My last flight had been from Krabi to Chiang Mai, a trip I had taken with my mom when she came to visit me in April. The return flight put us in the middle of some intense turbulence as we were approaching Chiang Mai, and it felt like the plane was dropping fifty feet at a time (I’m sure it felt much worse than it actually was). My mom actually said it was the worst she’s ever felt, and she flies two or three times a month for her job. A woman behind me was on the verge of hyperventilating and, feeding off that energy, I myself became incredibly anxious. Knowing that moving my hands tends to help me relax, I started to rub a cloth headband between my fingers, doing my best to breathe slowly as I closed my eyes. It was over within 20 minutes, we were safely on the ground, and I honestly had never been happier to be off a plane, even when I stepped off my 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. This trip was likely the trigger for the phobia that has since developed and that I discovered during my trip to Cambodia last month.
I was fine getting on the plane. I was fine while we were on the runway. But the anxiety started as soon as we took off. I became ultra-aware of every movement the plane was making, every jolt, every dip, every sound the engine made. Every time something shifted, my anxiety grew. It eventually peaked when we hit some minor turbulence on the flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I broke into a cold sweat, developed an intense headache, and had to bend over to try to reduce the nausea. With every bump, I was convinced the plane was going to crash. I don’t have a fear of dying. My fear is of a different sort. I fear the moments before the plane crashes, the moments when I have to think about the people who will miss me, the pain I might feel in the seconds before my mind goes dark forever, and all the things I’ll miss out on in life. It is completely illogical to fear this for many reasons. First, turbulence poses absolutely no danger to a plane, which I’ve become convinced of after watching numerous YouTube videos on how planes fly, how planes handle turbulence, and how autopilot works. I know those little bumps do nothing to harm the plane, and I know the last time a plane went down from turbulence was in the 1960’s when a pilot veered off course in Japan so the passengers could see Mount Fuji. I know that statistically, flying is very safe, and I know that the pilots flying whatever plane I’m on have experienced much worse turbulence than I’ll probably ever see. I know the planes are built to withstand 150 times more turbulence than has ever been seen in the history of flying. I know all this, and I know I’m safe on the plane, but my body and my mind haven’t got together on this. My body is reacting to a stimulus that I labeled as dangerous. It’s doing its job, in theory, as it pumps adrenaline into my system to prepare me for a ‘dangerous situation’. And so far I haven’t figured out how to turn it off.
At this point, simply seeing a plane in the sky or hearing one fly overhead begins the process of sending me into a state of stress. An invisible rope wraps around my chest and starts to tighten, little by little, until I force myself to take some deep breaths and calm down. Thinking about the 13 hour flight that I will have to make back to the US is, as you can imagine, extremely uncomfortable. But I’m not willing to admit defeat. I love traveling, and that’s not something I’m willing to give up for fear. Fear is useful when it’s present at the right time and in the right place, but this is a phobia, which entails that the fear is illogical. I’m afraid of a danger that doesn’t exist. And that’s frustrating for me. I won’t stop flying, and I won’t allow this phobia to restrict my life. I’ve been fighting it and I’ll continue to fight it until it no longer exists. I’ve considered self-medicating with anxiety pills or alcohol, but that also feels like defeat to me. I want to be able to fly sober with no problems. Most people do this naturally, but it’s now a goal I have to set and work toward. And so be it.