If At First You Don’t Succeed, Fly, Fly Again, or How to Conquer Your Fear of Flying in Lots of Difficult Steps
Good morning, Anxiety Sisters. I am writing this blog from 35,000 feet above Florida, as I head to a writing conference in Pittsburgh. I say this matter-of-factly, but it is, actually, no small miracle that I am able to type while flying because, until a few years ago, the only way I could be on a plane was if I was drugged to the point of slurring. Yes, on top of panic disorder, I was also blessed with a debilitating fear of flying.
For those of you unfamiliar with this special experience, here’s what happened every time I had to travel by air: First I would suffer shortness of breath and heart palpitations while making travel arrangements. Next, for the seven nights leading up to the flight, I would develop insomnia, which then caused me to fall asleep at work meetings (during which time I would dream of plummeting out of the sky in a ball of fire). On the day of the trip, I would get nauseated in the car on the way to the airport but would refuse to throw up the Ativan I had just taken. In the security line, I would feel dizzy and sweaty and my left arm would go numb. On the jetway, I would sway back and forth, fearing I would pass out and be trampled by annoyed passengers. When I finally got aboard the aircraft, I would curl up into a ball in my seat and hope my fellow fliers wouldn’t ask me why I was crying. And then, while taxiing, I would chew another Ativan, hoping to lose consciousness before the crash.
Did I say this happened every time? Well, it did. And I am not exaggerating.
It was, clearly, an excruciating ordeal—one that would leave me exhausted and immuno-compromised for days afterward. I would always come down with a virus or infection within 24 hours of my return home, and it would take me at least a week to recover from that. It got to the point where, if I couldn’t drive or take a train to my destination, I simply refused to go. Here’s a short list of some of the places I didn’t go during my decades-long battle with my fear of flying: (1) to the Amalfi Coast of Italy for my honeymoon (we drove through New England instead) (2) to my girlfriend’s wedding in San Francisco (I was the maid of honor; she no longer speaks to me) (3) to the Kentucky Derby (free tickets!) (4) to Hawaii (5) to Vail, Colorado. And there were many more events and activities I missed out on because of my phobia.
The worst part of all this was that I didn’t feel relieved about avoiding planes because I was so keenly aware of everything I was missing in the process. My panic was controlling my life, and that made me depressed. I was too young to have such a tiny world, and I didn’t want my three children to think my solution was a healthy one.
So, I started flying. A lot. Everywhere. I went to a wedding in Atlanta for someone I barely knew. I went to Kansas City to see a Backstreet Boys concert. I flew to Toronto for a weekend, just to say I left the country. I went to California to visit an old friend and then again the following month to attend another Backstreet Boys concert (please don’t let my love of boy bands distract you from the message at hand). I said yes to everything that required air travel. I was determined to beat my phobia into submission, and I knew (because several therapists told me) that flying was the only way I could do it.
I’m not going to lie to you. Those first four or five flights were pretty rough. In fact, I aborted my mission twice and had to reschedule my flight for a day when I was less hysterical. But I ultimately got on the plane (and stayed there) over and over again. Gradually, the panic began to lessen: I would still feel tremendous anxiety when I arranged the flight, but I lost only three nights of sleep in its anticipation. And I stopped getting really dizzy and trembly at the airport. I distinctly remember sitting in my seat on my Portland-bound flight and marveling at my ability to be upright and dry-eyed. This was indeed progress!
The more I flew, the less I panicked until, one day, I discovered that I had forgotten my Ativan altogether…
For the last several years, flying has been a regular part of my life. My daughters and Mags live in the New York metropolitan area, so I fly up frequently to spend time with them. Honestly, it’s no longer an ordeal—in fact, sometimes it’s even an easy trip (ok, maybe not easy, but doable). I occasionally have horrifying premonitions of slamming into the Atlantic, but then I remind myself that not seeing the people I love is far more painful.
So today is a celebration of how far I’ve come in managing my anxiety. I am still in the air (second flight from Charlotte to Pittsburgh)—unmedicated and looking forward to an exciting weekend among fellow writers. For those of you who struggle with flight panic or other phobias, I am absolutely certain you can learn to overcome them. It won’t be easy. It definitely won’t be enjoyable. But you can do it.
PS) You know how people always say that talking to a pilot or someone who knows how planes work is very comforting for a fearful flier? Well, that’s a big lie. The only pilot I ever spoke with, when asked about the location of the safest seat, responded, “In the terminal.”