Posted on February 9, 2009
I went to a dinner party the other night in Paris, and noticed the man on my left whispering earnestly to the woman on his left. It looked like a serious conversation, and looking slightly embarrassed, the woman shared what they were talking about. The man between us was the head of Air France, and she explained that she had been desperately afraid to fly and he had arranged for her to take a class that dealt with fear of flying, and it was a huge success and she’s been flying comfortably ever since. And I could really relate to that!!!
I never had a problem flying all through my youth, and travelled back and forth to Europe a lot. (In the days when you dressed up to take an airplane, and travelling was a big deal. Now we all travel in our oldest, most comfortable, rattiest clothes). I married very, very young, in my teens, and by the time I was 21, I was separated, later divorced, and solely responsible for my oldest daughter. It was an awesome responsibility, and suddenly I began to worry about what would happen to her if something happened to me, when I wasn’t travelling with her. And suddenly, overnight, I was afraid to fly. I would put off trips, white knuckle it through the entire flight when I flew, sometimes cancel at the last minute, and eventually I stopped flying entirely. I just couldn’t get myself on a plane anymore, which in my case meant I could no longer go home to Paris or New York, where my family was. I was landbound in California, too terrified to fly. It shrunk my life and opportunities down to nothing. And for 5 years, I went absolutely nowhere, and stayed home. (Safe maybe, but pretty boring, and I didn’t see my family for a long time. My phobia about flying was dictating my life, and limiting it severely).
An odd experience made me brave enough to confront my fear finally. I had an extremely complicated delivery of one of my children, where just about everything went wrong, and I nearly died. (I had 5 kids after that, so it wasn’t all that bad!! Just one of those unfortunate circumstances when a lot of things went wrong, giving birth to a baby who weighed just under 11 lbs.) About a week after I had the baby, it suddenly dawned on me that if I could live through that and come out of it okay, maybe I could even face my worst fear, of flying. So I signed up for a fear of flying class. It was held at the airport once a week for 8 weeks, and I think it was sponsored by United Airlines. And it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It wasn’t easy for me, and it scared me to pieces every time I went to the class. (Shortness of breath, anxiety, sheer terror, just the word ‘airport’ filled me with dread. But I showed up once a week anyway. I was determined to win the battle and start travelling again).
It was a very interesting class. I think a pilot had organized it, there were pilots, flight attendants, safety experts, air traffic controllers, assorted other experts, and a psychologist. The experts explained the practical aspects to us, like safety procedures and how safe the plane really was (they stressed that the most dangerous part of flying is the drive to the airport), the careful maintenance of the airplane, how little flights can be affected by weather that may seem ominous to us. We went on a field trip to the control tower, which was fascinating, to see how meticulously air traffic is controlled. There is nothing random about how they run airports!!! And everything they said was reassuring and made sense. They countered our terrors one by one. After several weeks, we were taken out to sit in an airplane in a hangar, with the motor off. You have never seen a more scared bunch of people than we were getting on that plane, even if it was going nowhere. (Think of what you are most afraid of, and imagine confronting it nose to nose. It was REALLY scary for us). But we survived it. And the next week, we got on the plane and they turned on the motor and didn’t move. Scary again!!! The following week, we got on the plane, and they drove it a short distance, on the ground. Scarier yet!! But week by week we got braver and confronted our fears. And the grand finale, after 8 weeks, was a flight to LA, where we had dinner at the airport, and flew back home. It was a HUGE victory for all of us. I nearly didn’t make it, and stood up to bolt out of the plane just before they closed the doors, and the class psychologist convinced me to sit down. And I’m so glad she did!!!
It was very helpful having the psychologist as part of the group that taught the class. She did breathing exercises with us every week, talked us through our fears, gave us a tape to listen to at home, and later on flights. I listened to that tape every time I flew for about 5 years!!! And she urged us to think about our goals—where we were going and why did we want to get there. I wanted to go home to see my family, and at one point, my goal was to go to Bloomingdale’s in New York, so I focused on that. Whatever works!!! She talked to all of us, and we shared, about what we were specifically afraid of. Not everyone is afraid of a crash, although some are, some people are claustrophobic and just don’t want to be in an enclosed space, or out of control. Many, many people had fears about leaving home and the safety of their own little world. (I think claustrophobia and leaving home were my worst fears, although I was nervous about crashing too). One woman was afraid to get locked in the bathroom of the plane. Another one was afraid of getting sucked out of the plane. And another person was upset about leaving his dog at home. We all have our issues, and they come into play when we leave home and venture out into the world. A French psychiatrist I know says that people have more trouble travelling if they have had an unhappy relationship with their families as children, or an unsafe one, or were abandoned when they were young. My mother left me when I was six, so I’m sure that’s part of it for me. The things we were afraid of were as varied as our personalities in the class.
It was also interesting to see who took the class. There were more men than women, although it was an almost even mix. There were men who had to travel a lot for business, and had to conquer their fears. There were grandmothers who had never flown before and wanted to visit a grandchild far away. There were two flight attendants who had been in a crash and were having trouble going back to work. We were old, young, male, female, employed, homemakers, moms, kids, dads, and a CEO of a major corporation. It was reassuring to know that we were not alone in our fears, and even if our fears sounded silly when spoken aloud, they were all too real to us and hampering our lives in important ways. We were being limited by our fears and wanted to get rid of the shackles of that fear.
One of my friends says that he stopped being afraid to fly because it was just too much work. I know just what he meant. I would start feeling sick about a flight weeks before, or even months, nauseous and queasy and panicked, and convinced I was going to die on the flight. I was actually on a flight once, before the class, feeling like that, when I overheard two flight attendants talking about what they were going to do after the flight. One said she was going to pick up her dry cleaning, the other one was going to pick up a pizza for her kids on her way home. Pick up a pizza? Dry cleaning? Were they kidding? I was sitting there, preparing to die at any moment, and they were talking about dry cleaning and pizza. It actually made me realize that I might survive the flight, and the energy I was expending being terrified was really wasted.
Even after the graduation flight, I did a lot of things that worked for me for a long time. I always took work on the plane to distract me and make the time go by (you can take a book, or something you enjoy doing, or watch the movies they offer. I see all my new movies on planes now). It sounds silly, but I took a favorite doll with me, in my briefcase. I flew at the time of day when I was most comfortable, on aircraft I liked (I still don’t like very small planes). Do whatever works for you, no matter what anyone thinks of it. (I was so nervous, before the class, that I actually wore a raincoat once on a flight to Hawaii, because I was convinced we’d crash in the water, and I might be stuck in a lifeboat for many hours or days. I had a hell of a time explaining why I was wearing a raincoat on the flight to Hawaii, when everyone else was wearing shorts, tank tops and aloha shirts!!).
Taking that class is one of the best gifts I have ever given myself. I have given it as a gift to two friends, both of whom fly everywhere now with ease and still thank me for it. The class made me able to fly again. I didn’t love flying the minute I ‘graduated’, but I was able to do it without nearly dying of fright, and I had the tools to make it do-able and easier, enough so that I started flying and travelling again. I’d say I was mildly uneasy (NOT terrified, just a little ‘nyeah’ about it) for about 3 years, but it was totally bearable, not terrifying, and I was enjoying the places I was getting to, and knowing that I was no longer paralyzed by fear. After about 3 years, I stopped thinking about it, and I just flew wherever I needed to. I did find that if other things in my life were very stressful at the time, I was less at ease about flying. We take our baggage with us, and not just in our valises!! So be aware that your fear and discomfort may really be about other things, not the flight. The same was true if I was exhausted from working too hard. We all deal with things better when we are not totally worn out, so if you can, get some rest before a flight, if you’ve been a fearful flyer. And somewhere along the way, I stopped worrying about it totally. I commute between California and Paris every couple of weeks. I am constantly on planes (the only place I actually get peace and the phone doesn’t ring). And sometimes when I go on to other places other than my 2 home bases, I take 3 flights in a day to make connections, and don’t even think about it. (I still won’t take tiny planes, because those do make me nervous. But on anything from a 737 to a jumbo jet, I’m fine, which gets me pretty much anywhere I want to go). In fact, I’m so relaxed flying now that I fall asleep just looking at a plane. I often fall asleep before take-off and the crew wakes me when we land. Huh? What? Oh….we’re here. Unless something major is going on, like a huge storm, I don’t think about the flight at all. And if I’m awake, which is rare, I eat the meal and watch a movie or two. I can’t even begin to tell you the difference that class made in my life. It gave me my freedom back and a life I truly enjoy. It gave me wings!!
One of the things I discovered after I took the class is that I needed to be ‘reminded’ that flying was something I could do now, comfortably. Sometimes I actually forgot, and if I didn’t fly for a year, I’d get nervous again, and then once I got on the plane, it was like a sensory memory from the class and I’d remember “oh yeah….right…I can do this now…it’s okay”, but I’d be nervous for several days before. I figured out that I needed to fly more often, so I could keep my new skills and tools for flying fresh in my mind, so I did something really crazy that worked for me. I discovered that there was a flight from San Francisco that went to either Portland or Seattle, but it made a stop in Oakland on the way, right after take off from SFO. The time in the air between SFO and Oakland was somewhere between 5 and l0 minutes, but it gave me a take-off, a landing, and a few minutes in the air, just what I needed to stay comfortable with flying in the beginning and remind myself that I could do it. I’m sure the people on those planes thought I was nuts. For about a year, every few months, I would take a cab to the San Francisco airport (and I didn’t have a lot of money then, but it was worth it to me so I’d keep flying), board the plane at SFO, fly to Oakland, get off (it was a very cheap ticket for that short distance), and take a cab back into the city. It was nuts, but it worked, and gave me lots of practice being on the plane. Crazy, but it worked!!!
If you see me on a plane today, slumped over, and snoring loudly (I hope not, but you never know), or chuckling at a movie, not in a million years would you suspect that I’d ever been afraid to fly. I forget that myself sometimes. But I will always be grateful to that wonderful class I took which gave me my freedom from that terrible fear. You may have to work at it, and like me, it may take you a year or two to feel totally comfortable, but once you take a class like that, you have the tools you need to become an un-fearful flyer and you’re well on your way. I can’t recommend it highly enough. So if you’re afraid to fly, think about checking out a similar class at your local airport. Those classes exist all over the world, and they are a great, great gift if you’re afraid to fly, and don’t want to white knuckle it or stay home forever. I strongly recommend it. You’ll be amazed at how well it works, and how fantastic you feel when you conquer that fear. It’s so very much worth doing!!!!!