I remember the exact moment I decided airplanes were absolutely terrifying. I was eleven, and made the mistake of walking into my parents' room just as the nightly news was detailing a tragic plane crash. Watching pieces of debris float helplessly in the big blue ocean while images of the deceased passengers flashed mournfully in tandem, was quite possibly the worst thing I had ever seen.
It's funny how a huge fear can develop so quickly, but suddenly, flying filled me with a deep, black dread. My parents, however, did not take to this fear. Rightfully, they cited it to be exceedingly irrational as flying is in fact one of the safest ways to travel. My eleven year old self did not give a shit about that though. Not even a little baby shit.
My new phobia was not going to stop our family from vacationing, so since staying home with our golden retriever was not an option, I had to create tactics to get myself through the flight with some degree of confidence. I would wrap myself in those little blue in-flight blankets, shielding my face from everyone, and I would proceed to pray compulsively prior to take-off. My parents would look over at me and roll their eyes, clearly embarrassed but also relieved I hadn't passed out. In my mind, this ritualistic silent-blanket-prayer-rocking was not at all creepy and would ensure that we got to our destination intact.
Sometimes, if the flight was going smoothly, I would actually start to relax and take my Seventeen magazine quizzes. However, if the God-forsaken captain came on announcing turbulence, I'd be back under the blanket, chanting prayer babble all throughout our "rough patch of air."
As I got older, my fear of flying grew into a larger anxiety disorder that I (in deep delusion) thought was simply a more realistic way of interpreting the world. Like of course if I don't unplug all the lights before going to bed, our home will burn down. Like duh. If I don't pray for everyone I care about every night, something bad will happen. The next plane will crash. Someone will get cancer. Someone will die. And so on.
However, it was not until my first year in grad school that I realized that perhaps I might not be thinking super rationally. My fear of flying had gotten much worse, and the notion of having to fly to Santa Fe to spend Christmas with my family, was torturing me. I could not stop obsessing about this particular flight. I thought surely this would be it for me. This would be the one. My mother would not tolerate the possibility of having Christmas without me all due to a stupid metal bird. She ordered me to see the school counselor, therapist, "friend" - however, I wanted to term it - she told me to get my ass in there. So I went.
In my first session I learned that I had a severe case of "catastrophic thinking." Anytime a good thing happened, I immediately assumed something terrible would happen to annihilate it. This inevitably resulted in all of my bizarre self-invented behaviors that I believed would keep my loved ones and me safe. It became clear that I was unfortunately the kind of person who believed that if I ever won a Tony, I'd fall into a black hole the same day. Yup. There it was. Thanks to my counselor-therapist-"friend," I had in thirty minutes, been served a slice of good 'ole "You have anxiety." Not uncommon for most New Yorkers, but also not a healthy way to live.
Despite this enlightenment, I could not bring myself to fly to Santa Fe. I sobbed a pitiful apology to my family over the phone, and then proceeded to face my first Christmas alone in Greenwich Village. Luckily, I had recently befriended a nice Jewish girl (we'll call her L) who invited me to eat Chinese food with her on Jesus' birthday, so I trundled over to her two-bedroom. L had another friend in her apartment (we'll call her S), and we all began gorging on dumplings, fried rice, and guy talk. However, in my humble opinion, things in the conversation did take a bit of a turn when S started recounting a recent fling that resulted in her aggressively stating, "Basically, for him, the Magnum was like trying to put on skinny jeans." For some reason this made me very depressed. This was how I was spending my Christmas. Instead of saying something judgmental that I didn't actually mean ('cuz kudos to this guy right?), I just unwrapped a block of cheddar cheese and started topping my dumplings with hunks of it. Yes, this is what it had come to.
I felt utterly embarrassed and made a silent Christmas vow to myself - I will not let this catastrophic thinking, airplanes, all of it - it will not dictate my life. I will not live in a world where Christmas is filled with lo mein and sad condom metaphors. I refuse. And so I started the gradual road to living a less anxious, self-sabotaging life, which ultimately keeps me mostly in the "work in progress" section of the department store.
My first real test came right after I finished grad school. Joey and I received the opportunity to have our musical done at Illinois Wesleyan University, and they had invited us to assist with auditions, which meant an inevitable airplane ride. It was a six AM flight and that morning, we were experiencing a torrential downpour. Still, we took our seats aboard the plane. I was sandwiched between a sleeping flight attendant and Joey. I said a quick prayer in my head, but didn't get under the blanket. Progress.
The minute we began our ascent, the plane violently dipped. Suddenly we were on an airborne roller coaster, and it was without exaggeration, the worst turbulence I had ever experienced. Oh, and I hadn't been on a plane in two years at this point. During what can only be described as my own personal hell, Joey clutched my hand and comfortingly suggested we play "Marry, Fuck, or Kill" to take our mind off this shattering turbulence - I basically told him to fuck right off with that idea, and tried my hardest not to start balling hysterically. The rockiness was not letting up, and other passengers were beginning to get frightened, which only made me feel a thousand times more horrible. I am going to die on this plane. Finally, I couldn't restrain myself any longer, and I turned to the SLEEPING flight attendant on my left. I feebly nudged her, "I'm really sorry to bother you, but I -- this just feels really bad to me, is this bad?" And this gorgeous mama-jama turned to me, smiled, and with a sassy laugh replied, "Baby, don't be scared. Last night was worse. If I ain't scared, you should not be scared." And just like that, the plane leveled out and my near death experience was over, mostly thanks to my guardian-angel-stewardess. I did need to drink a large vodka orange juice once the service cart came around though. Just to take the edge off. Joey even exclaimed that he had been terrified as well, which further cemented why we're pals.
So there. I passed my first real test. I took a substantial step forward in my attempts to conquer a deeply rooted fear that had bled into so many other areas of my life. Of course I still HATE airplanes. I loathe them, but I will get on them. I will not let them stop me from experiencing life. Despite what a number of New Yorkers may think, sometimes you do need to leave Manhattan to get a larger perspective. And I'm letting myself be open to that possibility of travel, of risk. I am trying to now accept good things as purely that. Good things. We all deserve good things.
However, you will still most likely find me in the "work in progress" section of the department store, because well, nobody's perfect.