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What a strange airline it was!

My fear of flying made every flight I took an exhausting process of dread, panic, relief, and guilt. Mental health issues usually require a variety of strategies to overcome. Healing is more art than science, a process of trial and error with fingerprint individuality. For me, therapy on its own wasn’t cutting it.

I’d heard more than once that information doesn’t help the phobic person, that irrationality can’t be countered with facts. That was not the case with me. I sought out information to set my brain grooves aright. I read Patrick Smith’s book Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, which communicates the science and safety of flight with frankness and humor.

I also started to spend time on the SOAR Fear of Flying forum online, where Captain Tom Bunn puts all manner of fearful flyers at ease with data about planes and the human brain. (In short, planes are a lot more predictable and reliable.)

Statistics have had a profound impact on my perspective. Bunn writes, “the risk of driving about 10.8 miles on a rural Interstate highway is equal to the risk of a one domestic flight on a major U.S. airline.” Having taken many cross-country road trips, I realized that one 5,000-mile round trip equaled 500 flights. Sure, something could happen on a road trip, but how often did I worry about that? Virtually never. Did it make sense to worry about one flight when I hadn’t given a thought to the equivalent of 500?

On the chemical level, I asked my doctor for a prescription for Xanax, which isn’t a cure on its own but helps me relax enough to apply what I know rather than react with pure adrenalin. The amygdala can wreak havoc on an otherwise rational person, and mine needed to be mollified a bit so I could get to work.

Finally, I isolated what really seemed to cause the most fear and created rituals to help me through those. The claustrophobic plank-walk of the jet bridge? Talk to the people around me to remind myself that boarding a plane is a normal event that happens 100,000 times a day. Lift off, that ultimate moment of “no turning back?” Perch my feet on the edge of my seat so I don’t feel the rumbling wheels and stomach-dropping lift.

I started blasting my favorite song, “Danse Caribe” by Andrew Bird, in my earbuds during taxi and takeoff. I turned up the volume to cover the growing roar of engine noise, lost in the comfort of the soaring violin. By the end of the song, we’d be at 10,000 feet or so, well on our way.

Notice I didn’t list “pray more” or “study the Bible harder” in my list of strategies. But there is nothing unspiritual about my process. Talking to God is a given throughout the most mundane and dramatic events of my life, but phobias aren’t the result of not being a good enough Christian, the lack of “applying Philippians 4:8” to your life. Such attitudes increase anxiety and guilt and place more emphasis on the believer rather than on the God in whom she believes.

God is more complex than an inspirational poster. He heals me through gifted people who write books, develop medications, create music, and tell me I can do it. Yes, sometimes healing and growth come instantly. But not usually. And this is the beauty of my flight story. It’s not about a woman who lacked faith then finally let the Spirit enter.

It’s about a woman who got on the plane anyway and rode the bumps and dips of her own turbulent history through the clouds and fog and freezing rain. It’s about a woman who surprised her mother and talked to students about poetry at far-flung conferences because it was the good and loving and joyful thing to do.

Last week, I flew to Los Angeles. I had just returned from another trip and couldn’t wait to get on the plane to read and sleep. Thank goodness, I thought, that I had four hours of no responsibilities but securing my lap belt and ordering a beverage. Even before taking a Xanax, I felt calm and hungry, packing my cheeks with snacks like a squirrel since the direct flight would go through lunch.

That morning, the scanning of boarding passes sounded like cathedral chimes. The flight attendants smiled at me, not as harbingers of disaster, but as regular men and women working their jobs, like Target cashiers or eye doctors or mechanics. I slid my mandolin into the overhead compartment as passengers joked about onboard entertainment. I laughed, too.

I grabbed a seat on the aisle and cued up “Danse Caribe,” but the woman and her teenaged daughter seated next to me wanted to talk. They were on their way to visit colleges, and as a college application consultant, I couldn’t help but offer a bit of advice. As the plane pulled away from the gate, the daughter popped in her own earbuds while the mother and I still chatted SATs, essays, and out-of-state tuition.

Before I knew it, we were thousands of miles above the patchwork of the Midwest. I had no time to start my song and prepare for takeoff because somebody was dealing with her own anxiety about a complicated, uncertain future. Somebody needed my help.

 

Image produced above is by David Prasad, licensed by Creative Commons.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tania Runyan

Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Books & Culture, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.

2 Comments

  1. Andrea on April 21, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    I know anxiety and phobias all too well. Thank you for sharing your story. This was a beautiful essay.



  2. Nicole on April 22, 2016 at 4:23 am

    “It’s not about a woman who lacked faith then finally let the Spirit enter.” Love that line – such a universal truth to so many stories.



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