I’m not sure I want to post this but here goes nothing.
During an online writing course, I shared what I claimed was a fictional story that included a character named “Anna” who had a ferocious fear of flying. I received some really great feedback, specifically on her and the scene on the plane. Most of my classmates were impressed with my vivid and detailed description of Anna’s panic attacks and how much it drew them into the character. Some even suggested it may not be believable but loved the “over the top” depiction anyway.
I’m writing in the first person here but in class I was writing in the third person about Anna. Little did my classmates know that Anna is ME and all of this could not be more real, which is why I can write about it so easily and vividly. I want to share it here because I know there are plenty of people suffering from anxiety and also plenty of people in therapy. I am one of them. It’s not easy, but unless we talk about it more, it never will be. For better or worse, this is me on a plane…
It always starts hours before I have to leave for the airport. I can feel the nausea rise up, my heart start to pound and the sweat collect underneath my bra. With each panicked episode I take the time to stop and confront the fear with deep breathing and endless backward counting. Eventually, my body obeys and relaxes, until it happens again.
As I drive toward one of my worst fears, I desperately try to clear my head and think rational thoughts. I methodically recollect every positive fact I know, starting with what I’m doing at this exact moment — driving on a freeway — is statistically far more likely to result in death. Other fun facts I have made myself discover is that a person would have to take a flight every day for 55,000 years before encountering a fatal accident and in fact, 95% of people involved in plane crashes survive! But it is all pointless.
I have done this enough times to know that even if I somehow make it to my destination alive, I will then start to worry about getting to the hotel, checking in, getting my workouts done and on and on and on. The worry never leaves me, it only intensifies or subsides from day to day or hour to hour, depending on the situation, each one dire in its own way.
Clearly, I need a long-term plan but as soon as I get to the airport, I seek chemical help. I take a Xanax exactly one hour before the flight, just so I can get on the damn plane and not act like a complete lunatic during takeoff. Hurtling down the runway into the excruciatingly slow, skyward climb is the time when I most feel the metal coffin will explode, blow an engine or otherwise be sucked from the sky without warning, or with far too much warning.
After finding the gate and summoning the courage to walk down the tunnel to board (I always think of this walk as the point of no return)I try to quickly find my seat and remain calm, not thinking too intently about the plane ride or the destination. If I’m near the window I immediately close the blind.
I try out my deep breathing techniques as we taxi toward the runway and do my best to look as if I’m actually reading my Kindle and not just staring blankly at the same page for 10 minutes until I hear the words I dread most from the Captain, “Flight attendants, please take your seats. We’ve been cleared for take-off.”
Let it begin, I always think, and sometimes start to quietly cry, my heart pounding fiercely in my chest, as if it’s trying to break free. When we begin to climb at what feels like an impossible angle and although I know the prescription meds are doing their job I can never fully relax until hearing the sweet “ding,” signaling we have made it to 30,000 feet. Cruising altitude is always a good sign.
“Wait for it,” I silently pray to myself, “just hang on” I breathe, as I stare with laser focus at the seatbelt sign and think about how much better I will feel once it simply faded out. Just one little ding. Any minute now.
After what seems like an eternity of bumping around through the atmosphere and making small turns, the plane usually levels off and the sound I have been waiting for finally rings out. That little ding is also signals my time to dash some Vodka onto the anxiety fire.
Inevitably, at some point, the plane will hit turbulence. My immediate and visceral response is usually jumping off the seat and then gripping the arms of the chair, frantically looking for the attendant to order another Vodka soda. And God help us all if I hear “flight attendants take your seats!” because to me, the Captain may as well be saying “Assume crash positions! We are going down!”
“Shit! Mother fucker! Goddamnit,” is my theme song, with sweating palms and panicked breaths I will make an attempt to hold it together but sometimes I’m already too far gone.
Hot tears stream down my face as I look around finding small comfort that most other passengers are reading, watching a movie or even sleeping, as if we weren’t all about to plummet toward the earth in a fireball of epic proportions.
I’ve been known to thrash and jump and barely conceal a cacophony of expletives, always questioning my sanity for getting on a plane in the first place and vow to stop torturing myself like this and just stop traveling all together. But the moment usually demands my manic attention and all I can think about is how I desperately want to get out! To get down! To make it stop! But it never does.
It seems like 10 hours to me but usually is 7-15 minutes when the Captain will come on again and reassure us that the “bumps” have passed but please keep your seatbelts on in case there is “unexpected rough air.” I particularly love that one. Just a note here for all pilots – there should be nothing “unexpected,” air or otherwise while you’re flying the plane!
At some merciful point the drugs and alcohol will hit the right level and I will get some reprieve from my crazy and either be subdued into a coma-like trance while reading a book or, the most wondrous of all the things that can happen to me on a plane, sleep!
When I realize the nightmare is finally coming to an end, and hear the Captain say we are beginning our final approach, I always feel a mix of relief and fresh panic.
It’s usually around this time when I take stock of the damage to my outfit, hair and face. I have become adept at anxiety proofing my clothes so that the sweat doesn’t linger, so I can wipe my damp palms onto my pants without anyone ever being wise to my mania after I deplane. Tissues are a must and I usually wear very little eye make-up because there is a 90% chance of tears. Okay, 97%.
You would think I feel a rush of relief as I enter the baggage claim and get on with the rest of my trip, which is never business and always a pleasure, but instead I feel the full weight of my anxiety and how it takes complete control. If you have never had a panic attack, you have no idea what it feels like to try and be rational but have your mind and body be completely unstable and out of your control. Not to mention the sheer terror of it all. I once explained it to my husband like this:
Imagine someone is holding a gun to your head for the entirety of the flight. It could be an hour or 12 (hey, I made it to Hawaii and back once!)and the entire time they have the gun to your head they’re saying “I don’t want to hurt you, and the gun probably won’t go off, but I’m going to just keep it here the whole time. Okay?” How does that feel? Oh, and the bumps could possibly nudge their trigger finger but just relax and enjoy your flight!
For days afterward, I feel stupid. I can look back with clarity and wonder why I was so afraid and even go so far as to think that next time I will be able to control it. I usually can’t. But it doesn’t stop me from envisioning it.
Before this gets far too introspective, let me share a list of things perfect strangers have said to me either mid-flight or afterward:
“I can’t believe you even get on a plane!” < – – I hear this a lot!
“The pilots are war veterans who have flown together for over 20 years and are excellent at what they do. They will get us there safely.”
“Would you be surprised if you found yourself on the ceiling?”
“This drink is on the house.”
“Do you want to hold my hand?” < – – not in a creepy way because trust me, my panic stricken state would turn off even Harvey Weinstein.
“I have claustrophobia and I know exactly how you feel. It’s ok, just cry it out.” < – – A complete stranger actually held my hand and comforted me with her own phobia during a particularly rough landing in bad weather.
I have tried therapy, EMDR, relaxation techniques, meditation and countless other things. I would do anything to rid myself of this fear. I would love to actually be able to enjoy a flight and now I’m more terrified than ever when my kids are on the plane with me. I never want to have them see me have a panic attack and I really never want them to be afraid to fly. So far, so good but I did have to change my seat once and have a full meltdown when we flew into a thunderstorm on the way home from Cuba. I’m pretty sure I only scared my dad during that episode.
As I prepare to fly solo to Florida this weekend, I’m doing everything I can to lessen my chances of having a panic attack, but I know that it can happen and, if it does, I will just have to deal with it. I am working hard toward making each flight better but anxiety doesn’t work like that. Some flights will be horrendous, and others will be fantastic. Ok, others will be “fine.” I just never know until I get up there and, as long as I keep coming back alive, I will keep going up!
**I will be at a triathlon training camp in Florida with my coach and some teammates for a few days and, besides the flight, I’m really looking forward to it! I’ll write all about it when I return.**
Do you have any phobias?
Ever have a panic attack?
Where is the last great place you flew to?
Please, for the love of God, do NOT tell me about any terrible flights you have had! For some reason, when I tell people I’m afraid to fly they start telling about the one time they thought they might die on a plane! WTF?
I used to have fear of flying but somehow, I managed to let go of that. I don’t get anxious in general as much as I used to. I always figure…I have birthed children and run marathons, so really what could be worse?
I know, right? I try to reconcile my fitness/mom brain that can do anything, with my flying brain but it obviously doesn’t always work. I do know that the more I fly, the less panic I have (unless of course I have a rough one) so I kind of wish I could fly more often or at least have some way of simulating it!!
I’m so sorry that you deal with so much anxiety when flying 🙁 I don’t love to fly, but my anxiety about it has gotten better over the years.
I do a few things to give me comfort when flying – I always travel with a book, puzzle book, magazine, travel size bible and music. The combination of all those things help to keep my mind occupied.
Thank you so much. And I do always travel with ‘distractions’ like the ones you mention but once I start to panic, that’s all I can focus on. It’s a journey and I’m determined to not give in and just keep flying!
I have a very mild anxiety of flying but nothing like this. I hope that writing about all of this helped you get your feelings out and that you can have a less stressful travel this weekend.
Thanks so much! It definitely helped to write about, which is why I do it a lot!! I’m hoping that this will also help my flights to and from Florida. Baby steps 🙂
Oh wow. I’m so sorry. That must be awful. I tolerate flying. I don’t enjoy it at all but it’s a necessary evil. Living in the UK for a few years, I’ve gotten used to the long flights. I do think the same things as you upon take off and landing though. I feel like if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen and no worrying will prevent it. I hope somehow you can get over the terror. That said have a wonderful time at camp!
That is a perfect way to put it – “I tolerate flying.” I think most people do not enjoy it but, of course, I’m way on the other end of the hating it spectrum! I cannot fathom flying to Toyoko like you are so, in my book, the marathon is a piece of cake and the flying there is a massive accomplishment – LOL!!! Good luck with both!!
Thank you for sharing… love that you’re taking this online class…. I did once have a panic attack while hiking with the kids in Sedona and sat mid-mountain and couldn’t go up or down… meanwhile, 5 year olds were racing past me up the mountain …. have a great trip…
Thank you Paria. And I’m so sorry that happened to you but I can totally relate to the scene of the kids running by and you being frozen. A lot of people forget (or don’t know) that it’s fight, flight or freeze! I’ve done all three. Don’t worry – I WILL be flying to California at some point because meeting you is SO worth it 🙂
Awww…so sorry to hear about your plane phobia. I used to be afraid of flying. Not the white knuckle fear that you describe, but I did look around wildly whenever the plane hit a little bump. I have flown so often in recent years, that I got over that fear eventually. Now it doesn’t phase me at all. Hope that happens for you too.
Thanks so much Laurie! I’m happy to report that I had TWO great flights and feeling much better about all my upcoming ones!! I know that if I could do it more, it would get better but that’s usually not feasible 🙂
Thank you for sharing this. You are so strong because you still get on the planes despite that! I have family/friends with flight anxiety who rarely fly anymore.
I used to be far more afraid of flying. I honestly don’t know what changed – flying more? turning 21?
I had a panic attack once on the metro in Paris. I was there during a high terrorist alert so that didn’t help my anxious disposition. All of a sudden, it felt like the walls of the metro were closing in and my heart started racing. I had to convince myself to stay with my friends and not get off at the next (random) stop. When I travel to big cities now, especially in Europe, I still only get on metro/subway if it is safer or significantly faster.
Have a safe trip and fun time in Florida!
I have vowed to never let it stop me from getting on a plane but sometimes it’s SO hard to take those steps!!
I’m so sorry you know what a panic attack feels like and, being “trapped” on the metro was probably so scary. Try not to avoid it next time and just face that fear!! You are a super strong woman and you can do it!!
Thanks so much Laura. xoxo
PS – my flights to and from Florida were FINE! Yay!!
My anxiety seems to be linked to my menstrual cycle/hormones. Much worse certain times of the month. I used to have panic attacks in college.
You’re definitely not alone!
Prayer & faith!
Thank you again so much for this Kim. I never thought about that but I DO consider my cycle in my training. As I said, I would love to make an appointment at a naturopath…for so many reasons.
I don’t have a fear of flying, I just don’t like to fly. Being way up here in Alaska with family on the east coast, the flights are pretty long. That was a pretty descriptive account of what it feels like to fly with that particular fear. I do hope that it gets better someday, somehow. Thanks for sharing.
Yes – those are some LONG flights! Sometimes, oddly enough, the long ones are ok because I get used to being up there and the tiny bumps stop bothering me. However, I would always prefer a short, smooth flight! Thank you for your kind words Cathy. I appreciate them! Also, my flights to and from Florida were just fine (for me) so I’m feeling more confident for my next trip in April.
I fly fairly often and luckily don’t have any anxiety about it. I can’t imagine having such debilitating anxiety. It must be both emotionally and physically draining. Good for you for not letting it keep you from traveling all together. It’s not brave of me to fly since I don’t have that fear. You are the brave one and that shows more strength than you know!
Thank you so much for your words. I really appreciate it. I don’t feel particularly brave when I’m crying and shaking mid-flight but I know how much strength it takes for me to even board a plane so I have to remember that.
You might know but my husband is a pilot. I actually don’t “love” flying. He always tells me bumps are normal. I hate having someone else in control of my to that extent.
Um, yes I do know that and those shots of you in the helicopter or tiny little plane with headphones on always freaks me out!!! But, since it’s your husband, obviously you fully trust him so I’m sure that can ease your mind somewhat!? I wish I had a close friend or relative who was a pilot so I could ask all the questions!!! Thanks Hollie.
Oh my gosh, I’m sorry to hear that your experience with flying is such a stressful one! I’ve only had an anxiety attack once in my life, and it was when I got in a car accident, so I can’t imagine having that visceral response every time I get on a plane. I do feel that a lot of people get really stressed out flying. Just last week when I was flying to Turks & Caicos, the guy next to me couldn’t find his passport in his pocket. We needed to show them to get on the plane, so the logical conclusion is that it had to be in his bag, but he started to full on panic and rip through his stuff. I wanted to be like, “Calm down dude.. I’m sure it’s around!” which it obviously was in the end. I’m curious, is it harder to fly with your kids where you have to be mommying and all, or does that sort of distract you a bit?
It’s so intense but thankfully my two flights were very good which creates two more “good” memories which is huge! And I had a guy freak out over his phone like that and then I saw it in his back pocket – LOL. People get a little frazzled when flying for sure and I totally get it.
My kids can be a good distraction but I also get more anxious because I’m afraid they will see me get upset and I never want them to see that. It’s something I’m working though and I try to never fly alone with them so I have options if we have a rough flight. Thanks so much for your words Nicole! I appreciate it.