As a kid, I never thought twice about flying. My stepfather was in the Air Force, so we traveled quite a bit. Between the ages of six and 13, I lived in California, Massachusetts, Italy, Texas, Maine and Germany.
My mother and stepfather had a rocky marriage, and during some of these deployments they separated then reunited, so there were even more plane trips back and forth. The flying part was no big deal.
Once I was in my twenties, however, I developed a real fear of flying. I was afraid that the plane I was on was going to crash, period. Statistically, I knew I was safer in a plane than in a car, but fear trumped logic.
I did have a rough flight from Toronto to Boston when I was 23. It was early May, and a freak snowstorm forced us to land in Providence after an aborted attempt to set down at Logan. The turbulence was so severe that some passengers were crying and throwing up.
Once we landed, I refused to get back in the air to return to Boston, but I couldn’t disembark because there was no U.S. Customs official onsite. We sat at the gate for about two hours until they tracked one down, whereupon I got off the plane and took a bus back to Boston. I wasn’t terribly assertive at 23, so my refusal to fly tells you just how scared I was.
After that incident, I’d fly – but rarely without alcohol. I remember going on vacation to Cancun with my then-boyfriend and another couple. We had to be at the airport at 6:00 a.m. for our flight, and I mixed up a jug of mimosas to swill while waiting to board.
That became my M.O. for most trips – I’d get to the airport early and drink. If I were traveling on business and needed to be sober when I arrived, I’d manage to white-knuckle it through without booze. But I’d be a nervous wreck, unable to concentrate on anything but the thrum of the engines during the entire flight – convinced that if I stopped listening, they’d stop running. No magical-thinking control issues here.
My most humiliating episode occurred in my late thirties when I flew from Boston to Sarasota to visit my father. A friend met me at Logan for lunch about three hours before my flight, and I proceeded to down several glasses of fear-assuaging wine.
When I boarded, I was seated in a row with two guys, also on vacation, who started buying me drinks when the beverage cart rolled around (this was back in the day when I was young enough that guys did that sort of thing). I guess we got a bit boisterous after a while because I vaguely remember referring to the flight attendant as “sphincter girl” when she refused to serve me.
By the time we landed in Florida, I was pretty unsteady on my feet. My gallant traveling companions propped me up and delivered me to my father, who was waiting at the gate. I made it to his car, but on the highway en route to his house, I had to ask him to pull over so I could throw up. Then I passed out.
Suffice it to say I was mortified once I sobered up (not to mention feeling like a piece of crap). I never drank to that level of excess again – in advance of flying or otherwise. But I continued to struggle – and still do – with nervousness about flying. My hunch is that many of us do, especially in the wake of 9/11.
At this age, however, the fear has become more manageable. Call it fatalism or simply a sense of letting go, but I’m more accepting of the idea that what will be, will be. I’m relinquishing an old tape that says when things are good in my life, something bad will happen (i.e., my plane will crash). I did a session of hypnosis that helped me create a calming mental place to visit when I’m stressed. Oh, yeah – I also discovered Xanax, which takes the edge off in a way that’s significantly easier on my body (and less humiliating) than too much wine.
More importantly, perhaps, is that at this age there’s a growing awareness of just how short life is. And I no longer want to miss out on experiences and seeing people I care about because I’m too scared to fly.
This last point hit home a few years ago when a dear friend’s husband was dying of cancer. They were in California and I was in Maine. If I wanted to see him and support my friend, I had to put my issues aside and get on a plane. So I did.
And I continue to do so. Sure, I still feel trepidation in the hours leading up to a flight, but I’m no longer grounded by that fear. And that’s a real departure.
A new world opens
when we let go of fears.
Up, up and away!
What about you? Is fear holding you back from doing certain things in life? Or have you been able to move past it as you’ve gotten older? Please share.