Aerophobia and the geography of irrational fear

I’ll be just fine once you shut up about car crash statistics!

I have an immense fear of flying. This is known. I think that many of us say things like “oh, I’m so scared of roller coasters” or “I’m terrified of spiders, I just hate them”. With varying degrees of hyperbole we all say to one another the things we are afraid of. But I am not just merely afraid to fly. I am paralyzed by the thought of flying. The site of planes flying in the sky makes my stomach jump. I fear for friends and family when they fly. Movies or TV shows where people are on planes cause me anxiety, even when nothing bad happens. I can’t search for a plane ticket online without getting sweaty and dizzy. That whole plan crashing into the Hudson story everyone was so excited about? That made me burst into tears of dread as I read the paper. When I have had to fly I’ve either cried the whole time or taken so many sedatives as to pass the fuck out. So no, I am not merely afraid of flying or a nervous flyer. I have a bona fide phobia.

Friends and family know this about me. Or at least they no me to be anxious about flying. It’s hard to say if anyone truly understands. My favorite is when people hear of my fear of flying and they say “Oh I hate flying too! This one time….” They then drone on about some harrowing flight experience. While I may look calm on the outside my inner mind is slowly chanting the mantra of “don’t throw up. Don’t throw up” or telling me not to kick the person in the face.

Another good one is the quoting of the statistic about how you are far more likely to die in a car crash then in a plane crash. Let us now and forever put to rest the myth that this little gem of a fact in any way helps a nervous or fearful flyer to calm down. It does not. Because to me and many others who dread flying it is not about statistics and truth be told if a plane is going down you’re probably going to die regardless of car death fatality statistics.

There are still others that just say, “oh you’ll be fine” or tell me to learn all I can about planes. I’ll be fine? What does that even mean? Can we all agree that this too is a bit of worthless advice to the truly fear stricken? For should the event pass without incident the mere trauma of the fear inducing event itself means that no, we will not be fine. As for learning about planes, well I can’t even go near one without wanting to vomit and I think the whole idea of propelling a group of people through air and time in an aluminum tube filled with jet fuel is ludicrous!

No, fear like mine is not rational. And as with most irrational things you cannot combat it with straight up, in your face rational. Fear like mine is the manifestation of a combination of seemingly benign things that have taken advantage of my already hyper-anxious nature. Left unchecked these things have rooted themselves in me as a phobia. Ok, that was maybe a bit of rational applied to the irrational. But I’m a licensed social worker so I know a bit more about this than you.

I have not been home in over two years. This year my mother has made it perfectly clear that I am to come home for Christmas. I lack sufficient time and funds to take the train or drive so I am left with flying. That or taking a boat down around to the Panama Canal and then up to Seattle and then a bus or something to Spokane. But really, who has the time for that?

It appears that I will be flying home for the holidays.

Fortified by soda and pie I have plunged into the battering task of researching plane tickets. Over a week I’ve managed to slowly increase the amount of time I can spend on the internet looking. I usually have to have a Harry Potter book on tape playing in the back ground to sooth me with Stephen Fry’s familiar telling of these much loved books.

As I have searched I have found out a few things. For starters, what the fuck has happened to airline prices since I did this last? Last time I flew home I could get a round trip ticket to Spokane at the holidays for $340. Now all I can find are tickets for upwards of $700. At first I thought that if tickets were going to be that much my mother would drop the whole idea. But I lack that sort of luck.

I also found out that if I fly to multiple places on one ticket it’s just about the same price. My step-mother and brothers all live in and around Nevada City, CA (nearest airport: Sacramento).  Thusly I began to search for tickets from Boston to Spokane to Sacramento and back to Boston.

As I stare at the sample itineraries I observe several irrationalities in my mind:

  1. Flying east to west scares me more than flying west to east.
  2. I am terrified of the middle of the country as a geographic mass and think flying over it is the stupidest idea ever. So much space and air can’t mean good things for planes.
  3. Flying between Sacramento and Spokane (with a layover in Portland, OR) doesn’t seem to scare me the way flying to and from Boston and Spokane or Sacramento does and not because those flights are sans middle of the country. It is almost as if in my head, once I get out west I’ll be fine. It’s the getting there that I have to be afraid of.

All of this reminds of something I’ve meant to think about for some time but haven’t bothered to prioritize. That is, over the years my fear of flying has gotten progressively worse and follows an eerily familiar trajectory to my fathers worsening health and eventual death.

I’ve flown a lot in my life and to many countries far, far away. I couldn’t probably tell you about most of those flights. Oh, there is the one to Brazil where I got bumped to first class while my friend and travel companion was stuck in coach. And there was the flight to Disney land for my 12th birthday surprise where my mom got the flight attendants to sing me happy birthday on the intercom. But the vast majority of flights are just one big blur. In addition to the previously noted exceptions there is another flight which stands out. The flight I took home when my dad died.

That was the most terrifying flight ever. My memory of it is that it was the bumpiest flight with such violent turbulence as to warrant an emergency landing. That lack of which made me convinced the pilots were daredevil fools taking unnecessary risks. The flight left WashingtonNationalAirport, stopped in Phoenix and continued onto Sacramento. I tried to watch a movie, listen to a book on tape and read the airline magazine. All made me feel sick to my stomach. There was this woman in the row across from me who was as relaxed as could be. She had kicked off her boat shoes and was lounging back across all three seats in her cropped kakis and blue and white striped long-sleeved boat neck shirt. I wanted to scream at her “don’t you know we are dying? Sit up!” I resented her carefully disheveled, relaxed J. Crew look in such an obviously dangerous situation.

If I may interject some rational thought here I would say that I was perhaps channeling the fear and trauma of my situation onto the flight and those aboard the plane. This fear it would seem has persisted and taken hold inside of me. This would, to an extent explain why flights out west do not create for me the same level of anxiety and why flying east to west is more fear inducing then flying west to east.

Alright then, I’ve worked that much out. But now what? The fear remains. I’ll have to manage to purchase a ticket and then endure the growing anxiety as the travel day grows closer and then I’ll actually have to get on the plane, something never guaranteed. I have been known to just not show up for flights. Drugs for the actual flights are a given, but I can’t be drugged between now and December 21st. Or can I? No, I can’t.

I suppose I could go out and learn as much as I can about planes and flying. After which I could make myself a note that says “you are more likely to die in a car crash then in a plane crash” and tape it to my bathroom mirror to read each day.


Is it a bird? Is it a Plane? Eh…is it a Night Club?

A319+Virgin+America+N524VAI had the distinct pleasure…er uh…I mean horror of flying back and forth across the country this May. Flying in airplanes (as opposed to say on the back of a dragon) is the singularly most frightening thing for me to do. First I deny that I have to fly and push off buying my ticket for as long as possible. Once my ticket is purchased my anxiety will slowly build between purchase and the day I have to fly. I usually start having waves of nervous nausea a couple weeks to a month before I leave. Then about a week out I start having terrible dreams. This all leads up being a total wreck the day of the flight.

Read on for some serious fun!

I fell asleep on my way to Spokane and woke up in Seattle?!!??

img_4578At 5:56pm on Wednesday September 17th I left on a plane from Boston’s Logan Airport. I was headed to my hometown of Spokane Washington by way of Minneapolis. The plane made it ok (most who know me know that flying is the singularly most terrifying thing for me to do) and I made my connection in Minneapolis…though I did lose my most favored sweater in the process. The flight from Minneapolis to Spokane is just under three hours. About an hour into the flight I put on my headphones and started to doze off. At some point I started to feel the plane descend queuing me to feel relief that we were almost in Spokane. In my sleepy state I somewhat registered that we started ascending again. About twenty-five minutes later the pilot came on the speaker and said “well ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be making our decent into Seattle soon, so flight attendants please prepare for arrival.” What! I fell asleep on a plane to Spokane and woke up in Seattle! Don’t worry I included pictures at the end.

oh boy, don’t worry it goes on…and on