Flying Away From Fear

By Debra LoGuercio

©Copyright 2004, Debra LoGuercio, all rights reserved

It took 24 years, but I finally faced the dragon. I got on an airplane.

I don't know why flying generates uncontrollable panic in me, only that it does. I've flown before, but following an uneventful trip to Hawaii in 1980, I was inexplicably gripped with terror at even the thought of flying. Just discussing the notion of boarding an airplane seized me with fear.

I know, I know. Flying is safer than driving. But you can't counter irrational fear with rational information. Phobias aren't rational.

Unlike phobias involving crowds or spiders, my phobia was easily avoidable. I didn't NEED to get on an airplane. But I really WANT to see the world. Life keeps slipping past, and there's so much I haven't seen and done. Moreover, I'd conquered every other fear in my life except this one. And it bugged me. Bad.

I was explaining this to my gynecologist during a pap smear (there's a reason for this reference, I promise), something else I'm not fond of. I fidget and chit-chat my way through it, counting the minutes until it's over. It's an unpleasant necessity that must be endured to make life last longer.

Despite the strange venue for conversation, my doctor responded that medication could ease my flight anxiety. I filed that information away in the back of my mind until I decided to face my fear once and for all. After booking tickets to the East Coast, I asked for a prescription.

As the day of the trip approached, my anxiety was at full boil. What was I thinking? This was suicide! I arrived at the airport in wild-eyed terror, much to my daughter's embarrassment. Time for a pill. Slowly, subtly, it worked its magic -- I could inhale again and decided not to run screaming from the terminal.

Once we took off, the fear subsided. Rather than obsessing about my fears, I focused on the flight attendants. If they keep serving drinks and snacks, everything's OK. Somewhere over the Midwest I began entertaining the thought that I might actually survive this ordeal. When I finally felt the wheels skid down on the Philadelphia runway, I cheered. It wasn't so bad after all.

The flight home, however, wasn't a smooth sail like the flight out. Immediately after takeoff, we hit turbulence. The seatbelt light stayed on, the pilot warned us it would be rough for awhile and, horror of horrors, the flight attendants didn't stroll up and down the aisles for nearly an hour.

I was sure each bump would propel us into the ground like a bullet. My heart thumped against my ribcage. Even my stoic daughter, who until this point ridiculed my little airplane problem, pulled down the blind on her window and said she just couldn't look anymore. The fact that Little Miss Nerves of Steel was getting nervous only amped up my blood pressure a few more notches.

I clutched my lucky stuffed lion and stared at the cockpit door as if sheer concentration would keep the plane aloft. And yes, somewhere over Iowa or Illinois or one of those other flat, corny places, I needed another pill.

After applying chemical brakes to my runaway terror, I managed to convince myself that it wasn't an airplane at all -- just a boat going over rough water. No big deal. When the fight attendants finally started pushing their carts down the aisle, I loosened my grip on the lion. Janine opened a book and started reading. By God, we just might make it through this trip alive too.

As we approached the West Coast, the storm clouds gave way to wide expanses of golden fields and the flight smoothed out. When we touched down in San Francisco, I was ecstatic. I'd survived! I'd not only faced the dragon, I'd conquered it. The rough flight taught me that every little bump and grind doesn't mean the plane will plummet to the earth. The airplane is a little tougher and the flight crew a little more skilled than I gave them credit for.

Will I fly again? Yes. Will I ever like it? No. I've developed more realistic expectations. I no longer expect to like flying, only to be able to endure it, and someday without the aid of chemical training-wheels. Or training-wings, as it were.

Flying is like so many other disagreeable things in life, from working out to getting a tooth filled to cleaning up baby puke: you can dislike something and do it anyway. Flying across the country was about as pleasant as a six-hour pap smear. Fidget, chit-chat, count the minutes until it's over. But the ends are worth the means. The difference is that enduring a pap smear keeps you alive. Enduring flying keeps you living.

After visiting our amazing East Coast for the first time -- seeing Times Square, the World Trade Center site, a Broadway play, the Betsy Ross House and Independence Hall - I realized how much my fear of flying has limited my life. You can't fully live without fully facing fear. Fear is self-imposed limitation -- it makes you live life by coloring inside the lines. I want to paint my own picture.

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