2017 Reflections and Dealing With my Fear of Flying

So, 2017 has been a big year for me.  I went to a book launch.  I went on holiday on my own, more than once.  I took a gigantic step towards my dream job and broke into an almost impossible professional field.  I started learning Italian and took drastic action to improve my French.  I walked up the Eiffel Tower.  I went to Disneyland for the first time.  I had a coffee with one of my favourite authors.  I almost finished writing a book(!!).  I saw the Northern Lights.  I saw sea otters playing free in the ocean…so yeah.  Dreams came true.  Perhaps biggest of all for me was the fact that my three holidays this year all involved me getting on a plane and bigger than that, I had to do it alone some of the time.  For most people this isn’t a big deal but I have a severe fear of flying which I am working to improve.

Unfortunately the first time I ever got on a plane was 3 weeks before my 16th birthday.  That’s extremely late for most people’s standards.  I have never been able to go on holiday abroad with my family and in fact didn’t even have a passport until that trip.  I didn’t have the luxury of being too young to remember my first flight.  A couple of things added up to make my first flight somewhat of a disaster.  One of those things was that it was a school trip – and we all know how horrible kids can be once they know something gets to you.  Another thing was my ears.  They never seem to pop.  Ever.  The pressure just builds and builds and builds until the pain is beyond unbearable.  I’d also never experienced that kind of altitude before and my body didn’t react well to it.  On top of all this I ended up sat in a seat next to a complete stranger, away from my best friend and we then had one of the worst landings possible for the first time on a plane.  I spent most of the week crying and begging my teacher to buy me a train ticket from Naples back to the UK and ended up almost being carried onto the plane back because I was in such a state.  It took me three and a half years before I left the country again, let alone got on a plane.

In the several years after that flight, the trauma of the memory spiralled, making my recollection now probably much worse than what actually happened, and I got to the point where I couldn’t even hear a plane fly over head or, when it was really bad, even see a plane without getting very distressed and crying.  I went to a convention at a hotel right next to Heathrow airport and had to walk into the restaurant with my back to the window because it was overlooking the landing runway.  Pathetic, right?  Even talking about it now makes my heart race beyond anything that is normal.  But it has improved.  My goal has always been to get to New York but how can I possibly do that when it involved an EIGHT HOUR FLIGHT.  Nope.  No thank you.

But I couldn’t live my whole life without getting on a plane again.  So I bit the bullet and when I was invited to an event in Scotland back in March,  I booked the 45 minute flight to Edinburgh instead of taking the easy option and getting the train instead.  I had to get on a plane for the first time in years and I had to grow a backbone and do it alone.  I had to do it.  Enter my ridiculous superstitions and coping mechanisms!!

Just booking the flight was a big step.  I did it at the kitchen table in the early hours of the morning with the help of my flatmate (who had to deal with me shaking so much I could barely type in my name let alone my passport number).  I had to book it from Stansted which I really didn’t like as I’d only flown from Gatwick before, and although I didn’t like it I thought that would be safer because I knew I didn’t die the last time I used that airport (I realise this is ridiculous logic as if I stuck to it I’d never go to new places ever again but just roll with my screwed up terrified brain will you?).  I also had to book Easyjet because that company had kept my alive the first time.  I then had to book a “safe” seat.  This is entirely based on my idea of lucky/favourite numbers and letters which basically means even numbers and window seat letters.  4A is the seat on a plane that makes me feel happiest.  3C or 6C would cause a meltdown beyond anything you’ve ever experienced.   Completely irrational I know but a “safe” seat number makes me feel better.  Which brings me on to window seats.  I have to sit by a window so I can see outside.  My first flight was in an aisle seat and I couldn’t see out (because leaning forward to look made my head swim and the arsehole by the window put the blind down so they could sleep) which was the worst thing ever.  Sitting by the window means that no matter how alien the feeling in my head, I can see the real world and, crucially, the floor thousands of feet below is staying still and level which seems to help keep my head still.

Finding ways for me to feel comfortable with getting on a plane was the first step to dealing with my fear.  I just need to keep being able to get on a plane.  Now don’t get me wrong, I sobbed from the second I got to the bottom of the stairs on the runway at Stansted until I left Edinburgh airport and the same on the way back but thats not the point.  I did it.

In June I flew to Paris to go to Disneyland.  This time I didn’t cry until I sat in my seat on the plane and only cried for the first 40 minutes plus landing on the way there and lasted until the take off engines started and only cried until we reached cruising altitude plus landing on the way back.  I did have problems at the airports though because they had floor to ceiling windows at the terminals meaning I had to sit and watch planes taking off and landing for ages which was horrible (whereas Stansted is completely boxed in until you get on the plane – God bless Stansted!)  When I went to Norway this Christmas it got slightly better again.  It was two flights there and two flights back – out of the four takeoffs I only actually cried once and just welled up on the other three (I seem to be pretty much okay now until the engines pipe up) and only cried on three of the landings – one of which was horrific because the back of the plane slipped around on the snow/ice (and for anyone who’s interested all the airports had floor to ceiling windows and I was fine until I got on the planes this time).  Each time I fly the list of conditions to make me get on a plane seems to be reducing or at least relaxing ever so slightly.

None of this is very interesting really and no one wants a play by play of my anxiety when I fly but my point is this: people were right.  It does get better the more that you do it and for me I think that’s the only way I can progress.  People telling me that it will be fine and that flying is apparently statistically safer than driving a car (which I cannot accept no matter the facts or figures – it just doesn’t make sense to me) does not help.  But getting on planes does.  I’m really proud that, even though I still make an absolute twat of myself on occasion, I know I can now get on a plane.

So thank you 2017 for getting me on a plane. And here’s to 2018 – the year I finally book that flight to America, because look at where planes can get you:


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