headed to JFK. I'm typically in a cab. I gaze out at the grey city streets for what I always think is the last time. I want to ask the cab driver how many people he's taken to the airport. Hundreds? Millions? They all made it, right?
When we get out at the curb, I tip him an absurd amount of money (good karma) and make my way to the ticket booth, where I watch the habitual actions of workers at the counter. They check people in every minute, for every hour, for every day, for...
"More than 8 million people fly daily." I repeat this to myself a few thousand times, give or take.
I move through security, where I stare other people down, wondering what's in their bags. (Once I wondered why an 8-year-girl had such a suspicious looking Barbie backpack.) Then I scan the arrivals board to make sure there are no flights that have gone missing. I look down at my ticket, searching specifically for any lucky or unlucky numbers. I remind myself what day it is, and picture the date in the headlines: "March 17th. Tragedy Strikes on Flight TF3240."
*Are we still friends?
At this point I've probably taken one of those sunrise pills. I head to the closest bar to have a drink or two of whiskey. A bloody mary if it's early. I take another pill while I feel the ground beneath me. I push my toes into my shoes; the rubber marries the granite floor. I count down the minutes until we board.
The slow-moving line on the jet bridge is one of the worst parts of my pre-flight routine, since these are my final steps before boarding the plane. When I'm about to finally step on, I always look for defects on the side of the plane (since I'm an expert) and then lock eyes with the flight attendant who greets me.
They are always so cheerful, which helps a bit.
In-flight, aka it's all over
When I enter the plane, I try not to make eye contact with anyone else. I don't want to see the faces of people I think are about to experience a similar fate to my own. I find my seat and fasten the seatbelt right away. I hide the safety pamphlet. I immediately put on my noise-canceling headphones and listen to something relaxing, like Iron and Wine. I try to fall sleep. Sometimes I do.
The first time I knock back into full-consciousness is when we start taxiing. The plane's movement is gentle, but it feels harsh. We've finally left. We're heading toward an ominous and unpredictable sky.
Sometimes I can fall back asleep while we're taxing; my goal is to avoid experiencing take-off completely. Yet my body always shoves me to consciousness the moment the plane makes that terrifying final turn down the active runway — an endless stretch of concrete 18,045 ft long and 262 ft wide. All the switches in my body turn on in an instant. The anxiety meds and alcohol wear off. I’m remarkably alert.
Then somehow, miraculously, (to date, at least) the plane lifts into the air.
Most plane crashes happen within the first three minutes of flight. For takeoff, I listen to a song that is 4:17 minutes long, just to give myself some extra cushion. ("Elastic Heart" by Sia, if you were wondering. But don't ask.)
If I make it through Sia's serenade, I feel a tiny bit better. Like... when a doctor gives you six weeks to live versus four kind of better.
Usually after takeoff, the pilot comes on to tell us the flight time and the weather of the destination. I listen closely to his voice to see if he's sounding particularly suicidal today. Once his cheer and (oddly often) Australian accent assures me otherwise, I go back to listening skeptically. "Sir, how are you so certain we will experience that sunny and 80 degree weather in Florida? What makes you think we will actually make it through the 10 hours and 24 minutes to Doha? Pilots fly planes, they don't predict the future!
When the plane finally reaches 10,000 feet, the seatbelt sign turns off, and its passengers start to settle, I shoot jealous looks at my seatmates who enjoy their in-flight entertainment. I never watch movies on planes because I can never let my mind focus. I tried four different times on four different flights to watch Inside Out (did Riley end up liking San Francisco??), and I couldn't make it through 20 minutes. I can only blast music through my headphones and desperately try to fall into some kind of sleep.
I'm usually awake for the duration of the flight, though—whether two hours or 16. The friendly flight-attendants make all the difference during my short-bout of insomnia. In-flight cocktails sometimes help as well. However the problem with lots of liquids is I hate going to the bathroom on planes. This is because Tom Hanks was in the bathroom when the plane starts going down in Cast Away.
Turbulence is the worst part. This is because I don't think the plane is flying safely through a varying jet stream. I think it's crashing.
On a recent leg to Hong Kong, our route took us through 15 minutes of turbulence as we flew south over China. The flight attendants were instructed to sit down, so I had nobody to talk to. Those 15 minutes were a lonely hell, as I held my head in my arms and awaited the foreign land below me, ready to splay into a million pieces. My body went numb, my head a swirling silent.
Even when the plane is 'cruising' with no turbulence, my body is constantly on edge. Imagine that feeling of looking over a railing when you're high up on a building or cliff. Your stomach starts to flip as you look down. You can move your body back and forth to experience riding that edge of falling.
I am constantly on that edge, waiting for the aircraft to explode. And when it's 16 hours of waiting for the worst kind of light show in the sky, I usually exhaust my body to a point where I feel the remnants of it for weeks after.
anyone: "You're still jet lagged?"
me: "Nah, just had seven near-death experiences in the course of five hours. A little tired from it."
For whatever reason, the only thing I have going for me is I am not afraid of landing. This is supposedly the most dangerous part of flying, but I am so thrilled to be headed closer to the ground that I don't care. The plane can be bumping around in the clouds and I am on the #9 one. I'm thrilled it's all ending.
Post-Flight, aka too ecstatic to think straight
It's hard to articulate what emotions I experience when I feel the wheels touch the ground. It's gotta be some combo of runners high + first bite of ice-cream in the summer + sex + relief after you've found out you passed an exam you absolutely thought you failed + taking a shot of tequila + waking up and realizing you have two more hours of sleep + winning a million-trillion dollars.
In other words, it's pure, absolute, outrageous joy.
I can walk myself off the plane and walk myself around the world. I can walk any which way of my choosing. I'm not confined to a cabin 40,000 feet in the air. I can feel a natural breeze. I can listen to the sounds around me. My drinking water isn't confined to a small plastic cup, where ice cubes just get in the way.
My life doesn't depend on others, on physics, on jet engines with rotating air compressors powered by a turbine with leftover power providing thrust via propelling nozzle.
My life depends only on myself.
And with this life, I am given opportunities.
With this life, I choose to experience new corners of the planet, so I can gain new perspectives, new appreciations, and new knowledge—from the vast skies in Colorado, to the rhythmic chaos of Accra, the warm humor in Costa Rica, and the striking awe in the foothills of Nepal.
I can unearth the rhythmic productivity of Akan music, run my heart out in the Redwoods, hold baby alpacas in Peru, and hold the weight of my own privilege just about anywhere.
With this life, curiosity always trumps fear. With this life, I choose to step onto another plane.