Monday, November 9, 2009


As I get older, life seems less about learning to overcome my fears and more about drinking my way through them. A recent flight reinforced this point.

There we were, nearly 40,000 feet above the ground. My boss is asking me what our action points for the next week are - deadlines, important meetings, etc. I am nodding vacantly, trying desperately to concentrate while also reciting The Lord's Prayer in my head. The boss looks over and asks - "are you alright?" and I'm forced to make a decision: do I scream "no!" and let loose in the flight sickness bag or do I lie my face off and try to continue working? I chose option 2, but only because my stomach (barely) cooperated.

For the ride home, I was on my own, so I decided to lubricate the journey a bit. So, at 11:30AM I was sitting in an airport restaurant drinking wine and reading a videogame magazine. I was still a nervous wreck, so I moved on to a coffee shop and had a beer and a bear claw (delicious - I always try to treat myself at the airport - last supper mentality). I decided that if the coffee shop was selling beer, it was socially acceptable for me to be drinking it. I finished up with another glass of wine minutes before boarding the flight. This was about successful as Napoleon's attempt to take over Russia. This time, instead of being terrified and working, I was just terrified and drunk.

This scenario is part of disturbing trend in my life as of late. I've gone from loving flying - to the point of planning which in-flight movies I'll be watching over a month before the flight, to absolutely dreading it - to the point of having trouble breathing steadily when thinking of an approaching air-travel date. Nothing particularly horrible has happened to me - but this transition from hero-to-zero has happened in just the last 1.5 years.

Up until the scenario I listed at the opening of this entry, I had my moments of terror privately. I burst into tears in the bathroom of a flight last January, threw up on a flight in June, and attempted to sedate myself for the first time ever on my trip down here in September (red wine and benadryl - I'm not exactly Pete Doherty). So far nothing has worked. Some surprising things have helped a little. I sat between a very gregarious family man and a very nervous first-time flier on a flight to New York in August. We kept up a three-way convo for most of the flight, and something about the camaraderie/mutual admission of terror really helped. But not enough. I still felt as if I was teetering on the brink of death for 8 straight hours.

I have an 18 hour flight approaching next month and it is looming as large in my psyche as a warthog in a squirrel village. On one hand, it is awesome that they do a direct flight from South Africa to New York. On the other hand, there are so many potentially terrifying things that can happen over 18 hours - how will I cope? I was at a barbecue (a "brai," as the South Africans call it) on Sunday and I spoke with a man who had just flew on one of these epic journeys. I asked him how he made it through the trip. He said, "I got on the plane, took a sleeping pill, and woke up in New York." Some help. I would consider resorting to prescriptions, but this too has its worries. What if my heart stops mid-flight? I don't want to trivialize the deaths of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson, but certainly they've taught us the dangers of over-sedating. Also - what if the f-ing thing does go down over the Atlantic? If by some miracle of God we survive, how the hell am I supposed to swim to safety if I'm knocked out?

The problem with this sudden fear of aviation is that there is no logic in it. I read that between 1990 and 1999, the chances of even being injured on a UK licensed flight were 1 in 180,000,000. I talked to a pilot a few months back, and he said, "you have to remember that you're more likely to be killed by a donkey than an airplane." Sure sure. We've all seen the statistics. You're also about 6 times more likely to be killed by a coconut than by a shark but it is far less terrifying to lay under a palm tree than it is to swim in the deep blue sea. When in the air, I try to remember the statistics. But the minute the plane rumbles or I hear a strange noise logic goes out the window. I'd much rather be leading a donkey on the solid, reliable ground than sputtering about in a tin can miles in the air.

Flying can also turn you into the most superstitious person on Earth. On this most recent flight, the check-in lady said that I could have a seat on an earlier flight if I wanted. At first I thought - it is a sign, the second flight is going to crash - I need to take this seat! Then I thought - no, that is disturbing the natural order, upsetting my fate - the first plane will crash! I decided that I should go with destiny and take the second flight. Why upset the natural order? My dad once told me that he refuses to run red lights because he thinks it upsets the order in which things are supposed to happen to him. (No wonder why he became a police officer). He was probably telling me this to make me a safe driver (good luck there, buddy) and instead I have multiplied it tenfold and applied it to flight travel. And now that they let me pick my seat number, picking a lucky numbered seat is usually a requirement as well.

I've always loved plane-crash inspired fiction. Whether it is Lost (one of my favourite in-flight-games, before I became a whack-job, was to pick my ideal "cast" out of the other passengers), Bioshock, or Cast Away - there is a very romantic element to plane crashes. But for each of those, there are other non-fiction tales of flights-gone-wrong that tilt the scale in the other direction.

I know this is not an especially significant or enlightening post, but I think part of getting over this fear has to be to talk about it. I've chosen a career that requires a lot of flying. And I love love love to travel. I love to see new places. If I wouldn't have flown last week I would not have been able to spend a few magical days in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. And if I don't fly home next month, I wouldn't be able to spend my favourite time of year with my favourite people. So it is something I have to do.

I heard an interesting quote this morning that I think is a very good lesson on how to live life. A person said, "even if your faith wavers, your hope never should." Whether that is in a religious or non-religious context, I think that is a very good way to live life. Sometimes in life, I may lose faith in others, in myself, in my ability to do something as easy as flying. However, as long as I never give up hoping - that constant feeling that things are going to keep getting better - then I am going to keep trying and trying until it actually does.


1 comment:

  1. I loved this entire post! I kept nodding along and saying "yes, yes" as I read it - not a good move since I'm at work, haha. But I know just what you mean! I was terrified of flying when I had my first flight at age 11, then I loved it to the point where I felt all smug, like "you other crazy people are scared but I am soooo relaxed I could just fall asleep right now."

    But then I moved overseas semi-permanently, and now every flight terrifies me. I try to act all cool on the outside but I order wine with dinner and hope to fall asleep. I've even thought about looking into boat trips over the Atlantic, but the idea of being on a boat in the middle of the ocean in the dark for more than a few days is even scarier than an 8-hour flight.

    Anyway, just wanted to let you know you're not alone! You'd think we'd be all set for flying since we have to fly to get home, but I think it's actually made me more scared than I was before!