I wasn’t afraid of flying as a child. I can remember our family flying from Pittsburgh to New York City when I was no more than eight years old, and that was back in the days when stewardesses (not “flight attendants”) wore little hats and gave out tiny pairs of wings to the kids for their bravery and good behavior. I loved flying. It meant going to The City and it was the perfect prelude to hotels with pink linens on the table, Broadway shows, Times Square, the Horn & Hardart Automat, and window shopping on Fifth Avenue. (We were plain lucky that way, I know.) The atmosphere was always festive, and my sisters and I felt so grown up as the engine of the plane thrummed along, dressed in our little white gloves, our shiny black patent leather shoes, and our organdy dresses. The nice lady would bring us a deck of cards and we would play Fish or Gin or Crazy Eights. I remember that I was happy and care free. On a plane.
Later, when I was in my college years I flew with total abandon from Boston to Pittsburgh for school breaks. I would blithely jump on a plane, usually on student standby status, not knowing for sure whether or not I would make my flight. I got on a plane as easily as I got in a car. It never occurred to me that what went up might come down ahead of schedule. Never.
So, here I was a young woman flying all over the country. I even flew from New York to Heathrow while I was in college in order to spend a summer studying in Europe. (It was one of those student tours where you start in England and gradually make your way to France, then by bus through Italy and on to Geneva. It was lovely.) And in no way and at no time did I worry that while gliding over the North Pole our plane might take a header into an iceberg. Never.
Then came my year in New Mexico. Living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I didn’t have to fly most of the time. I just had to drive over horrendous ancient roads with cliffs on either side that snaked through high mountain passes with no more than a foot on either side of the car between me and oblivion. That was a breeze. (Remember, I was young and stupid). Then I got a job in Pike’s Peak, Colorado playing a cocktail hour at the Four Seasons.
Well, at the time, my boyfriend was back in Albuquerque, so I flew back every weekend. I don’t know if it’s the same now, but back in the ‘70s, flying over the Rockies was a religious experience. Beautiful and terrifying. Below us, jagged peaks of the Rockies peered out among the pristine white clouds. Meanwhile, the planes bucked and rolled, and the engines sounded like they were sputtering and dying. I don’t remember which airline I flew. I know if there is a flying equivalent to steerage, that’s what I flew. I do remember that, for the first time in my life, I began to wonder if the plane was going to make it. I began to dread flying. I even (by association) began to dread weekends. (I may have even started dreading my boyfriend!) My palms would get sweaty. I would suddenly begin praying for a safe landing to a God Whose existence I doubted. I would study the faces of the flight attendants for any signs of veiled panic. I remember more than once crying hysterically until the plane had stopped taxiing down the runway.
That experience of flying back and forth between Albuquerque and Pike’s Peak has never left me. Even though the specific memory has all but disappeared from my consciousness, the feeling of helplessness and, as someone once succinctly described it, of being an “egg in the carton”, has never left me. I know it’s irrational.
So I went through hypnosis and re-birthing. That worked to a certain degree. I had a tape of the hypnosis session, and I would play it to myself for two weeks before every plane trip. It was a very relaxing tape. I literally played it until it wore out, but even so, the creeping fear came back time after time. I refused to give up flying. I did not see that as a reasonable option, considering the fact that I had family all over the country. So from time to time, I would simply force myself to get on a plane. It ruined every trip.
Then, I had a strange and sad experience. One of my favorite aunts was terminally ill. I made a reservation to fly back to Pittsburgh to see her. The day before the scheduled trip, I began feeling dizzy and my heart was racing. For the first time, I felt I could not physically get on the plane. I just couldn’t picture myself putting one foot in front of the other inside that little plank they make you walk from the terminal to the airplane. My aunt passed away without my seeing her. That was the turning point.
I decided it was time for bold action. I gathered my courage and called my physician to explain that I had “trouble” with flying, and that I had to fly in order to see my family in Pittsburgh. I thought he would take a cavalier attitude, but to my surprise, he was very sympathetic. He said, “Oh, I know how that is. My wife’s the same way. I have a little pill – I call it my ‘mother of the bride’ pill – and I’ll prescribe it for you two at a time; one for the trip to, and one for the trip from”. Well, that’s just what happened. I discovered Xanax. I’m not proud of it, but for me, at least, this tiny white pill delivered better living through chemistry. And since I don’t have an addictive personality, I can take these for their intended use and for nothing else. Thank God. (For those who raise an eyebrow – that’s okay. That’s just more for me.)
The tragedy of 9/11 did not help. But I was determined that I would not allow the hijackers to derail my progress toward panic-free flying. It took me over two years, but I have been back on a plane several times since then. I have to take an aisle seat so that I don’t have to step over anyone to lumber back to the restroom every half hour, gripping the seat backs for dear life. The anxiety reduction has not yet traveled from my brain to my gut.
So, I continue on like The Little Engine Who Could murmuring, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. . .” (The train reference is apt – That’s my favorite way to travel.) But my terror of flying has lessened, a little. Maybe, someday, I won’t need to take my ear planes, my relaxation tapes, my chewing gum, my nasal spray, my lavender-scented handkerchief, my copy of Unity magazine, my pillow or my fluffy throw. Or maybe even my Xanax? Well, let’s not go that far!
And, hey. At this point in our life, let the youngsters come out and visit us!
Art and I have talked about going to England one day. . . I’m thinking about the QEII. A cruise to Hawaii? Aloha!
© Robin Munson