There was a recent CNN article about being a nervous flier and also a tweet from Heather Poole, which has given me inspiration to share my journey of becoming an anxious flier and dealing with it. And the irony of all this? I am the wife of an airline pilot! Who, by the way, was sick and tired of dealing with my anxious flying ass.
My first flight was at the age of 15. I flew to Poland with my grandparents and sister. The flights were all uneventful, and I was totally fine. Of course I remember when we first took off, and that incredible pitch. I also remember the constant hum of the engines while en route. You know, they never portray that on tv, so I never even thought there would be constant sound.
The second time I flew? On my third date with Steve. Pretty fancy, huh?! He was flying corporate at the time, so after they dropped off their passengers, they had to fly the plane to a hanger about 20 minutes away. I joined them on that 20 minute flight. It was very cool, as I was in the jump seat. Steve, on the other hand, was the flying pilot and was nervous as hell. You see, he dug me pretty good after our first couple dates, so he really wanted to make a good impression. And what better way to fuck things up with a gal, then to fuck up a landing!
After that I started to fly more and more. Trips here and there:
Alaska: including a helicopter ride over glaciers!
Norfolk: my first non-rev experience...where the ticket agent actually laughed at us as we were trying to get onto an oversold 16-seat airplane. We somehow made it!
Vienna: overseas for Peace Corps.
I clearly recall all those flights being totally fine in terms of anxiety. I was not scared or nervous on any of those flights. Every flight was cool and an adventure.
If I had to guess when I started to get anxious, I would guess it happened slowly over time. Because slowly over time I heard stories from Steve. His buddy once had an engine fail in flight. Everything ended up fine, but that was the first time I heard the term fuel contamination. His buddy once had his stick shaker go off in flight. Steve, himself, had to call mayday once because they hit a goose that came through the windshield....blood everywhere!
In addition to these stories, I had the added knowledge from asking Steve questions here and there. Although, in hindsight I probably shouldn't have even asked (ignorance is bliss). With this very limited knowledge, I just became to freak out more and more. "Did they start that second engine? I don't think I heard them start it! They should start that engine within 2 minutes (or whatever the time frame is) before we take off...I hope the engine is started." This got me into trouble because I became so overly aware of every single thing...and all the while really not knowing shit about flying. Again, ignorance is bliss.
But, I have to say that I did have one experience that tipped my anxiety over the edge:
I was en route from SAT, I think it was SAT, to MDW. I had joined Steve on an overnight. We were in a low point in our marriage, and I thought a little time together would do us good. So, even though Steve's loads were really tight we made it work the revenue route. I bought a cheap ticket on another airline.
Well, on the decent into MDW, something happened...
the blue light was on - sterile - below 10,000 feet.
I noticed that a man took his young child to the bathroom. How dare you do that! We are below 10,000 feet! Don't you know anything?!
As the two of them were walking back to their seat, which happened to be right in front of me, the plane dropped.
And, I mean DROPPED! The man grabbed his son, and shuffled back into their seats. The plane dropped so much that I actually braced myself, as did most everyone else on the plane. Instantly, the engines started to roar, and we regained the altitude that we just lost, or so it seemed.
The passengers on the plane turned from rather quiet into quietly chatting about what just happened. My heart was pumping hard for a good couple minutes after that.
Once I got home and told Steve was happened, he didn't have an answer for me. But, I kept asking all his pilot buddies. One pilot told me it was probably wind sheer...and that makes sense.
Because of that experience, my anxiety went from "did they start both engines?" to the thought of falling out of the sky without notice. The Buffalo crash was around that time too, which is when I was told that planes really CAN fall out of the sky. And no, an airplane stall is not like a car engine stalling.
So, there you have my journey of becoming a nervous flier.
The turning point in my behavior was when our oldest child was a couple years old. I would NOT let my anxiety show to my children. Imagine their confusion when Daddy was at work for days on end flying airplanes, while Mommy was afraid of them. I would NOT be the cause for my children anxiety towards flying...and perhaps anxiety when Daddy was away at work.
So, I went to my primary care physician and got drugs. Ativan to be exact. I love my little pills.
Over time I have learned the appropriate "flight cocktail" for me, which is a 1mg pill with one beer. If I am a bit more anxious than usual, then I just drink an additional beer. Repeat the beer as many times as necessary. I have made the mistake of taking more pills, but that leads to memory loss (of a whole night on one occasion where I tagged along with Steve on an overnight) so I regulate with beer.
To the kids, they possibly see Mommy opening a pill container before a flight, and have a drink before flight and maybe a couple during the flight. For all they know, I am taking a vitamin and behaving normally. And that is okay to me...I never mention my anxiety and they don't know. I will keep it that way!
I make my anxiety known to whoever wants to listen...because, I have a real problem and I have been able to deal with it! And any anxious flier out there can too! My anxiety was taking control, and I was afraid that I would get to the point of not flying anymore...and that is just nuts.
The more comfortable flights I have, the more comfortable I am, as a whole, with the flying thing. Before flights I would dread them weeks ahead of time. Now, I may have a twinge of anxiety here and there, but because I have had uneventful flights, one after another after another, my anxiety has become less.
As for Steve...he actually likes flying with me again. I know he used to dread when we were sitting next to one another, as I was always bug-eyed and squeezing his hand and asking him question after question. Now, I do my thing, get comfortable, and enjoy the ride.