I’ll cut to the chase: I have an irrational, yet paralyzing, and often times crippling fear of flying. However, when forced to objectively look at myself attempting to coexist with this fear, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to seeing the pathetic humor in it all.
Let’s be clear about one thing – I’m not writing this to play the, woe-is-me-I-have-a-phobia-and-that-makes-me-fragile card. I mean, millions of people just like me across the world are plagued by the joys of aviophobia, so who cares about my experience with something so considerably normal?
I’ll tell you why:
Because I don’t fit the bill of the typical “nervous-flier,” and I know it.
Because I’m painfully aware of how genuinely illogical, irrational and unfounded my particular approach to this fear of flying really is.
Because I have become, on probably more than one occasion, that person on various flights. And I’m conscious of the fact that I have more than likely made my rounds through some unsympathetic stranger’s Snapchat stories here and there.
And lastly, because all I can really do at this point is to laugh at myself.
So let’s get on with it.
My Phobia The Paradox
You see, the actual act of flying – the concept of soaring through the wild blue yonder while thwarting the laws of gravity doesn’t scare me in the slightest. I have no fear of falling whatsoever; I don’t have the slightest problem with heights; I’m not debilitatingly claustrophobic; and (while I admittedly may have it elsewhere in my life) I don’t have all kinds of control issues that leave me wishing I was the one flying the damn plane instead of the professional pilot with 100,000 hours of experience.
This means that my fear is basically devoid of having any type of clear origin that I can pin-point or at least draw a connection to. It’s like I woke up one morning and my brain decided it was a good day to adopt a lifelong phobia, just for kicks. The real stinger though, is that this seemingly divine intervention of a phobia that now exists, but has no source, and was never actually caused by anything I’m aware of, is inherently illogical.
With that in mind, an even more illogical distinction can now be made. I’m not actually scared of flying at all. I’m scared of the actual machine – the airplane itself. And for that nice deviation from the normal attributes of aviophobia, I have none other than my trusty, oh-so-powerful and ever-so twisted brain to thank.
What You While Flying
Think of it this way: If you, dear reader, were to watch, or even to be sitting in an airplane flying along at its cruising altitude, with smiling flight attendants bopping about the isles as they go about their daily business, it would more than likely appear to you as nothing more than a perfectly functional transportation mechanism. (Statistically the safest kind, at that.) And to you, that aircraft is behaving normally while obeying the unbreakable laws of science as it provides the simple service of moving human beings quickly and efficiently from point A to point B.
Just without any leg room. And unless you’re on United.
What I See While Flying
To me, it’s a pressurized capsule the size of a building hurtling through the sky at unfathomable speeds made possible only by the precise combination of math, (a topic I won’t even begin to explain my known lack of understanding for) physics, (again, don’t even get me started) and some equally astounding universal trust that all fifteen billion pieces of machinery and technology that are enlisted to keep that levitating hunk of metal in the air are all doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, at exactly the right time, every time.
Indisputable laws of physics aside, asking me to buy into all of that as an accepted universal truth implies that I would agree to quietly bounce along inside a massively condensed aluminum tube with recycled air and wings that occasionally find a way to flap and flex while not questioning or wondering about any of that. In doing so, I would also have to somehow keep this twisted little brain of mine from launching itself into enemy mode, and from finding a reason to trigger every possible panic receptor in my being. No chance.
Lucky You! You’re Seated Next To Me!
Picture for a just a moment, that grainy cult-classic horror film Gremlins from sometime deep in the 1980’s. Now, picture that bizarre scene where Billy feeds Gizmo after midnight, or spills water on him, I can’t remember which – one of those three fatal flaws the old Chinese guy told him were definite no-no’s – and the adorable fuzzy thing goes through a deeply disturbing transformation and ends up mutating into a Gremlin.
Got that visual? Fantastic, let’s proceed.
The inevitable process of my personal psychological mutation usually starts around hour 4 or 5 of a flight – right about when my anxiety medications (yes, plural) begin to lose their initial tidal wave of power, and I really begin to make myself a spectacle. This is precisely when my bully of a brain wakes up from it’s obediently sedated state and decides that it’s high-time for sabotage.
And so begins my infamous routine of the white-knuckle grip arm rest grip, the clenched jaw that always leads to a headache no amount of Advil can quell, and the shifty eyes of distrust and anxiety that dart around the cabin at random. A lot like a caged animal, come to think of it. Eventually, this all rolls into what I can only imagine is the world’s creepiest, unchanging facial expression caused by my intense efforts to focus every iota of my attention on either the calmest looking flight attendant or some unlucky businessman. Whichever one appears to be a good pillar of stability at that moment in time and is, unfortunately for them, somewhere within my direct line of sight. At some point from there, I always seem to find myself silently apologizing to that poor victim of my gaze whenever they have the misfortune of looking up and making eye contact with me during this bizarre yet unavoidable ritual. All the while, that tiny, forgotten and forlorn voice of logic inside me is chanting reassuring thoughts with all its might against the torment of fear that my brain is allowing to flood through my veins.
On flights when this phobia of mine gets really lucky, and really gets its time to shine, there will be a brilliant crescendo of both dense clouds and turbulence. (Read: light fog, and what is probably average airplane movement).
This is when the unlucky soul who drew the short straw, or just really screwed up in their past life and has now found themselves seated next to me becomes the unwilling participant in my attempts to suppress my growing panic. Often before I’m even aware of it, that poor person will find my nails clamping down on their forearm, which by then is basically a personal possession of mine anyway, and will begin to toss pleading looks at nearby flight attendants who proceed to actively ignore their silent cries for help with the crazy person seated next to them. Later, when my hand goes on to cramp, they’ll likely experience sharp, periodic jabs to their rib cage as my elbow, which by then is definitely no longer receiving commands of any kind from my own consciousness, slams into their side should something startle me. Which, yes, is basically everything.
An Open Apology To Seat Mates Everywhere
And yet through all of this – through all of what would normally be considered physical assaults in any other circumstances – my abused seat mate and I almost never make any form of eye contact or acknowledgement of this inhumane and wildly unacceptable human interaction that we’ve now engaged in. I figure that they’ve either just accepted their fate in having to now deal with me for however many more hours are left of the flight, or that they’re so astounded by what’s happening they want to make sure that no other passenger or flight attendant could possibly think that they are in any way associated with me other than by chance.
Only upon landing, when all 14 or so of those giant, and hopefully properly inflated airliner tires hit the tarmac does my phobia retreat back to the depths of wherever it lives. It’s while the plane taxis to the arrival gate, and I establish that I’ve definitely only got a few more minutes left inside this giant rumbling machine when I’m then usually slammed with a wave of self-loathing. Pangs of embarrassment and regret fire through my conscious as I steal a cautious glance to survey whatever damage I’ve probably done to my seat mate’s mangled forearm. When that beloved and unmistakeable click of the gangway tunnel attaching to the cabin door registers in my ears, I’m suddenly returned to the world of the logical. Finally, as the deplaning routines ensue and people grab for luggage and stray small children, I process the fact that what I just experienced was a completely normal flight with absolutely zero abnormalities or legitimate reasons for panic. And yet off I went.
Unfortunately, in the same way that I’m deeply aware of how irrational my fear is, I’m also deeply aware that it is what it is, and that it’s here to stay. I do still hold on to the hope that one day – maybe in a parallel universe or in my next life – I’ll be able to fly amongst you as a completely normal, non-panic-stricken equal who draws no bemused or horrified attention from other passengers and is able follow all acceptable public behavior protocols without a hitch.
Until then, I will continue to apologize in advance to anyone and everyone who may find themselves seated next to me someday.