Around the Island

Jenifer’s Journal: Flight plans

I don’t have a fear of flying; I have a fear of crashing. — Billy Bob Thornton

My nephew’s wedding, slated to take place in Denver, Colo.,was scheduled for last August. Before COVID brought the hammer down on the whole idea, I’d briefly considered taking the train, but it was a foregone conclusion that I certainly wouldn’t be flying, no matter how much I loved my nephew.

Shatter an over 40-year unbroken streak of flylessness? Not likely.

During my late teens and early 20s I’d flown a few times. I’d even gone up twice in a little Cessna with a boyfriend who would later become a commercial pilot. I can’t say I loved flying, but it wasn’t until I was on my way to Europe to marry my first husband, then an MP at NATO-SHAPE Headquarters in Brussels, that I suddenly had the inconvenient but overwhelming realization that I was scared stiff. Or, to use one of the technical terms, “aviophobic.”

We did land safely, thanks to my ceaseless praying, but in Cologne, Germany. Because Brussels was fogged in. An hour later that big plane took off with just the pilot, crew and the 10 of us (the potentially doomed ones) who’d been headed for Brussels.

Oddly, at that moment, I was so besotted by having managed to reach Europe at all that I temporarily forgot to be terrified.  However, I spent the next year getting married, yes, and traveling with my new husband from Finland to Spain, but there was always that little saucepan of panic bubbling on my mental back burner in anticipation of the inexorable flight home.

In my experience with anxiety over phobias, the core of the problem seems impervious to logic.  I know for me, it has to do with an overriding need to control what’s connected, like the knee bone to the shin bone, to an underdeveloped ability to trust, which leads back to that ubiquitous four-letter state of fear. In my case, fear can outsmart logic anytime.

For example, even normal people prefer not to fly in a nor’easter, but if the weather is perfect, as an aviophobic, I conclude that everybody’s kicking back and paying absolutely no attention to safety precautions.

In an October, 2020 article, “Aerophobia: The Fear of Flying,” by Lisa Fritscher, she writes: “Aerophobia [the other technical term] is a type of specific phobia that involves a fear of flying or air travel. While statistics suggest that air travel is actually safer than traveling by other means, including car and train, flying remains a common source of fear. Research suggests that between 2.5% and 40% of people experience flying-related anxiety each year.

So while many people are afraid of flying to some degree, only a much smaller proportion [still 8,250,000 of the U.S. population!] actually meet the criteria for a phobia diagnosis. In some instances, people may even experience a full-blown panic attack. A panic attack is an episode of intense fear that can be accompanied by symptoms such as heart palpitations, feeling detached from reality, and a fear of dying.” 

Yup, that about sums it up.

Over the years, I’ve tried not to think too much about how my life has been limited by my aviophobia, nor have I considered the several treatment options (also described on verywellmind and other sites) for a problem that seemed insurmountable — until about six weeks ago.

My nephew’s wedding had been re-scheduled for this August but still in Denver. Maybe it was sun spots, but I found myself saying “yes” when my daughters jokingly suggested I fly out and attend it with them. For the first time in over 40 years, I had a “flight plan,” and for the first time ever I was visualizing myself on the flight, in the hotel, wearing the little gray lace dress and strappy shoes I’d ordered for an event I was flying to. Unheard of!

I remained scared but willing for over a month. Last week, as the day approached, I was feeling nervous but thinking positive. I figured, if we could just make it there, then crashed on the return trip the next day, at least we’d be pointed in the right direction..

Here’s the fly-rony: Three days before take off, pets had seizures, a relative got a positive COVID diagnosis, and the Delta variant continued surging. With young children in our lives under vaccination age, we all finally decided it was best to stay home. Was I relieved? Sure. But I was extremely disappointed, too.

Still scared, but willing, I plan to make new flight plans. I didn’t make it to Denver, but I traveled closer to something else — what Margaret Ferguson says (Billy Bob notwithstanding:  “…we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom.”  That’s what I’m closer to now.