Personal Essays

A Simple Flying Phobia

The air conditioner puckers as the door closes. The landing gear creaks as the plane departs the jetway. Above your head, the call button dings.

State Library and Archives of Florida

1. Fear v. Jean

I am afraid of flying. When I tell that to anyone—I am afraid of flying—most often, they grin in a conspiratorial kind of way and say, “Me too! I always get drunk before I get on a plane,” and I feel offended and disdainful. Getting drunk before boarding shows a lack of commitment. It is unconvincing. Alcohol doesn’t even begin to take the edge off my fear: I only end up drunk and terrified, which is the only thing worse than being just terrified.

“Have you ever gotten off a plane before it took off?” I say, in response. “No,” say the amateur flying-fearers.

“I have,” I say. They look at me. They raise their eyebrows. They shift their feet. They sense I am out of their league. Being afraid of flying is the one thing I do better than anyone.

“Twice,” I say.

The first is a turboprop jet. We are at Albany International Airport—my mom, my dad, my sister, and I—and we are flying to Boston, en route to Scotland to see my grandmother. Via Iceland, because it is cheap.

The flight is delayed, due to weather at Logan International, where the plane has yet to take off and arrive here so that we, and the other sulky people waiting, can get to Boston. My parents and sister are bored. I am not bored, because being petrified is so time-consuming. I bite my nails and read People magazine and think about how because of the weather, the plane is going to crash. And also how I am certain I am doomed to die in a plane crash—I have been certain of this for most of my 20 years.

I think about how after the plane crashes, my family and I will be featured in a special issue of People magazine about the tragedy, and other people waiting at airports will sit at airport gates, waiting for delayed flights, biting their nails, and reading about how we all died in the tiny plane’s flaming wreckage. And they will think: How sad.

This is, in fact, a special technique I have developed over most of my life to prevent the plane from crashing: If I think enough about the crash, if I am sufficiently scared, then it won’t crash and I’ll feel sheepish, because the opposite of what I anticipate always comes true. If I don’t do this—if for just one minute I think, “Hey, this is OK. What a nice view, and a tasty small bag of cheese-flavored pretzels,” then that singular happy thought will make the plane disintegrate in mid-air like the balsawood gliders my brother and I used to chuck out of our bedroom windows. So when we at last are boarding the plane, hours delayed, I am thinking more about the special issue of People and what kind of coverage we will get, and assessing the other passengers at our gate. That man is handsome, so he will get some extra column inches, perhaps even an inset box with a color photo and some details about his work with underprivileged children. That lady is scowling and has really unfortunate hair. I think they will print her black-and-white memorial headshot extra small.

I am almost distracted. I am almost ready. But then my father changes seats, to one not allotted to him by his ticket, but one that better accommodates his six feet and three and one-half inches of self. I snap: Changing seats means that he is not adhering to the rules, and not adhering to the rules means that other rules will be broken, a domino effect, and this means that the plane will crash. There is hyperventilating, there are my parents patting me on the arms and head, there is a stewardess handing me a small paper bag and instructing me to hold it over my nose and mouth. I have to get off. I have to get off. There is the exit, and there is the airport lounge, and there is my sister, wailing, “YOU HAVE RUINED OUR VACATION.”

I check under my seat for my life jacket, because a portion of this flight will be over water. I consider my fellow passengers: They do not look like they want to die.

We go home. We sit at the kitchen table and I cry and drink sweet tea. My parents look concerned and exasperated, and my sister looks furious. Airlines are called. Arrangements are made. The next day, we drive to Logan International, and I take some sedatives, and somehow my mother endures six airborne hours there and back with me doubled over her, quaking and sick.

I do not go near a plane for a year. But then I decide to visit my grandparents. They live in Chicago, less than a two-our flight from home in upstate New York. My previous panic was surely a fluke: I will fly in a proper-sized plane. I will wear a nice travelling outfit, as if it is 1952 and flying is glamorous and exciting. I will fly on my own, and the need to maintain dignity amongst strangers will overcome any urge to panic.

My parents drive me to the airport. I have several different kinds of reading material. I’m excited to see my grandparents. They’re excited to see me. I get on the plane. I buckle my seatbelt. I smell the plane smell: the upholstery and coffee and the scent of the glue in the binding of the in-flight magazine. I check under my seat for my life jacket, because a portion of this flight will be over water. I consider my fellow passengers: They do not look like they want to die. I try to read. The words swim. The plane pulls back from the gate and starts trundling towards the runway. I see the terminal growing small. I see my index finger rising above my head and pressing the stewardess call button. A woman in uniform arrives. She smiles.

“I have a condition. I have to get off.”

We are back at the kitchen table. I am crying, again. I am drinking more sweet tea. “It’s OK,” my parents say. They do not understand, but my parents are very nice people. “There are lots of people who don’t fly at all, and you can be one of them. For example, John Madden. You can be like John Madden.”

John Madden. John Madden? Two magic words, a catalyst. They only thing less appealing to me than being on a plane is having something in common with the loud, abrasive American football commentator John Madden, a man famed, among other things, for his frequent use of the word “doink.”

2. Fear v. Therapy

I am going to therapy. I travel across Montreal, where I am now living (I got here on a Greyhound bus), on the Metro to a decrepit old hospital in the west of the city. My therapist holds court in a room in an old inpatient ward. The beds are gone, but the fixtures remain: the cabinet where patients would have rested kidney-shaped vomit basins, the outlets in the wall where oxygen was plugged in and the nurse call button connected. I sit across from my therapist on a hard chair. I wonder how many people died in this hospital room. At least, I think, they didn’t die in plane crashes.

My therapist is Sandrine. “I am also a bit afraid of flying,” she says, smiling. This is not a comfort. I tell her my sad story. I don’t mention John Madden.

“What you have,” says Sandrine, with the kind of sympathetic nod that I assume they teach you in therapist school, “is a simple flying phobia.”

A simple flying phobia, Sandrine explains, is a combination of claustrophobia and a discomfort with not being in control. “You’re getting in a metal tube and then allowing some person who you can’t see to fly it miles above the earth,” she says. “Right?”

“Right,” I say.

We delve into the source of my fear. It is embarrassing to articulate. I tell her about how as soon as I learned to read, I used the power to read about plane crashes. How my parents must have thought I was precocious, looking at my five-year-old body splayed across the newsprint which I spread out on the floor, little realizing that 15 years later they would be paying for therapy to mitigate the results. I tell her how I can’t sleep on planes, because if I stop listening for the whirr of the engines, they will stop working, and the plane will crash, and I will die. I tell her how I can’t get up out of my seat during the flight, because if I do, the plane will crash, and I will die. I tell her how I have to check for the life jacket under the seat, and pay careful attention to the safety briefing, and never look out the window, because if I violate any of these rules, the plane will crash. And I will die.

I get in the cupboard. Sandrine closes the door. I sit on the floor, in the dark. It is quiet.

“Common,” Sandrine says. “You subconsciously think that you can control the plane with your mind, so you have convinced yourself that if you concentrate, you can keep it aloft.”

“I guess so,” I say.

“You can’t,” says Sandrine.

“I know,” I say.

She teaches me how to breathe deeply and slowly. I go home and practice: I lie on my bed, I breathe slowly. Then I fall asleep and have a dream about being on a plane. It crashes. I die.

I go to some more appointments.

“Now,” says Sandrine. “We are going to have you practice your relaxation techniques in an enclosed space. How would you feel about taking the Metro to your next appointment?”

“I always take the Metro to my appointments,” I say.

“Oh,” says Sandrine. “Well. Unfortunately our options here are limited, because you cannot just get on a plane to practice. So you are going to get in that cupboard over there. Does that sound OK?”

“OK,” I say. “I think that will be fine.” But what I really think is that it will be undignified. But I cede to her expertise; I am determined to defeat the fear. So I get in the cupboard. Sandrine closes the door. I sit on the floor, in the dark. It is quiet.

“How are you doing?” Sandrine says through the cupboard door.

“I am fine,” I say. “I do not have a fear of cupboards.”

3. Fear v. Love

I am falling in love. I meet Michael on vacation, and we have a 10-day holiday romance and it is all stars and fireworks, and he has to go home, and I cry. But then he writes me letters and I write him letters and we talk on the phone and it is apparent that he is the loveliest man I have ever met, and in fact it seems that he rather likes me too. It is sweetness and light and maybe it is, in fact, the greatest love of all, and it is extremely problematic that he lives in Dublin. Which is in Ireland. Which is 4,000 miles from Montreal.

I buy a plane ticket. I am flying on Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline apparently named after a sex act. The seat cushions are upholstered with fabric printed with scrawled excerpts from work by great Irish writers. They can also be used as a flotation device. I close my eyes and breathe slow and deep, following Sandrine’s instructions. I occasionally crack my lids open to peer at lines by Joyce and Wilde: Don’t crash, don’t crash, don’t crash, Love (understood as the desire of good for another) is in fact so unnatural a phenomenon that it can scarcely repeat itself, don’t crash, don’t crash, a man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her, don’t crash.

I think about Michael and how much I love him and how much he loves me and how the plane can’t crash because then I would die and I can’t bear the thought of how sad that would make him. The thinking keeps the plane aloft as we fly through the night and into the sunrise above Dublin. And then we begin our descent, and it is wild.

Plastic cups and hard croissants soar hither and thither. The sharp voice of the pilot orders the stewards back to their seats. I haven’t been scared enough, I realize. I trusted Sandrine and I trusted that it was a good idea for me to fall in love and go to Ireland and I trusted that my phobia was unwarranted and I trusted that the plane would not crash and because of all of this trusting, I am not going to be sheepish, I am going to die.

I start to cry.

For the first time, I notice the man sitting next to me. He has a puffy grey beard and looks a little bit like Santa Claus. I notice him because he puts his hand on top of mine where it is gripping our mutual armrest. He strokes my bloodless knuckles, and leans in close. He smells like the Guinness that the air hostesses have been doling out all night in little tins.

“It’s OK,” he says in a husky whisper. His stale breath is hot on my neck. “Daddy’s here.”

The seatbelt sign is on and I am afraid to die but I think now that I am more afraid of this man who is groping me. But rules must be adhered to, and I can’t get up when the seatbelt sign is on, and the only way for me to be freed from this horrible clutch is if the plane crashes. I want the plane to crash. I am desperate for the plane to crash.

But Sandrine is right: I cannot control the plane with my mind. The man strokes my hand for the next 10 minutes and the flight lands perfectly safely. I wrench myself from his grip and I clatter down the aisle away from him as fast as I can and I am overcome with feeling. The feeling is familiar. I’m sheepish.