The last time I flew was in 1997. We went to Disneyworld, and my husband decided a year in advance to start planning the trip. That was one of the worst years of my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the anxiety was constantly under the surface, trying to work its way out. I had a horrible time on the trip, and when we landed back home I felt as happy as I had felt on the happiest days of my life. That is when I realized how anxious I had been for the previous year. I didn’t fly again for about 5 years.
It’s ironic that I was a travel agent in my life before having children. I worked for the National Geographic Society, making travel arrangements for the staff. I issued so many tickets; every day multiple people were flying to a variety of places around the world. I was so desensitized to every aspect of air travel. I was frequently given free tickets and opportunities to fly to exotic destinations for weekend getaways. I had no trouble dropping everything at a moment’s notice to take a cab to an airport, get on the standby list, and fly wherever that plane was going. I visited some amazing places.
But then something changed. I never figured out what it was, but I have been told that it is a frequent occurrence for women after they have children. The survival instinct kicks in, and being in a plane 30,000 feet in the air is not a recipe for survival. I have an anxiety disorder, and have since I was a child, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that I would develop a fear of flying. I would force myself to fly, but the pre-anxiety became debilitating.
In 1999 I happened to find a wonderful therapist who specialized in anxiety, and even more specifically, travel anxiety. I never knew such a professional existed. It was a major turning point in my life when I met Jean. I actually went to see her because my son, who was 9 years old at the time, needed a therapist for his phobias. But after visiting with her week after week I realized that perhaps she could help me as well.
Jean’s MO was individual and group therapy, to desensitize people from their fears. I learned how airplanes work, what every sound means, what every motion means, and even some physics like the Bernoulli principle. The idea is that knowledge is power. After the education came the visits to the airport, and back in those days one could even take a little tour through an actual airplane. After the visits came the call to the airline to make the reservation, and then Jean would come pick you up, take you to the airport and get on the plane with you to fly somewhere. (In some cases it was more like Jean would push you onto the plane.) Her airline of choice is Southwest which flies out of BWI, and it is my favorite airline to this day. Her clients would fly to Providence or Norfolk, short flights and easy airports to maneuver. You would have lunch and fly back.
My goal was to make my trial flight in the fall of 2001. Unfortunately, that was a disastrous time for everyone, and my goal of flying was put on the back burner. People who were comfortable flyers were now terrified. Tours through airplanes were out of the question, no one could even get past the main terminal into the gate area. Our group expanded, as routine flyers discovered they were having trouble getting on a plane. The fact that I had a friend who was on the plane that flew into the Pentagon did not make things any easier for me.
I continued attending the group sessions every month, but I was feeling discouraged. My children were at an age where it would be fun to visit new places and do new things, but my fear was holding us back. Our road trip to Hilton Head, although a beautiful destination, was marred by the 10 hour drive each way. Thank goodness someone invented a way to put VCRs in minivans. We were the first family on our block to buy one of those!
In April of 2002 my children and I went to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. I threw our bikes in the back of the van and away we went. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, and a soft breeze was blowing. As we biked along the Potomac River, I could see National Airport across the water. I was far enough away that I couldn’t hear the planes, but I could see them taking off, one after another. They looked like they were floating, they were so graceful. I couldn’t feel their power from the other side of the river, just their flight into the air so softly and smoothly.
That week I got fed up with my phobia. I couldn’t wait to the do the airport visits, to sit with Jean and make a reservation, to figure out when our calendars meshed so that she could fly with me. I got online, decided I would go to Atlanta because there was a shop in the airport there that sold bath products and makeup that we didn’t have here in our area, and made a reservation. The next day I drove out to the airport, parked in the daily lot, and got on a plane. I flew to Atlanta, shopped for an hour, got back on another plane and came home. It was terrifying. It was liberating. It was totally terrifying.
I went back to my flying group the next month and told them what I had done. The response was stunned silence, then smiles and laughter. To this day I am supposedly the only client who has made a trial flight in this fashion. I have since learned that there is more than one way to overcome a phobia – including desensitization and immersion. I am definitely an immersion kind of person. I finally decided to graduate from the flying group in 2009; I had traveled a few times a year, alone and with my family, and made what I consider a long trip – to Las Vegas. I flew over the Grand Canyon, and took a road trip there, a place I had never thought I would ever see. I felt that graduating would finalize the significance of this turning point for me.
To honor my new ability to fly without fear I did something I had been thinking about for 10 years, I got a tattoo. My tattoo is a dragonfly, which is what had I always known I would get, but I didn’t know why. Once I began flying again it all became clear – the dragonfly symbolizes power, freedom and lightness of being. The qualities that I finally achieved by overcoming my fear.