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How I Got Over My Fear of Flying

Fear of Flying

Aaron Spelling had a train car. Aretha Franklin has a custom bus. Even Marge Simpson suffered from it. I came by my pteromerhanophobia (fear of flying) honestly: my mother wrote a novel called Fear of Flying. But it started even before that. My DNA was equal parts deoxyribonucleic acid and panic. This didn’t mean that I didn’t fly. I grew up on Pan Am Flight 002, a Boeing 747 that went from JFK to Delhi with a stop at London Heathrow. We flew Clipper Class (which was Pan Am’s old-school name for business). The flight was always chaotic, stuffed to the gills, hot as the inside of an oven, hours late, and populated almost entirely with screaming babies. At least that’s how I remember it.

Fast-forward to my twenties: I am sitting on a plane. The creases in my palms are filling with sweat. I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. Am I going to die? Definitely. Suddenly tears spring from my eyes. I can feel the pitch, the noise of the engines. Is that the landing gear sticking? Is one of the engines not working? Is that popping sound the engine stalling or catching fire? Is the plane supposed to tilt like that? What about that strange ringing sound? Is an alarm going off somewhere on the plane? Does it mean we are all going to die? Does it mean that this flight is doomed? Did the pilot look tired? Drunk? Depressed? That was my life on an airplane. And there was more, of course; I once grabbed the hand of a strange man next to me on a flight from Denver to LaGuardia. And once I dug my nails into film director Brett Ratner’s arm even though he barely knew me. And finally one day I just stopped flying, because I figured it wasn’t worth it. I’d gone everywhere I wanted to go. I would just spend the rest of my life on the Northeast Corridor, shuttling around via Amtrak.

And for a while, about a decade, I didn’t fly, and I was okay, and I thought I had won. Perhaps I had figured it out. But what I didn’t realize was that not flying actually made the fear worse. Flying haunted me. I would dream about flying. I would fantasize about flying. I would pass airports and get a chill down my spine. Every night was a slightly different flying dream, some more disturbing than others, but the message was always the same: I was stuck, and I wasn’t going anywhere. My self-esteem plummeted. My friends would be talking about their Christmases or their spring breaks and they would say “Oh, that’s right, you don’t fly.” Those six words cut me. They felt like an indictment. How had I become so profoundly damaged that I couldn’t participate in what the rest of the world did easily and regularly? I was pretty sure if I didn’t deal with this fear it would mushroom. I could already feel myself getting nervous about bridges and the subway. I knew fear of flying could lead to a larger pathology—I’ve heard it often does. I could easily end up unable even to get in an elevator. I was crossing the line from charmingly neurotic to meshuga. After all, even Woody Allen could get on an airplane.

So I started looking for a cure. Here are some of the things that did not work to cure my fear of flying: being what seemed like sneezed on by a mad Russian hypnotist, spending hours talking to my Freudian analyst about the cause of my fear, wearing a virtual-reality flying helmet on East 90th Street, meditation, drugs (Inderal for curing the symptoms of a panic attack and Valium for fun before I got sober, but neither worked), hypnosis, flying school. There was only one “cure” I didn’t ever take and it was going to some doctor in Westchester, New York, and being given an IV filled with sodium thiopental. That just seemed too far-fetched even for me.

Then I happened on exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is as terrifying as it sounds. It means just what you think it would mean. You are exposed to what scares you. I went to see Dr. Martin Seif, in New York City. I was dreading it. Dr. Seif saw me twice and he impressed upon me that I was using anything I could to avoid feeling fear (avoidant behavior) and so all of my avoidant behavior (my rituals, or only flying in the a.m., or not flying at all, obsessing about the weather, constantly checking the Weather Channel, checking turbulence maps) were ways of reinforcing my anxiety. He also explained that the chances of dying in a plane crash were infinitesimal (which of course I knew).

But in my experience fear is not solved by knowledge. Even so, almost every fear-of-flying program has a component of flight education, which, I assume, is strictly to cover the easy stuff. I myself have been lectured more than a few times by pilots on the safety and mechanics of flight. And while this is charming, I’m phobic, not stupid. I know the chances of being killed in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. One is more likely to be killed by lightning, a tornado, smoking, a car accident, biking, cardiovascular disease, an electrical current, accidental gunfire, medical complications, inhaling or ingesting objects, drowning, or being crushed to death by a pig.

That said, being crushed by a pig wasn’t, in my dysfunctional mind, as scary as being packed into a metal tuna tin hurtling through space 30,000 feet in the air at 600 miles an hour.

So after two sessions it was time for EXPOSURE! The first thing I did was go to Westchester County Airport to try out a flight simulator that looked like a plane. I wasn’t scared at all—but I was also not in the air. The pilot let me fly the simulator and while I had fun, it seemed sort of irrelevant. I wasn’t afraid; in fact I crashed into the control tower (I’m not a great driver). But a few weeks later it was time to try the real thing. On April 7, 2013, I flew the Delta Shuttle from LaGuardia to Washington Reagan. I hadn’t flown since August of 2003, just short of a decade earlier. It was a quick flight, about an hour. I was scared, but I remembered to do some of the things Dr. Seif told me to do. I focused on breathing, and on the idea that I was only afraid of the fear itself. I texted him, I told myself this was about practicing being afraid. I read some of the PDF’s he sent me about managing anxiety. I was nervous but understood the fact that flying was safe and that I was the problem. Flying home I cried the entire way. But I emerged a new person. I went back to the doctor and he said, “Book another flight.”

In May, my husband and I flew to Toronto (I cried on that flight too). In June I took my daughter to London (I was totally fine). In August my husband and I went to L.A. (I didn’t even feel nervous when the pilot turned on the fasten seat belts sign and mused about very rough air). On the flight home I cried but for a totally different reason: I cried because I was so proud of myself. Having been on this planet for 35 years, I know how hard it is to change one’s own life. So this was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me. In November I went with my mom to Miami for the Miami book fair. In February I flew with my youngest son to Boston and in March I went back to L.A. In June I will go to London, Paris, and Venice. I am a person who flies now. I am a person who can go anywhere.

Do I still get nervous on airplanes? The answer is, sort of. I have learned a lot about myself and about managing my anxiety. I am a person who is recovering from my phobia, so I have to be careful. I have to actively not obsess about the flight. I try to never check the weather. I embrace my anxiety. I don’t love turbulence but I see it as an opportunity for overcoming my fear. I am so thrilled with my new life, but ultimately one of the greatest gifts of my getting over the fear is that I never have to ride Amtrak again.

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Gary Shteyngart's Misadventures in Air Travel

Photo by Zohar Lazar

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