Fear of Flying

The plane landed and I was stunned.

My heart rate was not elevated.
My palms were not sweaty.
I hadn’t taken a deep breathing session to calm my body.
Music wasn’t hammering into my ears to drown out the sound of the panic inside.
My normal hypervigilance was nowhere to be found.

I was 22 when a crushing fear of flying hit me. I use the word hit on purpose. It literally hit me. I had flown for years with no issues. It was innocently a flight, people do it every day like they make a career out of it and never die, kind of innocent. It just wasn’t a big deal. Then 22. I took a trip to the East Coast with my mom. I really went to spend time with her and get lost in the colors of fall. Not one other single place in America does Fall like the East Coast. The reds, yellows, greens, browns, even Crayola doesn’t make colors like that. It is a wonder to behold and a treasure. It wasn’t the flight out that got me, that was a breeze. That flight back though, it was when the hit came. I had a two-leg flight back to Southern California, first stop was PA for a short layover, no plane change. Somewhere in the air between where I took off and PA, the fist of anxiety deeply embedded itself into my skin with such a force it left me reeling. This knowing just spread over me from the pit of my stomach, and I knew this plane was going to crash and I was going to have no control. It was going to plummet out of the sky like an out of control roller coaster and death was going to be the end. I froze in my seat, unsure as to what to do with the feelings that were continuously slamming into me. When we landed in PA, all I knew was to get off the plane. I needed to just step outside and breathe, try to get my bearings. So I did. I got out and paced by the gate, trying to get myself under control. An agent catches my eye and informs me it is time to board. I just stare at her. She smiles and just stays with me. Finally, I say, “I don’t know that I can get back on that plane. I need to know that I am going to be okay.” She takes a minute, grabs my hands and says “Oh. You didn’t see, this is a new plane. This is one of the newest planes our company has. Also, the pilots are new. Fresh, alert and some of the best in the field. If there is any plane to be on with any pilots, it’s this one with these guys.”
She is the only reason I got back on the plane. I knew in my rational brain she was lying through her teeth, I also knew I wasn’t about to rent a car and drive to Southern California from PA, although before she said any of those things to me I was strongly considering it. So I got back on the plane.

That is where and how it all began. There has never been a rhyme or reason that I could find. People often tried to talk me out of being afraid of death, yet death never really scared me. It was more the feeling of dropping out of the sky. It was more not being able to take care of myself if something were to happen. If you think about it flying is incredibly vulnerable. You can’t run anywhere, you can’t grab the wheel of anything, you can’t move out of the way…you can’t…you can’t…you can’t. I refused to stop flying though. I wouldn’t let fear stop me from living. There is too much life to be had, adventure to be held, and people to see to stop traveling.

So I made myself fly anyway. Four months after that flight to the East Coast, my mom and I flew the 8 hours to Europe. I had small panic attacks for two months before that flight. My mind would play out the sensation my body would feel when the plane was no longer supported by the ground and the panic would hit causing my cheeks to go flush, my hands start to sweat, and my heart rate elevated. I would have to take deep breaths and allow myself a minute to recalibrate. Just thinking about it flying! I got on the plane anyway.

My senior year of college I flew out to see some friends in Atlanta. One month before I got on that flight, the same. I flew anyway.

I have white knuckled through almost every flight I have taken since that flight. I have grabbed onto the arms of strangers during turbulence. I have engrained myself in conversations in which I had no interest to simply distract from the panic on the inside. I have read my bible and listened to worship music in hopes to find my peace and calm in my faith. I have learned how to breath deep, lean my head back, close my eyes and embrace the panic. My body has learned how to take the hits that flying lays upon me.

I gave up hope long ago that flying would be anything other than what it had become. I just stopped caring whether or not I was going to be afraid and settled with I was afraid. It was okay to be afraid. My job wasn’t to make the fear go away, it was simply to embrace the fear/pain and manage it. It became my job to manage me when the fear hit, not manage whether or not the fear came. Fear wasn’t my enemy, how I reacted to the fear was my enemy. So I started to manage that and you know what happened. Over the years the symptoms have become less cruel. I learned how to embrace the window seat with the window up. I picked up a conversation between the Lord and me that starts once I get to the airport. It’s this quiet banter between him and me, that I am not even sure how we got it started but it carries me from beginning to end. I accepted that non-stop flights are my jam. I learned how to measure flights through movies and not minutes. I have loyally kept up the deep breaths, head back, eye closed, panic embracing poses in my seat. And when I fly with Isaac, I manage even more because of the concern that I would teach him to fear flying scares me more than flying itself.

That day 6 days ago was my second plane of the day because for the first time in almost 10 years I didn’t book a non-stop flight. I had two take-offs and two landings. I had two sets of pilots and two different airplanes. One was quiet and smooth and one was loud and turbulent. I had peace on both planes. I giggled when the pilot slowed down in the sky instead of sucking breath in between my teeth and then holding it until it I felt safe. I smiled when I heard the whine of the engine or when the air shifted the plane without warning.

It. Was. Surreal.

I don’t know what the winning ticket was though. I am still mid-process as to what changed. I have been boarding and de-boarding with the same anxiety for years. I have created a lifestyle of facing the pain and anxiety with flight, almost just resolved that this is my plight. What changed? I don’t know. I wonder though. I wonder if it wasn’t simple resolve. If it was that at some point of the journey I stopped getting into a power struggle with fear. That decision I made to no longer fight fear but instead become powerful in how I manage it, I wonder if that wasn’t a course changer for me. Although the change wasn’t immediate. The anxiety/ fear didn’t immediately go away, I was still depositing into my life the belief that I was in control of me no matter what happened. Every time I stepped foot on a plane and embraced my tools to manage what I knew was coming, I said “It’s okay fear. I got this. I am not afraid of you. I know how to handle myself when you appear. When you hit against my body, I know how to handle me. My fight isn’t with you.”

Not too long ago the Lord told me: “The heart of pain is the breeding ground of redemption.”

Pain has a purpose. We get to decide how we interact with that pain. We get to decide if we let it control us or not. Labor is the best analogy for this. A woman has no control over pain when she is in natural labor. The contractions are going to come on their terms, at their time, with their own force. She can’t control any of that. She can though control how she interacts with the contractions. She can manage whether or not she fears them, or embraces them. She can control how she breathes through them or how she doesn’t breathe through them. Her power lies in how she interacts with the pain that hits her body until that child is born. Matter of fact if she fights the pain of contractions they hurt more, they slow labor and in some cases can make more problems. Woman are instructed to lean into their contractions, to embrace them and let them do their job, that contraction is pushing the baby into where it needs to be to be born. Is that not the same with us in life?

We don’t have control over whether or not pain hits us. Or how it hits. Or how long it stays around hitting us. What we have control over is our ability to interact with that pain. What we have is the capacity to embrace the pain, figure out how we are going to breathe through it and let it do its job. We don’t stay in the pain, we don’t call out for pain, we don’t live a life of pain. That isn’t what this is. Pain will come. Fear, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, crummy life events, hurt, all of this stuff will at some point land on our doorstep. If we are living life, loving people, embracing this world, all of those things will eventually find their way to us. So the question isn’t how do I stop the pain. The question is who am I going to be when pain shows up. How am I going to embrace it when it hits?

For me with the fear of flying……I just got on the plane. I laid my fist of fighting the fear down, and put my hands on figuring out how to embrace it. How to manage me in it? I picked tools and used them every time my feet stepped onto a plane. I breathed into the fear, embraced it. I said yes when my insides screamed no. I parented myself into each flight and held my ground, held the belief that I know how to manage me when fear hits. I flew anyway, and 6 days ago my redemption came.
How are you breathing into pain today?

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