The Loneliness of Terror

I’d like to figure out how to stop being afraid of something. Do you let a spider just crawl all over you until you don’t have the heebie geebies anymore? Do you go to the top of every tall building and stay there until you can look over the edge? Do you just get on airplane after airplane until takeoff no longer makes you believe you’re about to die? I’m just saying, if someone has figured out how to actually get over a fear, I’d like to know.

Paralyzing Fear

I’ve been afraid of flying for as long as I can remember. I remember the first time I had a panic attack, age 12 and an unaccompanied minor, sitting next to my little brother who held my hand as I sobbed that we’d never see Mom again. He kept hitting the bell for the flight attendant, asking for hot tea and more napkins as my tears soaked through them. I remember looking out over the Rocky Mountains and knowing for sure that we’d be crashing into them. Luckily, it was just bad turbulence. But I don’t remember a plane ride after that without a panic attack, until I started taking medication to fly.

Facing fears isn’t brave and it doesn’t build character. It doesn’t get easier and I don’t get stronger. It’s terrifying every.single.time. It’s strange and humiliating and lonely to be terrified of something that no one else is.

I’m sure there are other people afraid on airplanes. Statistically about 40% of people have some level of anxiety about flying and about 6.5% of people have a real phobia or anxiety disorder about it. It’s just not like they have a support group right before the flight or anything so all the wimps can meet and sit together. You’re left to just look around and wonder, is anyone else as afraid as I am right now?

In the past few weeks I’ve had varying plane related nightmares. Sometimes it’s just me on a crashing airplane. Sometimes it’s me with my loved ones on a crashing airplane. Many times it’s me getting to the airport and realizing that I’ve forgotten my airplane meds (which would never ever happen) and realizing that I can’t go back and get them. Sometimes it’s just me digging through my bag searching for them, knowing that I can’t get home without them. The sheer terror in my dreams so closely resembles the panic attack I’d experience if I were awake. But what are nightmares really? Panic attacks unpredictable little brother.

I realize that I sounded a little bit like a drug addict there for a minute. I only take anti-anxiety meds to fly. That’s it. And I’m so grateful that they exist to help people like me to experience all the things I couldn’t if I was too afraid to get on an airplane. I’m sure the researcher who invented it doesn’t realize how much he or she changed my life. They may not realize they enabled me to visit my family, to have adventures with friends, and made it possible for me to experience other cultures. But they did and I’m so glad.

In the days leading up to the flight though, my crazy thoughts invade more than my dreams. I constantly hope to be on a baby filled airplane. Yes, you read that right. All the babies. Sure, put the screaming one right next to me. Because if there is a God (and remember, I’m not so convinced that there is) at least I know that isn’t the plane that’s going down. Not the one with all the precious babes on it.

My wandering mind considers every possible scenerio. Every single thing that could go wrong. I google “how long are planes built to last” and then find the average age of fleet for the airline I’m flying. I try to figure out if I’m flying a Boeing or an Airbus. For some reason I trust Boeing more. I like to fly some airlines more than others. Southwest has zero passenger fatalities. I like that, so I like them. American Airlines has money issues so I jump to the conclusion that they aren’t maintaining their airplanes (completely untrue, but still, I won’t fly them). I online check in the very second that I’m able to, as I scan the remaining seats on the plane and frantically decide which to pick. Are odd-numbered rows bad? Should I sit all the way in the back of the plane, knowing that’s where I’m most likely to survive a crash?

And then there’s the casual phone calls. Sometime in the days before my flight, I call nearly everyone I love. Just to say hi, check in, pretend to be normal. The whole time I’m wondering, what if this is the last time I talk to them? I make sure everyone knows I love them. I remind N that he can have all my money if I die but he has to take Archie to visit my parents occasionally. He laughs like I’m kidding and hugs me tight and we both know that I’m not kidding and we both wonder how or why he loves me anyway.

He drives me to the airport, I’m already hazy and relaxing as my meds kick in and I tell him I love him 47 times in 20 miles. I get there hours before I need to be. I scramble through security, always nervous that my meds are making me slow and I’m annoying other passengers. I find a cafe near my gate and get a hot chocolate. Specifically a hot chocolate and nothing else. I find the “news” store and pick up a trashy magazine. I can never remember what I read if I try to read a real book once I’ve taken my meds. Then I sit casually at the gate, flipping through the magazine and sipping my hot chocolate, like I haven’t got a care in the world.

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