A Return to Flying

A Return to Flying

After years of self-imposed grounding, aviophobe George Gurley seeks the help of a few professionals and returns to the 'friendly skies.'

Three thousand miles is a long distance to travel by train in three days. During the first brutal night of a recent trip on Amtrak from New York City to Los Angeles, I quickly learned a few things. The food is edible but unhealthful, especially those microwave cheeseburgers. Besides looking out the window, there's not much to do except eat. And I never quite got used to being constantly yanked in one direction at 70 miles an hour. Such a journey isn't a totally awful experience, though it's the kind of thing you want to do only once. Or so I thought—then I took the train back to New York. Insane, right?Not if you suffer from aviophobia, as I used to. Then it makes perfect, irrational sense.

It all began in 1995, after 20 years or so of fearless flying. It just struck me, out of nowhere, one evening at 30,000 feet. As the plane started to shake a little from some routine turbulence, I thought, Hey, we're not supposed to be up here. From there it progressed rapidly. My heart began to race. I recall looking to the woman next to me for support, which never came. Soon I was in a panic mode so severe I was trying to cut deals with God. Three months later, I was back in the air and making more empty promises.

Eventually, the stress became too much to bear and I decided that I would never fly again, ever. For four years, I didn't see the inside of an airport. I was resigned to getting through life without ever visiting Africa and Asia.

I didn't give up without trying, though. Before I took that train back from Los Angeles, I met with Dr. Nathaniel Branden, a psychotherapist who specializes in energy psychology, which aims to "interrupt negative patterns of thought and feeling." I told him about my fears of being on a plane, making reservations two months in advance, giving up control, and so on. He nodded. "I think I might be able to help you," he said. "Are you in a hurry?"

First he had me drink a glass of water, then he stretched my arms out to my sides. "Look at the wall over there," he said. "Say 'Two and two makes four.' Say 'Two and two makes thirteen and a half.' Now I want you to focus on your fear of flying." Next, he had me tap the edge of my right hand against the palm of my left and repeat out loud, "Even though I have a fear of flying, I accept myself profoundly and completely." He had me tap on the bridge of my nose, in the middle of my eyebrow, and under my eye. I rotated my eyes in a circle, hummed melodies, counted to five, tapped some more. I was tapping my throat, my chest, down to my solar plexus, my navel. When there was nothing left to tap, I thanked him kindly and headed for the train station.

Back safely at home, I thought: Why not just stay on the island of Manhattan and never leave?

That sounded well and good, until I was given an assignment that I couldn't turn down, which had me flying to Paris in just two months.

I immediately made an appointment with Dr. Steven Lamm, an internist to the stars. He diagnosed me as a risk taker with generalized anxiety disorder who has a tendency to "catastrophize."

"No one can be in control of his or her future, so anyone who worries unnecessarily about it will spark physical and emotional reactions," Lamm said. He suggested I take Xanax or Ativan with me on the flight—just in case.

Lamm also thought I should learn cognitive, behavioral, and relaxation techniques, which might help me abort my pattern of panic on the plane. After seeing another therapist who failed to hypnotize me (I pretended to be under his spell so as not to hurt his feelings) and having a lackluster virtual-reality treatment (the impatient doctor made me more nervous than the simulated thunderstorm), I signed up for Fly Without Fear, a class that has been taught at LaGuardia Airport for 30 years by Carol Cott Gross and her husband, Herbert.

There I learned I wasn't alone. Some members who go week after week haven't flown in decades. Carol herself still has the fear but regularly conquers it. "This is the hardest phobia of all to beat because you can't do it halfway," she told the class.

Over two months, I learned that hitting air pockets is not a big deal (it may feel as if you've dropped 1,000 feet, but in reality it's probably more like five); that planes are routinely stripped to bare aluminum and everything is inspected; and that maintenance guys usually study for at least two to three years before being certified.

At the end of each class we all filed into a hangar to board a stationary plane. Once that becomes comfortable there are conditioning flights to Boston, and more experts and pep talks from pilots and Carol, who reprogrammed me to substitute the word exciting for dangerous, as in "flying to Paris is exciting, not dangerous."

"With the same mind that thinks the worst you could imagine something good," Carol said. "The problem that most of our members have is that they feel very superstitious imagining something positive."

For me, I realized I wasn't afraid of flying. I'd done this my whole life. I was afraid of being afraid, of making reservations, of not being in control.

I lay awake for four nights before my flight to Paris, dreaming up all the horrors that awaited me. During the day I tied up the loose ends of my life. I tossed out letters and prose written in college and other embarrassing items. I got in touch with some dear friends I hadn't spoken to in decades. Spent quality time with the cat. Who will take care of Scoopie?I even wrote a will via e-mail.

The night before I left, Carol told me to tell the airline that I'm a claustrophobic flier and a member of Fly Without Fear—maybe they'd upgrade me.

In the cab to the airport I took a small dose of Xanax. My hands were shaking a little, my insides churning, and I found myself sputtering to the driver. I wasn't worried about the flight exactly. It was bigger than that. It was fear in general. Specific, irrational fears. Superstitions. If one-third of a Xanax couldn't calm me down in a cab, how many would I need on a seven-hour flight going more than 500 mph?How many glasses—bottles—of wine would I need?

At the airport, the woman at the counter said she couldn't upgrade me. "Have a nifty drink, that'll take the edge off," she replied.

I followed her advice straight to the bar. I started muttering some mantras. Every minute 10 planes are taking off somewhere and 10 are landing. It's like being on a ship and the air outside is like the waves. The wingtips will touch each other before they fall off.

We were about to depart. I eyed my bottle of tranquilizers and duty-free scotch. Sure, something could go wrong, but there was nothing I could do, so why worry about it?Let it hap'n, cap'n. Keep it positive, Georgie boy. Soon, ridiculously upbeat and optimistic psychedelic songs were playing in my head.

Thank you, plane. Thank you for enriching my life, you life-enhancing tool.

We had liftoff. No big deal. I got bored. I thought about all the risks I've taken—biking in heavy midtown traffic, late-night carousing, speeding down a dark, slick mountain road. I looked up at the big screen charting the plane's path and saw a quote posted from Robert Louis Stevenson: "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake."

Bump, bump. Turbulence. Clouds. All right, screw it. A half, a third of Xanax. No point in showing off now. It's pretty down there, check out the clouds. The screen told me the longitude, altitude, and speed. A Ben Stiller movie played. I fell asleep. When I woke up five hours later I asked the flight attendant if we were almost halfway there. She said we'd be landing in approximately one hour. I love flying. I looked outside. It helps to see that the wing is steady.

FLY WITHOUT FEAR, 631/368-4244; $150 for three meetings.

GEORGE GURLEY is a reporter for the New York Observer. He frequently contributes to Vanity Fair and GQ.

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