I've been flying on airplanes almost as long as I've been alive. That's par for the course when your father has been employed by airlines for most his career. My mom once told me that I flew abnormally well for a baby. Flight attendants and fellow passengers loved me because I never cried— I mean, I usually wasn't even conscious for most of the flight. The roar of the plane's ascent would lull me to sleep and I wouldn't wake until we touched back down on earth, drowsily blinking my eyes open in confusion. I was always able to sense that we were somewhere new, but I had no idea how we got there. To me it was like teleportation. Blink, and you'd arrive.
For the past thirty years of my life, my experience with flying hadn't changed much from the time I was an oblivious babe. As a young adult, my penchant for procrastination usually resulted in pulling all-nighters packing, which in turn enabled me to readily pass out the second I boarded a plane. Flying was at worst a non-event and at best a sanctuary of solitude, one where I could churn through assignments or entertainment with little interruption. On international flights I could binge watch all of the latest guilty-pleasure films with no judgement and roleplay life as a jet-setting, complimentary-glass-of-wine-drinking independent adult. Truly, there was never a time I felt more grown in my late teens and early twenties as whenever I flew by myself.
Then, around two years ago, something started to change. Now, I've always been an anxious person, so flying in a post 9/11 world... of course the thought of what could possibly go wrong on an airplane has crossed my mind several times. Somehow, I was always able to play mental gymnastics and convince myself that if I visualized the worst possible scenario then it couldn't possibly actually happen, right? Now, you might be thinking... that seems like a fucked up way to deal with your anxiety that is going to come back and haunt you later in life— and you would be right! But suffice to say, it worked at the time, and for a long time. I would imagine the worst possible outcome before take-off, laugh internally at its lunacy, and go back to my book and/or allow the sweet release of sleep to wash over me.
But over time I gradually started to entertain my "worst case scenario" fantasies for longer than usual, and in more detail. Perhaps because as I got older it just seemed like there was so much more to worry about. 2014's string of aviation fatalities (which I will not go into detail here) introduced even more horrific scenarios for me to imagine. Still, the stress and anxiety was mostly mental and mostly manageable when I reminded myself of the facts: that despite those incidents I was flying during one of the safest periods in aviation history and that the odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million, a ludicrous number and one in which I had better odds of being involved in a traffic accident.
In late 2017 my dog Lychee unexpectedly passed away just a few months before I moved to Southeast Asia. Though Lychee wasn't my first loss, she was my first unexpected one. The first one I didn't get to say goodbye to, and that in itself shook me to my core. I'll be honest, I thought about death a lot in the few months after, more than I'm comfortable admitting. Upon the advice of my therapist in New York at the time, I tried to pull myself out of that hole and begin to cope by trying to live and love more presently. Which sounds like cheesy self-care bullshit, but what I mean is that I needed to take every opportunity to tell the people I love how much they mean to me, take advantage of the time I have with them, and also more fearlessly pursue my own interests so that when those dark thoughts inevitably invaded my mind, at least I could find some solace in having few regrets rather than losing myself in a panic over all the things I haven't done or haven't done my best. Like calling my mom more or making more of an effort with my dad. The plan to move to Bangkok, where my parents grew up, and to take time off work to travel around Asia for a year was already in motion but it certainly fit snugly into this idea of living with no regrets.
Yet, it was this move that really kicked my anxiety around flying into full-fledged paranoia. To be clear, the time I spent abroad was amazing. It was a privilege to be able to move halfway across the world, to take time off work, and to travel to so many different places. I would do it all over again, even if it meant reliving all the awful flights I experienced. Honestly, the first half of the year wasn't even that bad. I remember being a bit tense every time we flew over large bodies of water for an extended amount of time, but somehow I managed to keep it together. Then we went on a Nok Air flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani, a leg that was only a little over an hour long but the turbulence was so bad I felt like there was a real possibility this plane was going to fall out of the sky. I remember squeezing my cousin's hand as the plane shook up and down, rough enough to generate a flurry of butterflies— no, hummingbirds— in my stomach. It reminded me of being on one of those pirate ship rides at an amusement park, where the ship swings back and forth and your lunch does flips along with it. The strange part is, I actually used to enjoy that sensation. I used to like turbulence because it reminded me of roller coasters. When I was younger I admittedly even felt some fucked up sense of superiority because I could sit through turbulence as cool as a cucumber, unlike the ghost-faced older woman taking deep breaths and praying in the adjacent row. I never thought I would one day end up becoming her.
I didn't vocalize my fear on that flight to Surat Thani. I think I even tried to laugh it off, tried to pretend that I wasn't actually screaming on the inside for the sake of keeping everyone else calm. I may not have visibly panicked on that flight, but it flipped a switch. From there on out, I was sensitive to every shudder and shake. Every single noise that emanated from the plane. I had no way of telling what was normal and what wasn't because for so long I had been oblivious to this level of minutiae while flying. Every time we hit turbulence I would start to hyperventilate and squeeze my boyfriend's hand until my knuckles turned white. Even when we'd get a reprieve from the turbulence I would be on edge, just waiting in anticipation for the next wave, the one I was certain would do us in. Sometimes I would turn off airplane mode out of anxiety, out of this fear that I might need to send one last text. Each and every following flight was emotionally, physically, and mentally draining. Yet I kept subjecting myself to it. When it came down to it my desire to see the world kept over-ruling my risk avoidance.
Indonesia was a particularly hard one for me. As a country of islands, air travel is the most efficient way to get around. However, like most of Southeast Asia, its air safety record leaves room for improvement, and the Indonesian Air Asia crash of 2014 was weighing heavily on my mind when booking flights. I purposefully avoided Air Asia flights unless they were operated by Air Asia Thailand, the regional operator with whom I had yet to have any bad experiences with. The decision of which airline to book kept me up at night in the weeks leading up to the trip. At the last minute I ended up cancelling one of my cheaper flights and rebooking it with Garuda, the most expensive Indonesian airline, which is also affiliated with Delta's SkyTeam, an endorsement that admittedly gave me some peace of mind. This actually ended up being pivotal because it made me realize there were things I could do to mitigate my anxiety. They just required fundamentally changing my outlook on money and travel.
I mentioned before that my dad has worked for many airlines. When I was younger we exclusively flew under his benefits, which included free or ridiculously cheap standby tickets. When I started making my own money and buying my own tickets instead of relying on standby, it was shocking to me how expensive airfare actually is. As a result, I guess I've always been a cheap flyer. I usually opt to fly the cheapest fare, even if it makes waking up at the ass-crack of dawn, boarding last, or being extremely conservative with carry-ons and leg room.
Paying more for reputable airlines and better seats became an investment in my peace of mind. It's one of the few things that's helped me manage my fear of flying. I noticed that I felt intense turbulence when I was seated at the back of plane, which is usually what would happen when I would opt not to pay to select a seat. When I started paying to select a seat closer to the middle of the plane, I noticed that the rides often felt a lot smoother. Whether it was because we didn't hit any turbulence, or we did and I felt it less in that part of the plane, or whether it was just a placebo effect, I'm not really sure. I just know that it helps.
Having a ton of addicting, feel-good shows to binge watch queued up on my phone is a must. One of the unfortunate side effects of my newfound fear of flying is that I find it very difficult to read on flights. Even the best book can't hold my attention if I'm being rattled in turbulence. Podcasts are great but once I start looking out the window (a nervous tic) my thoughts become louder than the audio. Honestly, if Netflix could just start churning out new episodes of Queer Eye so I could have a fresh batch to watch for every flight, that would be great! It's the kind of engrossing yet light-hearted fare that seems successful in distracting me from contemplating my untimely demise. Schitt's Creek and The Big Family Cooking Showdown are also worthy diversions.
I'm also really excited to take more road trips. Ever since I came back to America, people have been asking me where I'm going next and the truth is I have no major international trips planned at the moment. That doesn't meant there aren't a lot of places I still want to go, but I'm actually looking forward to exploring sites a little closer to home. I recently moved back to Texas, where I grew up, and there are so many big cities, small towns, and slices of nature that I haven't seen since I was a kid. I'm looking forward to leisurely traversing our expansive highways across the state. I think it'll be a good way for me to still indulge my love of travel while also giving myself a break from the psychological tax of flying.
I still wonder what exactly it was that pushed me over the edge. Was it PTSD from my first unexpected loss? Was it moving to Southeast Asia with the specter of 2014's five Asian airline crashes looming over me? Or maybe the answer is a lot more simple. Maybe this is just what happens when you grow up and realize you have a lot more to lose than you once thought. When I was younger and much more cavalier about flying, my anxiety wasn't airborne but instead threaded into my daily life. I struggled with a sense of belonging, with loneliness, with the pressure to "play it cool" with emotionally stunted men and navigate the misplaced rungs of my career ladder. But as I grew older, I also grew happier. The years in which I gradually became an anxious flyer were also some of the best years of my life. Which is terrifying to think about when you know that change is the only constant.
In contrast to the days when flying was my escape, it now feels like a punishment. Like I'm being carried adrift and away from a fulfilling life on the ground. A life that I once took for granted but now feels so very precious.
Realistically, the cause for my newfound fear is probably a combination of all of the above. An unfortunate mix of trauma, aging, and news media's fixation on tragedy. Whatever the reason the only way forward is to learn how to cope, to somehow see past the terror. There's still so much of the world that I want to see and if getting mugged in a foreign country didn't stop me from traveling, then surely a non-event in the sky won't either. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to some peaceful drives (far) under the big Texas sky.