What creates a fear of flying? I was never afraid to fly, until the day I suddenly was. For years I’ve required copious amounts of Valium and alcohol to fly. One flight, years ago, was due to leave around 7AM. By 6:30 I had taken 2 Xanax and had a drink; yes, at 6AM! When they announced an hour delay, I went back to the bar and I had another drink and, as the departure time drew close, another Xanax. This went on for 3 hours, each delay having me consume more alcohol and more Xanax. By the time we actually departed, my ex had to carry me onto the plane. We were taking a cruise, and I got to our room, passed out, and missed the first stop in Key West. That is what it took to get me to fly! As time went on, I began getting anxiety attacks days, even weeks, before a scheduled flight, and Valium became my new best friend to travel with.
A few years ago my sister and I started an annual week long trip to Fl to visit our parents. As had become my custom, I always made sure I had plenty of Valium on hand (one of the perks of an advanced staged cancer diagnosis being a plethora of anti-anxiety meds), for both the week leading up to the trip, and the flight itself. This past week, as I prepared for our annual trip though, I felt no anxiety. I even spent some time envisioning the flight and again, no anxiety. Driving to the airport was a pleasant trip, rather then a death march. When I got in to the airport I did take 2 Valium, just in case, but I felt like perhaps I didn’t really didn’t need to. (I did err on the side of caution, because I have severe asthma and when anxiety sets in I am prone to attacks, which are difficult to reverse, especially when in an airplane which is causing the anxiety.) Since I was early, I did go to a bar and have a margarita, but not because I felt I had to. I did it because it felt so wonderfully freeing sitting in a airport bar by myself, with no anxiety or feelings of self consciousness. It was fun!
When I boarded the plane I felt fine. When the pilot announced we were about to depart I felt fine. When we started taxying down the runway I felt fine. I did concentrate on my breathing, just in case, but I don’t think I really needed to do that. When we actually took off, I was fine. During the flight, when we hit turbulence, I was truly fine! It was a very turbulent flight and, for the 1st tie since 1992, I was able to feel each bump for what it was; an airpocket, similar to the potholes that mar our roads, much like the bumps in my life over the years. I found myself enjoying the swaying and bumping of the plane! Actually enjoying it! What would previously had been a 10 Valium +white knuckle flight was a hoot!
I think there are only 3 possible explanations for this. The 1st is that the cancer has spread to my brain and I’m losing my mind. I don’t think this is highly likely but, if it is, I’ll enjoy the ride. The second is that the breathing and meditation work I’ve done in my yoga practice has enabled me to relax my mind, to see a bigger picture, to feel calm in any situation. I think this might be part of it, but I don’t think it’s the whole story, because as I deal with divorce or cancer issues I definitely feel anxiety, even if I breath and meditate.
This leaves the 3rd option: The fear I felt when flying was nothing more then an exacerbation of the generalized fear I felt all day, every day. It was an exacerbation of my generalized lack of faith in anything.
Fear is so consuming. I had no idea how much it had permeated every aspect of my life, how it had taken over, become my task master, dictating every move, every decision I made. I have known that my fear was overwhelming, but to think that it had made me fear one of the safest forms of transportation there is seemed counter-intuitive. How had my fear taken over even basic logic?
I’m not 100% sure of this, but I think my fear of flying began in the mid 90’s. My ex and I were raising his son from his 1st marriage and our own two sons. My step-son was a handful. He was ADHD, he longed to be with his biological mother, and he felt certain that harassing me was his ticket out. At the time I believed that the problems we were having parenting him and the other boys were noting more then the stress of an ADHD step son. On some level, though, I must have understood there was something much greater at play, because I suggested that it might be time for us to split up; for my ex to raise his 1st son separately from me and our other boys. It was a tumultuous time, to say the least, and I was very unhappy with our marriage, and what I believed to be his lack of support in parenting, but which he claimed was me over-reacting. I now know I never over-reacted. If anything, I was extremely patient and calm in a traumatic situation. Co-parenting with a narcissist will not happen, but I had no idea at the time that was what I was dealing with.
My ex decided that the best solution was for us to go on a vacation, just the two of us. When I expressed concerns, like we couldn’t really afford it, and it didn’t really address the root issue, which was a problem in our parenting, he became very hostile and accused me of not loving him. As was my pattern, I gave in and we planned an expensive vacation that I neither wanted, nor felt comfortable paying for. Leading up to the trip I reminded him several times of 2 things: he needed his birth certificate, and he needed a shirt with a collar for dinners. These were not MY rules, but as had become his response to my “nagging” he “forgot” to take care of these things. When we arrived at the airport he suddenly realized he had forgotten his birth certificate. To make matters worse, his parents, who lived 45 minutes from the airport, had it. They were willing to drive it to the airport, but one bit of traffic and we would miss our flight. I was furious. I was so tired of his “forgetfulness”. I was aware, on some level, that he was not forgetful at all, he was passive aggressive, and his forgetfulness was one of his ways of shutting me down; getting his way; getting back at me for a perceived slight.
That day, while he stood outside waiting for his father, he told me to go wait at the gate which I did. Well, I waited in the bar next to the gate. I was furious, I was tired, I was discouraged, I was confused, and I wasn’t sure that I was supposed to do if I had to board and he wasn’t there. If I went without him there’d be hell to pay. If I waited for him I’d be pissed as shit. It was a no win situation, and it remains a turning point in my mind. I boarded the plain without him and got bumped to 1st class. Right before the doors were to close, he appeared. The flight was fine, made especially wonderful as we were in first class and drinking champagne, but I think a switch was flipped that day for me. On that day I saw him clearly for the first time. I saw a man with no regard for anyone but himself. He didn’t care that I hadn’t wanted to go on the trip, he didn’t care that we were spending money we could’t afford, he didn’t care that he made his father speed to the airport to deliver a document he had known for weeks he needed, and he didn’t care that he hadn’t packed a collared shirt, which we ended up spending a fortune on once we got there. I also realized that I would never “win” with him. Not that I wanted to “win” to begin with. All I had ever wanted was for us to be on the same page. Instead, we were in different novels.
It was an awkward vacation, which was a shame because we had deluxe accommodations at a beautiful resort. It could, and should, have been like a second honeymoon. Instead, I found myself smiling when I wanted to cry, agreeing to activities I didn’t want to do, “enjoying” meals I had no interest in, and having frequent sex which made my skin crawl. I think it was that flight home that cemented my fear of flying. I think that as we flew home, he believing we had “repaired” our relationship, or at least gotten me back in line, and me realizing that I was in an impossible situation, created that fear. Is that possible? Can the simple experience of an activity done while under extreme distress lead to a dislike of that activity? I’m not sure, but I never flew with any sense of comfort again.
Perhaps the feeling of being trapped at that point transferred onto the feeling of flying, creating that all encompassing fear I felt for the next 20 years, for I was indeed trapped. I was in a marriage with a man who had no regard for me or our children, my health was failing and we had recently opened a business, using every cent to our name. There was no escape for me from that situation, just as there is no escape from an airplane, once it leaves the gate. And it is much easier to blame fear on an inanimate object, like a plane, then it is your spouse, so I did.
I no longer feel trapped. I feel fear for my future, for my children, for my health, but I don’t feel trapped. I feel safe, loved, secure and happy. For the first time in over 20 years. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, as opposed to those many drawn out years of my marriage, in which I had little doubt what each day would bring. Now, each day is different, made unique by my own growth, my own choices, my renewed faith in myself. I wake up some days excited at the possibilities, other days tired at the effort required to get divorced and move 3 children. Yet every day, excited or tired, I have a sense of peace and freedom, a joy that I have escaped the cage in which I lived for over 20 years.
And apparently, I’m no longer afraid to fly. Go me!