On My Fear of Flying

I didn’t get on a plane for the first time until I was old enough to drive. I had been living with an aunt in Florida, working as her nanny while my parents got a divorce, and suddenly, two days before Hurricane Andrew made landfall, I had to make my way back home without getting stuck in a natural disaster. My dad booked me a flight and after a summer spent realizing there was more to the world than my tiny-ass country bumpkin town, I gladly got on it. Flying, I realized, would be my ticket to the outside world. I ordered a sparkling water, a drink that tasted terrible to my Coke-adapted tastebuds, and I drank it down imagining the people around me on the plane thought I was far more glamorous than I’d ever imagined myself to be. After all, those were the days before everyone was flying and I was the only “kid” on her own on that plane.

When I moved out to Boston half a decade later, I realized that flying wasn’t as exotic as I’d made it out to be. Yes, airplanes took me to Europe and across the country, but they did that same thing for everybody who could afford them to. As I moved up into the middle-class, I finally realized that the costs of flying didn’t make it the luxury it had once appeared to poor little me. I flew to Chicago and Los Angeles and Charlotte. For fun. Because I could. Because all my middle class friends expected that of me. I was a worldly woman, sophisticated, I traveled on a whim, went away for the weekend. I took a near empty commuter shuttle between Boston and New York City in late August 2001 because my sister was having a hard day and I wanted to do some shopping.

When I visited her a month later, I took the train. On my morning walk to work just a week before, I had crossed a bridge from which I could see planes taking off from Logan Airport. And that afternoon, on my walk home, the only sound I heard were fighter jets cutting through the air above me. After that, flying felt like less of a luxury.

“Just calling to make sure you weren’t on your way to LA,” my friend said into my answering machine. I wasn’t but an acquaintance of my sister’s was. I guess that’s when you could say my fear of flying began.

In the meantime, I’ve flown quite a bit. I took a short break from it, but it’s a part of the middle-class life I’ve adapted since living in Boston. Upon moving to Germany, I knew I’d have to keep flying, hopping the pond at least once a year. Working as a freelance journalist, I knew I’d have to grab a flight to Leipzig for a day spent filming or a quick appearance at a Fashion Week. But it hasn’t been easy.

I had a panic attack on a short-haul flight ten years ago — the first I’d ever had — and the OCD rituals to prevent them from ever happening mid-air again began. Checking the safety records of every style of aircraft before settling on Airbus 320/330. Checking the safety records of every airline imaginable before choosing which to fly (Lufthansa, always Lufthansa). Choosing only direct flights (avoiding stopovers), never flying through England, the list goes on, has grown longer each year. It got so bad two years ago that I would have nightmares just even thinking about booking a flight; my hands would shake so badly I couldn’t book my tickets online and yet I would somehow book them. The Dramamine tablets I would take for motion sickness in the air would be swallowed before we’d even get on the train to the airport. A friend who saw this, whose brother was a pilot, admonished me for the rituals. “You fly too much to be afraid of flying,” he’d said. “And it’s way safer than driving.”

I know these things. But panic and logic are two completely separate ways of thinking and the parts of your brain handling those two things do not communicate. Panic, if you’re wondering, comes from one part “thinking too much/too catastrophically” and one part being so stressed out you can’t cope with life’s little things anymore. It wasn’t surprising then that my fear of flying grew uncontrollable when I was already being treated for exhaustion. What was surprising was that the doctor treating me for burnout also prescribed me some sleeping pills to help keep me calm during flights. If I were really exhausted, as he claimed, I shouldn’t have continued flying everywhere. A doctor looking out for my best interest would have told me not to go to Lebanon at the start of the Syrian civil war and to get more sleep instead. Instead, I got magic blue pills, a medication so strong it can cause amnesia even after small doses.

I flew more in the year following than I had ever done in my life. With those pills, I had the same terrible fears but none of the physical symptoms. I could worry that something was wrong with the plane without having to puke. I could feel the turbulence and my heart wouldn’t race. The pills dulled my senses, made flying feel finally okay again.

Portugal Beach

What the doctor didn’t tell me was that those pills had hideous side effects, that they were so addictive, they weren’t something for recovering addicts like me. I found out the hard way while lying on a beach in Portugal staring at the rolling surf while feeling completely out of my mind as I’d only felt when coming down from a high as a teenage junkie. I knew, before I’d even talked to a doctor, that it had to do with the pills. I also knew that it had to do with me, with feeling overwhelmed by this middle-class life and by having catastrophic thinking.

Since I came back from Portugal 18 months ago, I haven’t flown. I haven’t gone to the US. I have turned down lucrative job offers in other cities, taken a ten-hour train ride instead of a two-hour plane ride, avoided holidaying with friends I haven’t seen in ages, all in order to not have to get on a plane. It’s given me the time I need to recuperate from the exhaustion. To learn how not to catastrophize in my thinking. To prioritize. Do I really need to be in Copenhagen for Fashion Week again? Can I not just live here in Germany and ignore the rest of my family in the US?

And I have to admit: it was working. Taking the stress out of my life was a great step, even if it hasn’t gone far enough yet. Therapy to retrain my thinking was working, even if the voice now judging me in my head is my therapist’s (auf Deutsch, too, which makes that voice so very harsh!) I was just about to book tickets to Portugal for the summer break. And thinking about Christmas in the US. But after this week, I realize I still have a ways to go. Although in reading all of the news reports, I’ve realized my fear of flying has less to do with the realities of flight than with panic. All the OCD rituals in the world can’t prevent things from happening. And though I don’t want to make this about me, it’s hard not to feel it when it’s that close to home again. I — and I think a lot of other people — need serious time to digest what the fuck has just happened.

What about you all? How are you coping with the tragedy?

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6 thoughts on “On My Fear of Flying

  1. No Apathy Allowed March 30, 2015 / 1:28 pm

    Oh, man. I’ve written a lot about my fear of swimming in deep water where I can’t touch the bottom, but still remain baffled about where that fear came. There’s no logical explanation, no traumatic experience in the water. It’s simply there, and I think it will remain there no matter how well I learn to swim. It’s clear to me that the fear sits much deeper and most likely needs to be addressed through therapy, which I’m totally avoiding. I applaud you for working on the hard stuff with a therapist. Given all the uncertainties and tragedies in life that we can’t control, retraining our thinking is surely the only viable solution for coping in the long term. Just wish it were easier!

    • Milly March 30, 2015 / 11:08 pm

      Honestly, those 2 things I listed as being the “cause of my fear” aren’t the “real” fear — it’s Anxiety 101 (according to my therapist) that all fears are a combo of stress + catastrophic thinking. Sure, specific fears are grounded in other deeper meanings according to Freud, which is what I’m doing therapy for, but I definitely think that you’re doing the best thing by pushing your boundaries to overcome your fear. You don’t really need to know where it came from, just that it’s the way of thinking and ability/inability to handle stress that pushes it out of control. That’s the part that’s in my hands and yours, and I think it sounds like you’re doing a better job of tackling yours head-on.

  2. Sara March 31, 2015 / 2:13 pm

    I know that medication is useful for many people but whenever I’ve been offered anti-depressants or the like I always marvel at how doctors will ignore the root of the problem (stress in my case) and instead treat the symptom.

  3. Milly March 31, 2015 / 2:54 pm

    My doctor was very firm in saying that he would only prescribe these for my fear of flying and that I should get CBT to overcome the fear, so I really appreciated that. I just didn’t appreciate him not warning me of the side effects. Anti-depressants might work for depressed people but they are nothing to mess with if you aren’t depressed; there’s a reason why they have to come with warning labels.

  4. Capt Tom Bunn LCSW March 31, 2015 / 4:45 pm

    Milly, your doctor is right that you should not use anti-anxiety medication. Each time it is used for flying, it increases the person’s sensitivity, so that before long, there is no benefit. CBT, though it works for ground-based anxieties where you can take control, CBT is ineffective in the air where you have neither control nor escape. And then, when the plane drops, stress hormones are released automatically via unconscious processes CBT – being a “top-down” (thoughts cause feelings) therapy – cannot touch.

    There is an effective solution, and it is fully laid out in “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying,” a book that has recently been named “Amazon Editors’ 2014 Favorite.”

    • Milly March 31, 2015 / 8:39 pm

      Thanks. I know of your program well — I think Andrew at Grounded Traveler used it but maybe I’ll check out your book once I’m ready to fly again 🙂

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