I took a trip to Chicago earlier this year and this is a post I wrote as I flew off to the windy city. For those who know me, like Nikki and my family and friends, they all know how much I hate to fly. I’d rather take a train, bus, car, hell I’ll even hike my way to a destination. However, I have a fairly well balanced brain and understand when flight is necessary.
Here’s how I’m processing this flight and what keeps me going.
As I sit here on my flight to Chicago, I’m listening to the sounds of Band of Horses’ The Funeral. Call me a romantic or crazy-daydreamer, but this song fills me with hope as I travel three hours to see one of my best friends and someone I’ve been crushing on for the better part of ten years (we’ll get to that another time). I take a sip of the screwdriver I desperately just ordered in part due to my flight anxiety and I begin to feel the alcohol coat my groggy throat, and my mind. It’s a small sense of relaxation.
Flying wasn’t always hard for me. It truly wasn’t until my high school trip to New York and the east coast that I began to dread stepping foot onto a plane. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy travel and adventure, so I deal. But seriously, who thought it was a great idea to put hundreds of humans on a single flight across the country or even the world? I really never thought I would put myself into a career where I was required to travel for work. As I think about it though, perhaps it’s my subconscious desire to overcome my fear of flying and flight anxiety. Or, maybe its my genetic need to go on as many adventures as possible. Whatever the reason truly is, here I sit. On a plane. For three excruciating hours.
There’s an article I read some time ago that discussed the key factors as to why someone has anxiety – any kind of anxiety. A lot of the information came down to the fact that it was some sort of inability to make clear distinctions in the persons brain. So, if this is true, it isn’t really true for me. Like I mentioned, I wasn’t always like this.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of 2006, my junior year of high school. I had been dating a boy named Derek and we were madly in love. We dated for our entire junior year; Inseparable we were. So, naturally, in the spring of 2006 we decide to go on this eastern seaboard trip together and with the rest of a history honors class at our high school…along with a few chaperones, and his mother. As a kid who grew up nerdy and a lover of history, I jumped at the chance to explore.
The day our flight arrives, I’m nervous. The feeling of love, excitement, and historical opportunity are buzzing in my head. Not to mention, it was the first time I had traveled cross-country alone. It was an exciting moment in my teenage life. The next week and a half was a whirl-wind of joy, confusion, and a breakup. Yes, we broke up during the trip. It quickly turned into a trip where I felt to painful ping of heartbreak. My first time experiencing this. Some good still came out of the trip though. I made friends with a young girl, Ashley, with whom I’m still the best of friends with.
Despite the fact that she and I barely knew each other at this point, she was my support system throughout the entire last half of a miserable trip. If it weren’t for her, I would have been dealing with a whiny and very upset ex-boyfriend and has catty mother. Now, you may be thinking, “Where does this flight anxiety thing come into play?” Don’t worry, I’m getting to it. The trip while horrible at times, was one of my favorite memories. Wandering around George Washington’s plantation, pursuing 5th Ave, and seeing the memorial site of the 911 attacks will always be something that sticks with me.
The trip came to a close. The group boarded a plane at JFK, and grabbed a connecting flight in some mid-western state I cannot recall. By this point, tensions between Derek and I were high, and he began to argue with me, and I with him at any point we could, and he became rather jealous of the friendship that had began to blossom between Ashley and I. We boarded the connecting flight and took off to Phoenix. It was late. Something like, 10 pm CST. Rain and wind were on the forecast for the night, and we would be dealing with it for the entire flight into Phoenix. Halfway through our flight we began to experience mild turbulence. It was pretty normal stuff. Then, suddenly the flight attendants rushed past us and buckled up. Slightly confused and fearful, I clenched the armrest tighter and tighter. Then, we dropped a few hundred feet fairly dramatically. An uncontrollable rush of panic and desperation swept over me and I completely lost it. I began crying, fearing for everyone’s life, including my own. I was in an all-out panic. My first panic attack.
My new friends sitting around me were at a loss. They didn’t understand why I was so upset, considering how totally fine they were. A flight attendant came to my side and provided me with some ice chips and emotional comfort in an attempt to keep my calm. It helped a little, but not entirely. FINALLY we arrive at the Phoenix gate. We load off the plane and as I half job up to the gate waiting area, I collapse onto the ground as Derek walks by me, rolling his eyes. I’m thankful for the ground, the air, and my life.
I know this seems ridiculous, I feel ridiculous when the pang of panic overcomes me during takeoff and even while waiting to board the plane. So, why did I suddenly develop this panic attack and fear of flying? I believe it was a combination of the emotional roller coaster I was experiencing over the course of a week, and my mind’s association with those distressful moments. The literal dip in altitude didn’t help either. As least, as this is my assumption. I have yet to discuss this in full detail with the therapist I’ve been seeing.
That occurrence was a little over ten years ago now. One would think that I’d be over it by now. But, I’m not. It has become easier over time and I’ve experienced less panic attacks on flights. But in recent years it’s worsened again. More than likely due to the psychological events that have occurred within this time span. Flight anxiety isn’t something I take lightly, especially since I’ve become a mom. A million thoughts run through my mind, like the possible total chaotic destruction of the plane mid-flight, the unrealistic, yet very real to me, idea that our plane could just fall from the sky. The psychological events mentioned above, don’t make flying alone any easier.
You’re probably wondering at this point, how I’m dealing with being on this plane right now. The drink I mentioned above, it’s helped me mellow out a tiny bit. I also use a few different tricks I’ve learned over the years to distract me…including the people I’m about to see in just a few short hours.
My advice to those who suffer from the same fear? Confide in those who can help you, talk to a professional and don’t put your mental health on hold. You can overcome it. The journey is long and difficult, but possible.