HOW TO OVERCOME A CRIPPLING FEAR OF FLYING by Sara Courtney
Step 1: Get hit by a semi-truck.
Are you afraid of flying? I don’t mean afraid of turbulence. Who isn’t afraid of bouncing around wildly while your seatmate holds their hot coffee perilously close to your laptop? I mean, are you filled with pure terror at the idea of getting into a metal tube and hurtling through the sky? I am addressing those of you who know which seats are “safest”; you actually read the flight safety card; you count how far your seat is from the Exit Row… just in case; you quietly research the cost of train or bus tickets, weighing the days and hours spent with a stranger, versus a few hours in the sky. What is wrong with us, people ask? It’s practically the safest way to get around! These are simply well-adjusted folks trying to apply logic to our irrational anxieties. What do they know, besides safety statistics and data analysis and their friend who is a pilot? We have emotions to go on, thank you very much, and we will be ruled by them whether we like it or not.
My mom was afraid of flying. She’d grip the arm rests, and any slight bump would lead to an outburst of “OH NO! IT’S HAPPENING!” Every journey was THE WORST FLIGHT EVER. Every landing NEARLY DIDN’T MAKE IT.
Then something terrible happened. My brother, who studied physics, suddenly and inexplicably became afraid of flying. His fear led me to question the entire enterprise. I decided watching a movie mid-flight was a waste of time that would be better spent imagining scenarios of falling out of the sky. Thus, while my brother got over his fear of flying after a few short years, the terror, like a virus passed from one person to the next, was something I just couldn’t shake.
For a while, I traveled the country by train. Train! Days of strangers and potato chip crumbs and the great open plains (why is there so much flat land?) and not being able to crack open a window – this is where my anxiety led me. Even in the depths of my terror, I knew this was not practical.
I carried on in this completely sane manner for 20 years, and I probably would have gone 20 more like this, if not for an Unexpected Event: I was hit by a semi-truck.
It’s a strange thing, to go about your day, thinking unimportant thoughts, mulling over a list of errands, and suddenly, in a moment, have those same bland thoughts nearly be your last. There I was, getting ready to exit the highway, and then suddenly, a horrible crunching sound, a moment of confusion, and there I went. I knew there had been a semi behind me in the next lane, barreling down fast in my rearview. It hit the left side of the back of my car, sending me careening across the lanes into another car, where I came to rest and watched the semi-truck–a gasoline tanker that reminded me of the one from Thelma and Louise that explodes – slide sideways towards my tiny car.
It’s true what they say. Time really does slow down. When I couldn’t undo my seat belt, I simply sat and waited for it. “Oh so this is it. I’m going to be a pancake. My kids are going to talk about me in the past tense.” There was no death grip on the armrests. I just waited until, as if by some divine intervention, the giant wheels stopped at my door.
A few weeks after, I had a turbulent flight to Denver and barely shrugged. A second flight was uneventful until the landing, when the plane began shaking before accelerating sharply up into the sky. The pilot, who no doubt just saved our lives, explained the runway had not been properly cleared. He sounded like an annoyed dad who lost his parking spot.
Amazingly, I wasn’t afraid. After all this time, the fear I had was not of flying in a metal tube in the sky. It was a fear of having no control. A dread of letting go. The anxiety that comes from trusting someone to care for you. I knew now I could accept having no control in a plane, because I experienced having no control on the ground. That semi-truck knocked all the fears out of me and replaced them with acceptance. One moment you are in control, the next you are a slingshot! Life is precious, but also precarious. It changes in a moment. An instant. A blip! And then – pancake.
No amount of safety stats could make me understand that in life, it is very hard to learn to let go. To trust your life, or your safety, or your heart, to another person. But it is the surrender that brings peace. You can get over your fear of losing control once you understand how little control you have in the first place.
Life comes at you fast. Sometimes, semi-truck fast. Forgive your anxieties – the big and the small, the ones that control you, and the ones you fight to control – and try to let go. If I can do it, trust me, you can too. And hey – have you read the safety stats? It’s probably going to be okay.
Sara Courtney is a writer living in Maplewood. Her mom worked at Boeing for decades.