Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life

Life at 30,000 Feet

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I have developed a fear of flying over the past decade or so.  It is quite annoying, and has not always been this way.

When I began flying in college, I was amazed by the miracle that lifted tons of steel into the air.  I would press my nose against the window and marvel at the miniature world below.   I took photographs from the sky, and in the days before digital photography, built up a collection of blurry sunset and cloud pictures that inevitably included the flash’s glare.  One year I rode in a small plane at the Butler Farm Show and was disappointed when I had to sit in the back.  I even briefly considered learning to fly, but was put off by the cost of lessons.

My husband, who has only known me for eight years, is astonished by these recollections.  This is not the Jen he knows.

A lot can change in a decade.  And it has.  Something has happened inside me in the years since college, since 9-11, and since children.  The fear crept in slowly, beginning with slight trepidation, fed by terrorist tales and endlessly retold crash sequences (yes, even Lost episodes), strengthened by new concerns related to flying with children, growing with every spot of turbulence and bumpy descent, and culminating in a panic attack in the New Orleans airport.

Now, if flying were an optional part of my life, the story might end there.  But when your husband’s entire family lives on the opposite coast of the Continental United States of America, it’s hard to avoid the airport.

Hard, but not impossible… for a time.  I did manage to avoid it for almost two years.  My husband’s family came to us, and we tried to pretend that the charms of Los Angeles (like the beach along Highway 1, the smell of flowers in the winter, and good Salvadorian food) didn’t exist.  It worked until two weeks before Christmas this past year.

For two years we fooled ourselves, but then the stars aligned and I was sunk.

My husband’s brother, whom we love, bought a spacious house but did not yet have housemates.  On the other coast, we had a full house and could no longer host his parents for their January visit.   They offered to pay for our flights instead.  I checked the computer, and (darn it) found reasonable fares.  We booked the tickets, and pulled the suitcases out from under the bed.

I tried to breathe.

I busied myself with packing and presents.  I went to the gym, and ran my nervousness into the ground.  I talked to friends.  I dug out a lonely bottle of anti-panic pills (prescribed by the world’s best psychiatrist a year earlier) and tucked them away just in case.  I ran and talked and packed some more.  And then, just before we left, I enlisted the prayers of every praying person that I knew.  And they did pray.  I know this because of the way things turned out.

Things turned out, as they often do when people pray, in a very hard-but-beautiful way.

I began by passing out.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I began by finding us a ride to the airport, and intentionally asked someone I was very comfortable with.  Someone friendly, funny, encouraging; someone who you would actually want to spend time with at 4:30 in the morning when you feel like you want to throw up.  He said yes to the 4:30 drive, and this was a miracle.

And so we were on our way.

Now, I am a bit stubborn about taking medicine for my mental health.  I think of it as a last resort, but never quite get to the point when I see myself as that desperate… well, until I am practically past the point of desperation.  On this particular morning, I put off taking the little blue pill until we were about 1 minute from the airport.  This was unwise.

Panic attacks are no joke, and I have found them to be somewhat different from anxiety.  Generally, anxiety is something that you cooperate or do not cooperate with.  It is usually possible to change the way you are thinking, change your environment, or distract yourself.  There are some choices along the way.  But when anxiety grows to the point of panic, your own control diminishes.  Here’s how it was for me as soon as we pulled off the highway to the airport… BAM.   I had been talking to our friend, I was doing okay… BAM.  Heat rushed through my body, dizziness spun me around and I passed out.  BAM.  It was like the green airport sign tackled me.

That part was quick, perhaps only a few seconds.  When I stumbled out of the van my husband didn’t even know that I had fainted.  I sat on the suitcases, gasping for breath.  “Are you okay?”  “No.”  “Honey?” “I don’t think I can do this.”  But then… but then… the blessed medicine kicked in.  I was still aware of everything, still a bit shaken up, but all of a sudden the panicking part of my brain dis-attached itself.  “Alright,” I stood up, “let’s do this.”

And we did.  The next part of the story is mercifully boring.  Tickets, security, waiting, boarding.  No panic, no problem.  We settled into the plane and smiled noncommittally to our seatmates.  The woman in our row returned my smile warmly.  After takeoff I commented on her book, and we began talking.  We discovered that we were both young mothers and committed Christians.  Somewhere over Illinois I mentioned that I had experienced some trepidation in regard to aviation (speaking in code because I didn’t want my daughter to understand… the last thing I want her to know is that someone could be afraid of flying), and she smiled even more broadly.

It turns out that my seatmate was a mental health counselor, currently studying anxiety and panic.  She was also from a family of pilots.

I am not making this up.

We talked in code for the rest of the flight.  She listened to my concerns, gave me some tips on calming down (some of which I used with success on our extremely bumpy return flight two weeks later), and shared some stories of flying in small planes with her family.  “Really,” she said with convincing sincerity, “I know that you’ve heard horror stories, but you have no idea how safe flying is.”

Maybe.  I don’t know.  It is hard to let go of fear that you have nurtured for so long, and the horror stories are rather, well,  horrible.  I don’t know what will happen during future flights.  Then again, I don’t know what will happen during future moments when I have my feet firmly planted on the ground.  Life at 30,000 feet is a risk.  Life at zero feet is a risk.  Ultimately, it’s not under my control.  I’m not a big fan of being out of control, and I probably never will be.


Here is something that comforts me:  Though I do not have control, I have help.  Help from a darn good psychiatrist, help from friends who will get up at 4:30 a.m., help from friends who pray, and help from Somone who responded to these prayers by sending me a kind-Christian-young-mother-mental-health-professional-from-a-family-of-pilots.

Really.  We were flying on Southwest.  I could have sat anywhere.


One thought on “Life at 30,000 Feet

  1. Wonderful story. thank you for sharing.

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