Flying into Fear, Part 1

Flying into Fear, Part 1 April 20, 2016

PlaneYears ago, I worked with a woman who sold her car after a spider’s nest fell on the roof. Although her husband seemed to have cleared all spiders from the interior, she could not bring herself to open that door. Ever again.

I knew another woman who took anti-anxiety meds regularly on the off chance she’d encounter a snake at her Midwestern office job.

And how can we forget public speaking, all those students who stay home from school on presentation day beset with digestive difficulties as they dread the encroaching next?

Of course, these fears have always seemed irrational to me. By definition, phobias are irrational. Spiders and snakes rarely kill anyone. And public speaking? What’s the worst that can happen?

But flying? Let me swim in a vat of spiders, wear a necklace of cobras, or give a State of the Union Address. Those aren’t real threats. Planes are. Planes can actually do some damage.

I’m not sure how my phobia started. I flew with my high school orchestra with no problems then began to have the same nightmare, over and over, of airplanes exploding over my neighborhood. (Eerily, I would see this dream play out decades later in a Breaking Bad episode.) In college, I convinced my mission team to take a bus from Riverside, California, to Appalachian Kentucky to volunteer at a children’s camp. I had explained that I wanted a chance to see the country, which was not a lie. Besides, Greyhound was cheaper.

But I’m not convinced that was the whole story in my subconscious.

Something in me wanted me to avoid the plane. It wasn’t flying itself that scared me, at least not at first, but giving up control to a mode of transportation I didn’t entirely understand. And my misfiring synapses clung to the idea.

After moving to Ohio for graduate school with my husband, then moving to Illinois, we did not visit our California family for at least three years. Money was indeed an issue, but one Christmas, finally, we bought Greyhound tickets. Again, I pushed for “seeing the country” and “saving money,” though my rational brain knew that flying would be faster, safer, and probably worth a little bit of credit card debt.

Soon, I found myself struggling with even stranger thoughts. What if a family member got sick? Or even died? How would I handle getting back quickly if I didn’t fly? Worse, how could I possess such a dark and selfish heart to even consider my own fears at a time like that?

In 2000, against all psychological odds, I decided to surprise my mother for her birthday by flying back home to Southern California and taking her to Hearst Castle with my sister. I met with a therapist, but my anxiety persisted with intensity. Buying the ticket was a game with fate. What flight number seemed the most headline worthy, had that certain tragic ring? The heaviness in my stomach started several weeks before takeoff. I imagined how it would feel to fall from 40,000 feet, as if planes regularly just plummeted from the sky. I imagined the terror of those last moments, of people losing bodily functions, screaming, and crying out to God.

Relaxation exercises didn’t help. A friend suggesting I visualize God carrying my plane across the country in the palm of his hand also didn’t help. I would stare at every passing jet in our busy suburban Chicago flight path. That one’s okay. That one’s okay. But of course, mine would explode.

That’s the thing with phobias. They make you feel terrifyingly special, as if you’re the only one in danger, and the only one who can stop it.

When the plane took off, I grabbed onto my husband’s arm. At around 20,000 feet, I threw up. With each bump of turbulence, I fixated on the flight attendants, looking for any sign of alarm. In fact, I stared at every turn and tremble of the wing, convinced we were ready to tumble over. By the time we landed (so much shaking as the plane descended through the clouds), I was simultaneously relieved and already dreading the return. And, of course, once we landed safely back in Chicago, I hated myself for wasting my life with anxiety.

My state of mind improved with future flights, but just barely. At least I flew—but not without suffering in the process of preparation. 9/11 only made things worse. I caught myself, ashamed, scanning Middle Eastern men waiting to board. Could he be a terrorist? What about him? On the morning of a Christmas Day flight, I cringed through the motions of celebration at home. Each ribbon, each scrap of paper, took on a magnified importance, my chubby-cheeked toddler daughter the perfect photo candidate for a feature article about the impending tragedy.

Every flight grew into an exhausting process of dread, panic, relief, and guilt. But with the reality of a family 2,000 miles away and a growing writing career, I had no choice.

To be continued tomorrow.


Image produced above is by sigmama, licensed by Creative Commons.

Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including PoetryImageBooks & CultureHarvard Divinity BulletinThe Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. She tutors high school students and edits for Every Day Poems and Relief.

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