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?