This Is What It’s Like To Fly Though Turbulence With A Mild Anxiety Disorder


There is no logic to my fear, and even through the worst turbulence I understand this. But it doesn’t stop my palms from sweating, nor my head from spinning. If you’ve ever had a panic attack you know: Vision dims like light through a shrinking aperture; sweat pours from your forehead like you didn’t know it could; something wet crawls over you, dancing its fingers along the curve of your back, your shoulder, your neck, then it’s before you; and all you can think is, what a shame to die so wet and sweaty. You begin thinking about the circumstances of your death, how it will burden those around you, how it will look to the living—the funeral, will it be embarrassing? Probably. Even here, on this cross-country business flight, something will unearth about which you are mortally ashamed: an unused condom, a snot-filled rag, a trickle of piss down the right leg of your trousers. Can they identify these things in a plane wreck? Of course not. The power of logic is selective, limited only to peripheral musings, not ever the looming fear of death—that one is embedded deep within the psyche. I am by no means a religious man, but I find my hands clasped together in prayer each time the flight gets especially rough. Blurry promises are made to blurry gods, none of whom I know much about—still, I don’t. I break promises to them, like Prometheus—ruing my mockery of land-dwelling mortals and paying for it eternally. I think, at one point, if this thing goes down will they at least be able to salvage my hard drive? Then, later: Are first-class passengers prioritized for dental recognition? Are coach seats locked together, and, if they are, does that mean I’ll be hurled from this fiery aluminum comet—just one body in a trio of well postured corpses—like some kind of catapulted rollercoaster car? Will I feel that stomach-dropping sensation, or will the descent be more gradual? Some thoughts are without context, just images: my severed feet landing among a pack of wild deer in rural Pennsylvania, brand new Jack Purcell’s laced securely about; passengers being sucked through a hole in the cabin like raisins to a vacuum; the curious desire to sneeze as the plane tailspins into the bright, screaming hereafter. Are deer smart enough to recognize severed human feet? Okay, I tell myself, you’re being paranoid. Take a deep breath. Your brain needs some sweet, musty oxygen. Suck that recycled, pressurized, flu-laced air into the nether of your lungs and exhale, then do it again. Blast! Nasal obstruction; congestion like an oozing injection mold; base lung matter apt to spark a coughing fit and the ire of snoozing, reading, headphone-bobbing passengers. How are they not making their final arrangements? How are they not sifting through packets of leaky memories? You’re too young for this kind of anxiety. Jessica, your co-worker—didn’t she pack some Xanax? No matter. Xanax won’t shield you from the vengeful wrath of spurned Appalachia. Maybe I should curl into a ball like Liam Neeson in The Grey. Lucky bastard had a whole row to himself: an Irishman flung across the white Alaskan azure in fetal position. Well, that’s preferable to this: a triptych of perfectly postured fares from worlds unknown. The man next to me is reading Sports Illustrated on his tablet, probably trying to ignore my strange fidgeting. Three ski bros behind me are talking about fresh powder. The turbulence pauses. We reach a plateau of smooth air and the pilot comes through the speaker: “Sorry about the ahhh… bumpy ride folks. We’re just trying to find ahhh… safe altitude. It’ll be like this for a while. Please remain seated with your seatbelts securely fastened at all times.” I am desperate, sweating, pulsing—the screaming passenger lunging over others in a futile vault from the avian prison. I am… anxious.

My hatred of the winged aluminum can didn’t always exist. As a child I looked forward to flying almost as much as the trip itself. But as I settled into the anxious locket of adulthood this enthusiasm gave way, rather quickly, to abject terror. I know all the logic: You’re more likely to die on the way to the airport, you’re more likely to win the lottery, flying is the safest way to travel. I don’t doubt any of that. In fact, I believe it both rationally and intuitively. But for someone with anxiety this use of logic to overcome fear is like relying on the cheer of a Hallmark card to pass a kidney stone. It just doesn’t work. It’s about instinct, really—a primal dependence on the warm, soiled earth, and the visceral sensation that “up” means death. But it’s not just a fear of flying; I believe my fear is actually quite tame compared to most. No—it’s more about the toxic stew of anxiety, depression, and general unease in the air. Throw in some bad turbulence and flu symptoms and you have the makings for a stress cocktail fit to take years off a man’s life. But such is the synesthetic tempest of dread that was my recent flight from Las Vegas to Philadelphia. The turbulence, mind you, was only mildly above-average according to other passengers. But for me, it was the worst flight of my life.

Just a few days after landing I discovered this nightmarish video of a Turkish Airlines flight which caught fire after being struck by lightning. Watching it, you’ll note the calm of passengers as they sedentarily sail across the heavens with wings aflame. Note the quiet, the composure, the fucking silence… The fucking silence… Amazing.

Fuck. That.

Raise your feeble hands to the aluminum ceiling and make a god damn scene, is what I say. Jettison the chance for prayers in exchange for a few moments of desperate, fiendish hope! Fools! That’s what I would do. I’d be a total dick.

Or would I? The apparent calm of passengers on this Turkish flight got me thinking about my own experiences. Would I really be “that guy?” Would I really be that asshole shamelessly flailing about during his final moments? Or would I be that zen motherfucker, muttering poetry and closing his eyes to preserve the sanctity of fond memories? I like to think I’d be the latter, but I can’t say for sure. What I do know is this: Flying sucks not because of the danger, but because of the nature of that danger. I don’t care what you think about high-speed trains or life in the fast lane; flying is unlike any other mode of transportation. You’re hopeless, powerless, sweaty, cramped, sedentary, sick, moody, hungry, thirsty, depressed, stressed, panicking—and in a few minutes your organs are going be cleaved from the tissues that hinge them to your body cavity and spat upon a blasé rural hillside that otherwise might have passed as a choice picnic spot.

When a plane starts going down, there is no chance. It’s not like a slow death, or a shark attack, or even a car crash—you know, for however long it takes for the plane to reunite with mother earth, that this is it. There’s no chance. And you have to spend these final noisy moments in whatever sort of aimless plea for peace and understanding that you can muster.

Fuck. That. I’d rather go down in a hail of gunfire.

Don’t assume that my fear of this scenario trumps all else; it doesn’t. I’d much rather plunge into a mountain in an aluminum tube than be mauled by a grizzly bear. I’d much rather tailspin into the ocean strapped to an upright gurney than be tortured by John Bunting. The difference is this: I don’t often come in contact with grizzly bears, and I’ve never been kidnapped by a serial killer—these are scenarios that are extremely difficult to imagine. A plane crash, on the other hand, is very easy to imagine when you’re a writer with anxiety on a highly turbulent cross-country flight—too easy, it seems.

Soldiers, criminals, police officers, morticians—you know, people who live in close proximity to death—sometimes speak of a feeling that washes over you when death is near. They claim an ability to sense it, almost before it even occurs. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of death, so I can’t claim ownership to this particular skill. But I have lived long enough to respect death, to (occasionally) laugh at it, and perhaps even question it. Said another way, I often wonder: What was the closest I ever came to death? What moment was it? Did it pass without my knowing, like a narrowly avoided freeway accident? Or was it more obvious, like during a particular fever or sickness? Maybe it was, indeed, during some bumpy, cross-country flight when I was younger. For most people, there’s simply no way of knowing this. But you have to be crazy not to wonder.

I mention it because this pressing, unanswerable curiosity is tightly linked to fear and anxiety. The feeling it stirs is magnified during panic attacks—whether they occur on an airplane or in the middle of the ocean. It takes on weight, like a rolling snowball, and soon consumes everything (those who have taken hallucinogenic drugs can relate to this “chain-linking” effect on your thinking). But whereas in a “sober” state of mind this curiosity is merely contemplative, it becomes a vicious, self-feeding cycle during periods of intense anxiety. It becomes everything, and it’s inescapable. It’s almost as if the mere questioning of death is an affront to your subconscious, so much so that it punishes your conscious mind by forcing it to think way too deeply about death, and your own unmatured standing with it.

Flying forces this in me. It’s not the turbulence or the claustrophobia or the helplessness. It’s not the lack of proper explanation; I’m well aware of the logic (you have a 1 in 7,178 lifetime chance of dying in a plane crash, compared to 1 in 98 for a car crash; the last commercial flight disaster in the U.S. was nearly four years ago; turbulence doesn’t cause crashes; flight regulations are mint; blah, blah, brouhaha). But that’s all irrelevant when you’re in this state of mind. It’s like Bruce Willis in Looper, smashing his fist on the table when pressed to explain the logic of time travel: “It doesn’t matter!”

Why does it not matter? Well, in the case of Looper, there’s a story to be told; you can’t waste precious screen time elucidating something that cannot be elucidated. And when it comes to fear and anxiety, it’s similar: Your agitated brain, no matter how large and capable, has no room for appeasement based on logic alone. You need something more. You need… drugs. Really, really good drugs. And that’s what I learned on this most recent flight.

I’m sorry if that’s not the wholesome, organic dénouement you were looking for in a piece about fear, anxiety, and flying. But that’s the truth—at least, for me it is. Nothing has changed. Nothing is fixed. When it comes to flying, I’m as guided by fear as ever, and reading and writing about it is not going to change that. Which is why I plan to secure a certain prescription from my doctor the next time I’m beckoned to the skies. You should too. Mortal.

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image – kevin dooley