May 24, 2016. I finally convinced myself to purchase my flight to London which would be leaving in exactly two weeks, despite having known when I’d be going and even having had tickets to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for months and months. Why did I wait until the last minute to buy these tickets?
Because despite talking to my sister, who had been there almost a year studying abroad, about how excited I was to see her and the city and the show, I was so debilitated by my fear of flying that I was not sure I could drag myself to an airport. I only eventually bought the ticket hoping it would increase my chances of going.
Instead it just worsened the anxiety. In those two weeks, I was telling everyone I love them, hyperaware that every conversation I had with anyone could be the last, so I made sure they were good interactions. I even assigned one of my coworkers to take over teaching lunchtime yoga in the event of my death.
It truly wasn’t until the flight doors closed that I accepted I was going to take off. And even then, convinced I may die a very scary death, I did not accept I would ever arrive in London. And if I should be so lucky, I still had to get home, and given the leadup to this flight, I was very worried I might not be able to convince myself to get on another plane. I grieved as I surrendered my love of traveling to my desperation to never fly again. After this trip, at least.
* * *
My childhood. I loved flying so much I wanted to be a flight attendant. Not for the perks of getting to see the world. For the ability to fly all the time. I. Loved. Flying. Loved it.
When I was 12 I flew unaccompanied minor across the country to California and back. On the flight home we flew through a thunderstorm, and I remember thinking it was annoying that people kept gasping every time there was lightening. I thought the lightening was beautiful and cool.
When I was 13, old enough to no longer be required to fly with unaccompanied minor status, I flew alone and unsupervised to Hawaii and back. I was so comfortable at the airport that after I got to my gate I went back out through security to hang out with some of my friends from camp a little longer before having to go back to my gate to board, which required an entirely voluntary second trip through security.
* * *
At some point this changed. In 2010, I became aware of the new body scanners the TSA was using. I morally opposed the naked images they purportedly created and even moreso was outraged by the alternative, “advanced patdowns.” I boycotted flying in protest for some amount of time. Although this is the first circumstance of flight avoidance in my life, it had nothing to do with anxiety or fear. It was borne entirely out of moral opposition.
Ironically, in the time I refused to fly due to policies I considered violating to bodily privacy and autonomy, I was sexually assaulted repeatedly by someone I trusted.
Soon after my abuse, I ended my flight boycott because I planned to go to college in California, so flying was inevitable. My memories from this time are scattered, but what is clear is for the first time I had anxiety associated with traveling. This anxiety was often eating disorder/food related.
I cannot recall when the specific fear of airplanes began. It happened slowly. Each flight I took was worse than the last. By 2014, I recognized it as a problem, where there was dread leading up to trips and I was doing what my therapist calls white knuckling. I would get the kind of anxiety that turns my back into a furnace.
My anxiety started to become concentrated at the beginning of flights. I would spend every moment I was in my seat before the doors closed having a mental conversation with myself about whether or not it’s worth it to stay on the plane, and when the announcement would come that the cabin doors had closed I would get a wave of visceral regret and panic. I would feel I made the biggest mistake of my soon to be over life. I would force myself to sleep.
It became my only coping mechanism to sleep as soon as I got on board through takeoff. But nearly without fail, I’d wake up just as the plane was speeding down the runway. Often I would force my eyes to stay closed to keep the tears from falling. Sometimes I would spring awake to look out the window because I was convinced we were about to flip over, but often looking out the window left me convinced something was wrong: The plane was turning too much. We weren’t high enough. We were too high. We were going down.
I ensured every possible flight I took I had a seat on the wings where you’re statistically most likely to survive a crash according to whatever research I had done. Sometimes I would select a flight based on the aircraft instead of the time or price. I avoided landing in LaGuardia because it has shorter runways than JFK. I panicked more the smaller the plane. I had nightmares sporadically of planes crashing in general but consistently in the days leading up to a flight.
On one flight coming home from Florida, a woman sitting next to Ryan and me started talking as soon as we sat down and didn’t stop until we deplaned. I found the distraction helpful and consider it one of the best flights of the time; Ryan, on the other hand, will tell you about how painfully I squeezed his hand the whole flight.
* * *
I made it to London and back without dying in a plane crash. But the level of anxiety it caused me truly was enough to make me prefer never to fly again. It was just too much. I literally sobbed. I looked around me and saw all the other passengers holding it together. I knew I wasn’t the only one afraid, but it was apparent that what I was experiencing was not normal.
I tried to get to the bottom of it. What caused this? Where is it coming from?
For me I think it had to do with trust. It didn’t even cross my mind previously that there was some human driving the plane. I could no longer take for granted that my life was in someone else’s hands. I no longer trusted the pilot. I no longer trusted the plane. It all makes sense. This was during a time that I would sometimes worry the Earth would start falling from the sky. This was during a time I was caught in a cycle of not trusting my rapist/friend then not trusting myself. Of course I didn’t trust the pilot.
As enlightening as this introspection was, it didn’t help the problem. Despite my desire never to fly again, we were invited to a wedding in Albuquerque. I tried to allow myself not to go, but I still booked the flights. Ryan was going either way, and I would rather die with him than him die without me. We had a layover in both directions, so there was a total of four takeoffs to fear. I was highly considering getting anti-anxiety medication for it. Once again, I said my goodbyes to everyone around me. Once again, the days leading up to the trip through when we got home I was filled with dread that was so intense it physically hurt.
The first flight was awful. I cried into Ryan’s lap. Our friend was on our second flight, and out of embarrassment I tried to conceal my tumultuous fear. I was unsuccessful. Instead I was just crying, sweating, shaking, panicking, and now also ashamed. The two flights back sucked. But my first therapy appointment was within two weeks of our return date.
* * *
I had been searching for a therapist for months to help me deal with the realization I had been raped and the consequences of that. It hadn’t crossed my mind I might discuss and deal with and certainly not cure my flight anxiety. By all accounts, I had given up. I had never heard of someone successfully coping with flight anxiety, and frankly I had never heard of someone dealing as poorly with flying as I was.
But therapy cured my flight anxiety. Cured.
When my therapist found out about the flight anxiety, she was encouraged she could offer me tools to help. She started with very approachable and attainable advice: puzzles. You know those magazines they sell at the bookstores at airports with crosswords, word searches, Sudoku, etc? Those. She said distracting yourself is a very good way to deal with flight anxiety, but it has to be with the right kind of distraction. It has to use all of your brain power. She said often people try to read, but that’s something that is easy to half-focus on, so it’s not enough.
She suggested a couple of phone apps with brain games like Lumosity, but I like to turn my phone off during flights. She suggested I come up with ten different options for things I can use so if one isn’t working I can easily switch to a different one. So I bought every variation of those magazines.
She also shared advice on how to handle the anxiety when it comes. She said it would help to accept I have no control over what happens and to realize that if the plane is going down, I can either white knuckle it or I can relax. It only makes it harder for me if I white knuckle it, so don’t. She suggested telling myself I don’t give a shit. To say fuck it, what happens will happen.
She gently informed me that if I were to give in to this fear and never fly again that it wouldn’t end there, that the anxiety and panic I felt was not and would not be limited to flying, and that if I just gave in to the fear my world would just shink and shrink. At the point I found myself in therapy, I had gotten myself far out of a very small and limited world. I didn’t want to live that way again.
She said the normal things people say: you’re highly unlikely to be in a plane crash. So many flights go safely each day. Usually that advice was not helpful, but somehow hearing it from her had that magical therapy effect of resonating.
She let me know that trying to sleep through it was the worst thing I could do, because then I would wake up in the midst of a panicked situation, and it’s much harder to work through it when it starts that intensely.
She suggested watching videos that play normal sounds of airplanes to familiarize myself with them and maybe visualizing being on the plane.
She told me to talk to Ryan to let him know how he can support me on the flight, whether I wanted him to check in with me or leave me alone. I wasn’t sure, so I told him that and that in the moment I might decide.
* * *
My first flight after working on my flight anxiety with therapy was after only a few sessions working on the topic. The anxiety leading up to the flight was still there, but as soon as we got on the plane it was different: I was hopeful.
I immediately started doing a word search, and I did that until we were next in line to take off. I switched to Sudoku after that mostly just because I was bored of word searches.
It was the best takeoff mentally I had experienced in years. There were a couple moments — mostly those milliseconds of freefall when the plane stops climbing — where I started to panic, the sweat started to form, the back turned into a furnace, and I gripped Ryan’s arm. But I heard my therapist’s voice in my head, “You can white knuckle it, or you can not.” And I relaxed my hands. And just by doing that, my stress response let up. Not entirely, but nearly entirely. I went back to Sudoku and trusted it to pull my attention.
When I landed I texted my therapist so excited and grateful. The difference was miraculous. I was beyond hopeful; if every flight went this way forever, I would be able to handle it. I could fly again. I could see the world. It felt like I got a huge part of my life back.
Leading up to the return flight, I didn’t have anxiety; I was excited. I was excited to see that the first flight hadn’t been a one-off and that the tools I got from therapy really did help.
I still sent my goodbye I love you texts, but other than that, I felt good. Just out of routine, I started with word search then switched to Sudoku for takeoff. There were a few more moments on the return flight than the flight there, and one lasted a little longer before I regained control of my thoughts. But again, I played her voice in my head, “Decide not to give a shit,” and I went back to Sudoku. And it worked.
From then on, it was like the process of my flight anxiety development reversed. Each flight got better than the last.
I started just doing whatever I wanted until we started to taxi, and then breaking out the Sudoku just for takeoff.
After many good flights, I started to feel like I wanted to try not using Sudoku to distract me to see if I was still okay. I was. There were moments, but my therapist’s voice in my head was enough. I knew I could work through it. I accepted it was in my best interest to relax, and I knew I had the ability to get myself to relax.
One flight I was very sleepy, and I decided I wanted to try sleeping again, not out of anxiety but just because it would be nice to know I could. I did fall asleep, and just like I used to, I woke up as we were speeding down the runway. And there was a moment of panic when the plane stopped climbing, but again, I heard my therapist’s voice, “It’s highly unlikely you’re going to be in a plane crash. And if you are, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” And I was okay.
And now, I often do sleep. But sometimes I work. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I talk to Ryan. I do whatever I want to do. I bring my bag of tools on my flights in case, but I haven’t needed them in a while. The only worries I have leading up to flights are that without fail I wait until the last minute to pack and I worry I’ll forget something. I no longer text a large group of people I love to tell them that I love them before I take off. I’m okay. I traveled to the bottom of Chile which involved three flights each way, switching airlines between flights, and a total of 24 hours of travel each way including airport time, and it was fine. I’m not scared anymore.
Sometimes I have moments of fear, but now I can talk myself through it, it doesn’t need to be in my therapist’s voice anymore. I can trust myself to handle it. I will leave you with this passage I wrote on the flight I took last month:
“Part of my fear was not wanting to die scared. I learned to accept I can’t control if I’m going to die in a plane crash, but I can control if I’m scared. If my brain has the power to make me panic, it also has the power to make me calm. So I take control of that. And I stay calm. When something looks or feels wrong and my heart starts to race and ache I talk to myself in my head. I say it’s not going to help to be afraid. I allow myself to visualize the plane going down but I tell myself I’m on a roller coaster, and by the time I’d know it’s not true I would already be gone. So I don’t have to fear it.”
* * *
I hope this story leaves you with at least one of two things:
1) If you’re dealing with flight anxiety or some other manifestation of panic disorder, you are not alone, and what you’re going through is so scary, but also find comfort that it is a highly treatable condition if you are equipped with the right tools and are willing to put in the work.
2) Therapy works. At the very least, it helps.
Admitting you need help can be scary, but actually getting help doesn’t have to be.