How I Fear Flying

I’m holding The Fiancee’s hands with both of mine.

"Don’t worry," she says. "I brought lotion this time so my hands won’t dry out from your sweat."

We’re in adjacent seats in an airplane that’s slowly rolling on the tarmac, and I’m breathing deeply, yoga style. Her fingers and wrists are turning white from my vise grip.

"Let me know if I bruise you," I whisper.

There are no satisfactory words to describe my condition. I choose to call myself a nervous flyer, but only because calling myself a nervous wreck or a disaster in the air would only exacerbate my symptoms.

It appears to have started when I was two years old. My parents decided to take their little boy to Disneyland for a weekend vacation. Unfortunately, when it came time to walk down the jetway and board the plane, I bolted, screaming and sobbing. My dad had to run after me, haul me up on his shoulder, and carry a hysterical toddler through milling passengers and onto a crowded plane. He tells me that once he and my mother managed to secure my carseat and strap me in, I shut up and fell asleep before we even took off. However, the experience was so traumatic for all involved that they cancelled our tickets for the flight back to San Francisco, rented a car, and made the seven-hour drive back north.

The next time I got on a plane was for my eighth grade class trip to Washington, D.C. It was an uneventful flight, mostly because, thanks to the wonders of alphabetization, I sat next to the two teacher chaperones, and they were able to keep me calm. Over the next seven years, I flew without incident, alone and with travel companions, mainly back and forth from San Francisco to New York while I went to college. I was always anxious, but managed to keep it to myself.

And then I graduated and stopped flying across the country regularly. It seems that when I was flying every four months, I was able to deal with my fear in a socially acceptable way. However, now that I fly less frequently, my irrational thoughts run amok as soon as the plane backs away from the gate, and I feel under siege by fear and anxiety until the plane touches down.

During takeoff and during any kind of turbulence, I’ve needed someone to talk me through it. I’ve asked high school girls to tell me what they’re studying in Social Studies, middle-aged men to give me financial advice, and an elderly woman who only spoke Spanish to hold my hand and assure me everything would be all right.

Specifically, I can’t help but see the plane crash interlude from Fight Club on loop. Mixed with that is a sensation of the plane going into a tailspin, and that I’ll fall several thousand feet, knowing all along that I am going to die. It doesn’t matter how smooth the takeoff, how minor the turbulence. I think these thoughts every time I’m in the air.

The very worst part is knowing that all of this is irrational, but that there’s some kind of trigger flooding my brain with fear signals I can’t overcome. So I hold The Fiancee’s hands, bury my face in her shoulder, and ask her how she and everyone else can be so calm.

"I get anxious about things that don’t bother you at all," she’s fond of pointing out. "Like locking the doors to the house when we leave."

This is true, but to my addled mind, totally beside the point and out of proportion to the issue at hand.

The plane’s engines roar, and we’re pushed back into our seats. As the metal tube lifts off the ground, my stomach sinks out of my body. The Fiancee is in the window seat, and she’s pulled the shade down so I can’t see outside.

One of my strategies for dealing with the fear is visualizing myself being elsewhere, usually on a bus riding down Interstate 85 in Charlotte. With my eyes shut tight, I can almost make flying feel like riding a bus, except that the bumps are just a little bit bumpier, and buses don’t take the kinds of turns that airplanes do. Takeoff is the bus speeding down a ramp onto the freeway. Shifts in direction are lane changes.

When the plane reaches cruising altitude, I’m better. Many people feel claustrophobic inside airplanes, but I’ve got no such problem. In fact, I’m probably most at ease when I use the plane’s restroom. This may be because it’s a tiny, fully enclosed, windowless room, shutting out the world and making it easy to forget that I’m 30,000 feet in the air.

Of course, it all goes to hell the moment there’s any turbulence. Mild shaking, less than you might have in a sedan on a dirt road, tenses all my muscles. I’ve burst into tears during particularly bad choppiness. Once, on a flight from Chicago to Charlotte, the turbulence was so bad that the flight attendants stayed strapped in for the duration, and since I was flying alone, I spent the entire time grasping my tray table, my seat’s arms, and my jeans, searching for something secure to hold while the plane bounced through the air. When we finally landed, I found I couldn’t speak because my jaw muscles were completely worn out from two hours of nonstop clenching.

The seatbelt sign lights up, and I tell The Fiancee, “I need your hands.”

Fingers interlocking, my face against her shoulder, I inhale the smell of her shirt and hair and remind myself that taking the train would extend this trip three whole days.

(Originally published May 14, 2011)