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Fear of Falling (or how I learned to shut up and trust the sky)

January 23, 2011

It happened almost a year ago. It was a hot, bright afternoon on Koh Samui. I was waiting by the side of the road, nervous. A lanky blonde man pulled up alongside me on a motorbike and I swung my leg over the bike and got on, putting my hands on his waist, feeling white cotton and thin bones. We drove about five minutes and waited for a sliver of space between all the other bikes on the road in which to turn left onto a sloping dirt road. I tightened my grip around his waist as we went over the bumps. There were thick patches of flowering bushes all along the path – almost close enough for me to reach out and touch. At the top of the hill, we stopped at a house – his house. He led me through the gate and I saw that the house was completely open. There were no doors, no windows – only white stretches of space . The house was beautiful, clean and intense, as were his eyes. He led me to the living room, where he spread a sarong on the floor, and told me to lie down. I closed my eyes and this man began to explore my darkest self.

But this is not yet another story about a tourist flirting with the seedy underbelly of Thailand. ( Though I have one of those. Buy me a beer, and I’ll tell you. ) This is the story of how I overcame my fear of flying.

Airplanes have always been a part of my environment. My grandfather had been a test pilot for the Canadian Air Force. My father also had a pilot’s license and worked part time as a flight instructor. My family tells stories of how when I was a toddler, we lived in Gander, where there was an international airport. According to them, on nights when I would fuss and couldn’t sleep, I would demand to be brought to the airport, and it was the only thing that would calm me. Though I have no memory of this, I have a very vivid recollection of a coin-operated helicopter in the airport that I loved to play with. It was in a clear bubble, and using two handles I could make the helicopter fly.

Airplanes were all around my house, as well. At the top of the landing was a portrait of my grandfather, with pictures of all the types of airplanes he flew. In the basement would be a model airplane that my dad would be painstakingly working on during winter evenings. In the closet hung flight suits and Air Force uniforms. In the photo albums were pictures of cessnas in which I apparently liked to fly.

Then, as I hit my twenties, the fear took hold of my heart. I made a few flights in which I was nervous, but just a little. I flew to London by myself, and had butterflies the whole way over, which I reasoned away as being jitters about spending a summer on my own in a big city. About six months later, my theatre class went to England for a 6-week study trip. On this flight, I first experienced true, naked fear. It wasn’t caused by anything but had been growing inside of me, getting bigger without my noticing, until I sat down, buckled up, and realized I was really terrified.

Masochistically, I chose a life that would involve hours upon hours of flying. By the time I moved to Korea, an 18-hour flight from home, my fear was in full force. Yet in that first year abroad, I travelled as much as I could – Hong Kong, Bali, Singapore, Kuala Lumphur – each flight uneventful yet gut-wrenching. My way of coping was to drink. During takeoff, I would start to chant ” I need a drink, I need a drink…” either out loud to my travel partner, or in my mind if I was alone. Everytime the airplane would turn, I would lean the opposite way, drink in hand, trying to balance the weight of the plane, sure that if I didn’t do this, we would flip all the way over.

The nice side of this heightened sense of aliveness was that I became a very talkative seat partner for those who would have me. Fear twisted around with a little alcohol results in an open desire to communicate ( as I was convinced that each conversation would be my last). On a flight from Deer Lake to Toronto, I wrote a blues song with a music teacher. On a flight from Vancouver to Tokyo, I helped an engineer celebrate his birthday, going on missions to the galley for more birthday bottles and snacks. On a flight from Toronto to Seoul, I had an hour-long discussion in which my seatmate and I tried to decide who was the better Beatle: John or Paul.

Yet, after the alcohol wore off, and my seatmate eventually went to sleep, I was left once again feeling as if the bottom was dropping out from under me, and a cold, polite terror quietly taking hold of my soul. Plus, I was hungover.

Last winter, a girlfriend and I decided to go to Thailand to do a 10 day cleanse.
The point of the cleanse was to detox our bodies, but actually ended up being quite an emotional experience as well. ( Esther, my cleanse-mate writes about it here. ) On day 5 or 6 of the cleanse, we decided we were interested in trying some hypnotherapy, and made appointments.

I had always assumed that my fear of flying was a control issue. However, as the therapist pointed out in our initial conversation, I didn’t feel the same way on a train or boat. So, I tried to describe to him the feeling I had on a plane: There is nothing under me, and I am about to fall.

The session proceeded with him talking in soft tones. I was concious the whole time, and thinking that it wasn’t working and I had wasted my money. I was feeling fidgety and wanted to move. Finally he started talking about finishing the session and how I would feel an amazing sense of peace and well-being when I “woke”.

I opted to walk down the long path from his house back to the beach, while he went on his bike to pick Esther up for her session. I walked for a minute down the dirt path lined with tall flowering trees. Then it came – a high feeling of oneness with the world, an inexplicable happiness that warmed every cell. I was smiling at the flowers when the revelation appeared. I suddenly understood why I was afraid to fly. Buried under all my stories, my intellectual reasons and countless airplane mini-bottles of Rye was a simple truth. I was never afraid to fly. I was afraid to fall.

When I was 11, my parents divorced. Several months before, my family had taken a trip to Florida. It had been my first time on a commercial flight, though I had flown in small planes before. The night I found out about the divorce, I sat listening at the top of the stairs, and there was talk of that trip. I always thought that I had handled the divorce well, and that any emotional damage had just made me stronger. And, that is true, in a way. The divorce gave me two happier parents, and brought a third truly wonderful parent into my life. I believe I am in a happy marriage because of the lessons I learned. Yet, there was something I didn’t face, something I denied. That manifested into terror in the air, fear of falling.

So, dear readers, especially those of my friends who share my phobia, I want to reassure you that what you fear is not illogical, not senseless. You are afraid of something, but not necessarily the thing that you name. It is worth it to go digging. Not only will you lose the fear, you will lose all the baggage trailing behind it. ( Unless Air Canada loses it first. ) In short, I wish all of you a thin blond man on a moped.

These days, I still need a drink when I fly, and I still take medication to help get through the flight. But, I stop ordering drinks after the second pass of the drink cart. I can usually relax after the first hour enough to doze a bit. A little regretfully, I leave my seat partners in peace.

I trust the sky not to let go of me. So far, it hasn’t.

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4 comments

  1. I’d love to be your seatmate on a plane. Your story about the seedy underbelly of Thailand alone would be worth the price of the flight.


  2. I am delighted you are getting over your fear of flying. Being in the air is such a wonderful place where you get to see the sun every day if you go high enough. The next time you fly think of these thoughts from your grandfather –

    Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
    and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
    of sun slpit clouds and done a hundred things
    you have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung high into the sunlit silence.
    Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
    Up, up the long delerious, burning blue I’ve topped the wind swept heights with easy grace, where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    PUT OUT MY HAND AND TOUCHED THE FACE OF GOD.



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