Let’s review. Over Thanksgiving weekend, after taking nine flights in four months (including some long-haul international ones) my longtime dislike of flying turned into a full on, panic attack fueled phobia of flying. Fun times y’all. SUPER fun times for my husband when I couldn’t get on our connecting flight in Phoenix, and we were going to Albuquerque. (Good came out of this even in the short term, by the way, least you think that good things do not grow from bad. We had a spur of the moment road trip over Thanksgiving. I took a round-the-whole-country book tour sponsored by Amtrak. I’d never give those things back in a million years.)
And then, also, I was finally “working on” or really, life was “working on me,” helping me to tackle and start to solve my anxiety condition. (Onset: Quitting theatre and moving to San Francisco. Conclusion: Writing and publishing a book, having it do well. Take Away: Go figure.) But the one huge anxiety monster I had yet to wrestle was my enormous fear of flying. Damn it.
I joke a lot that I married David because, on some core level, he was always the person that could keep me driving forward. I am very good at seeing what I should probably do next (say: start a blog, write a book, take fear of flying training). And then I’m spectacularly bad at figuring out what the first step is and taking it. Why? Because once you take the first step, you’re actually going to have to do something about it, so it’s way easier to not figure it out. David has always been phenomenally good at wandering off, researching the first step for me, and then helping me do it. Always. He did this for me when we were platonic best friends, and he does it for me now after seven plus years together. Who set up the first blogger blog for APW? (David.) Who put in the first email to an agent we knew on the book? (David.) Who signed me up for a Fear of Flying course? (David.) Now, I don’t say that to discount my own ambition and hard work in any way. Once the first step is taken, I then climb the mountain on my own (with cheering from the sidelines). But that first step. Help on the first step is worth its weight in gold. Look for that, always. Notice it. Value it.
So, after Thanksgiving’s total melt down mid-air, David signed me up for a Fear of Flying Course, which, I frankly would have done just about anything to avoid. We enrolled in a course that involved eleven DVDs worth of training on everything from the psychology of fear, to how flying actually works, to visualization. And then I did a phone counseling session. And then I had to fly.
In case you were wondering, I hated every damn minute of it. I hated watching the DVDs (though they were interesting), I hated doing the visualizations (though they were pleasant), I sweated through the counseling session (though it was helpful). Why? Because I knew that all of it led to me getting on a plane again, something I absolutely, under no circumstances, wanted to do. But David said I had to.
It worked out that my first flight, from San Francisco to Chicago, was on my own. I know, right? Like it could get worse. David had to fly out to New York to get sworn into the bar (yay!) so the best he could do was meet me at the gate when I arrived. In case you were wondering what getting ready to fly after months of training is like, it’s terrifying. Luckily, my course had prepared me for that. Until you can prove to yourself that you have the ability to fly without fear, your pre-flight anxiety is going to be off the charts. So I packed. And I panicked. And I watched my iPhone training video about getting ready to get on the flight. And I got in the car and I drove to the airport.
A key part of this particular Fear of Flying course is meeting the pilot. I mean, there a ton of other things that I worked on, but the final step is supposed to be meeting the person flying the plane. I wasn’t sure why this was going to help, but I’m pretty good at following orders. So I got to the airport and asked to meet my pilot. I was flying Southwest, which, no surprise, was great about it. And sure enough, when I walked up to the cockpit (something I felt very familiar with after watching a million and one take off and landing videos), the two men manning the stations made me feel right at ease. Were things going to be fine? Sure they were! Was I worried about turbulence (even though I now knew it was never a problem)? Here was the turbulence map so I knew what to expect! Did they think I could have a great flight? They sure did!
And you know what? Against all odds, I did. No more shutting my eyes and squeezing my arm rests when I took off. Nope! Now I walked myself through the actions pilots go through during take off, watched the air push the plane up, and suddenly enjoyed the fact that we were gliding, magically gliding, over the water… and then up up up into the air. When there was turbulence, I focused on what was happening (and looked down at the pretty views). When there wasn’t, I happily watched my movie. I arrived at the gate in Chicago to meet David exhausted, proud of myself, and drenched in sweat. He’d pushed me, but I’d done it by myself.
When you don’t like flying, people lay diagnose you with a lot of things, like “control issues.” What I’ve learned over the last few months is that’s not exactly accurate (surprise). When people asked me about my fear of flying, I always told them that “I just didn’t think I should be in the air,” and people laughed at me. Turns out, I was right. I didn’t really believe that flying worked (so I spent a huge amount of effort keeping the plane up with the power of my mind). And I also didn’t believe that planes that took off also landed (those endless take off and landing videos helped). And did I have control issues? Not exactly. But I mostly thought, in my heart of hearts, that the plane was flying itself. And no surprise there, I didn’t trust a giant machine, operating alone, with my life. The second I figured out that there were experienced, super kind people flying the plane, and that they had this, I was able to let go. It’s not that I have control issues, per se; it’s that I’d rather give up control to people that I trust.
But perhaps the real story is what happened on the way home. I’d flown once, but of course I was worried about my ability to do it again. This time, I chatted with the pilot in the airport, and he told me to come up to the cockpit as soon as I boarded. When I arrived, he gestured to the co-pilot’s seat. “Have a seat,” he said. (David, later with slight, and wry, awe, “Man, the shit you get by being cute and charming” which is totally a gold-plated fact.) He then asked me with genuine concern why I was so afraid of flying, and he explained to me that he loved flying so much that he tried to go up in his own plane every day he wasn’t working, “Best thing in the world,” he said, “I never have to work a day in my life.” And then. Sitting in the co-pilots seat in the cockpit, he told me to grab the control wheel and pull up, just like I was taking off. On the actual plane. At the actual gate. “You’ve got it,” he said, “You could fly this thing.” I went back to my seat grinning.
We had a rough take off. Not terrible, but the kind where you’re pushing hard through a cloud layer, and bumping around. I was having a bit of a hard time. And then we broke through the clouds, and the sun was out, and I’d done it. The older, drama queen, flight attendant came by to check on me. “Take off.” She said, “I love it. It’s the only time we really get to go fast. I always think of The Doors “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” as we’re doing it.” And then, all those miles above the earth, every time we hit turbulence, the flight crew would come on the loudspeaker, tell us what was going on, and then end with, “Meg! We hope you’re having a good flight. Don’t worry, we’ve TOTALLY got this.”
And they did.
And I did too.
Turns out, what it took to Break On Through was the same tool kit I always use (though hell if using it ever gets easier). My husband pushed me hard. I did the work, even when I was so terrified to that I would sweat and shake during every video. I showed up. I talked to people. I charmed my way into situations. And then I trusted that other people had me. And they totally did. Control issues, my ass.
Do I belong in the air? I’m not totally sure. But it’s possible, one day, I might learn to like it. I may not be a bird, but I’m willing to give it a go. Let’s break on through to the other side.
The info: I took the SOAR Fear of Flying course, which I obviously totally recommend (plus, it has a guarantee, so there is that). I justified the price to myself by saying it was the cost of about one flight to New York that I wasn’t taking…
Picture: Meg for A Practical Wedding