I’ve flown a lot lately. Today’s flights, from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg and then from Winnipeg to Calgary, were my twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth of 2015–but they were also my eleventh and twelfth in the past three weeks, which is a pace I haven’t set since the first heady days of my international recruitment career. The younger me, who dreamed of becoming a pilot and whose first word was “jet,” would’ve been thrilled by the way his life’s developed. Thirty-four year-old me is, too. Mostly.
I’m not afraid of flying. I know people who genuinely are; I’m not at all like them, and if I were it’d literally be impossible to do my job. As a kid I was a great flier. But then the more I learned about planes, the more I’d think about all that might possibly go wrong once I boarded an airplane, the worse I got. Remember, airplanes were my first obsession. Pilot. “Jet.” Hours spent at airports as exotic as London Heathrow and as mundane as Thunder Bay International watching planes. Family trips to airshows. Visiting the Air and Space Museum instead of going to Disneyworld. I did all these things. Yet the more I learned about planes the more anxious I became. The closest I think I ever got to being an actual “bad” flier was in 2011. I vividly remember white-knuckling a turbulent flight from Calgary to Toronto as an electrical storm raged off in the distance. I detest turbulence; in fact, this morning’s 5:35 puddle-hopper from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg was so rough I almost threw up on the connecting flight (and vomiting in the washroom of a CRJ-705 would be a feat, lemme tell ya). Prior to that, the takeoff of a flight from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires was so unbelievably rough that two things happened I’ve never experienced before or since: one, a deathly silence, a silence so thick you could feel it weighing you down, washed over the entire cabin; two, I very deliberately chose the album I wanted to be listening to when I died (Funeral by Arcade Fire, since you were wondering). In the event the plane obviously did not crash – obviously – but the experience left me shaken. Upon arrival in Buenos Aires half the cabin burst into tears. True story. (I didn’t cry; I did, however, exhale very, very deeply.)
Sam’s friend, who’s a flight attendant, compares turbulence to bumps on the road, and that’s all well and good…except that roads aren’t 30,000 feet above ground. That, I think, explains why so many people (upwards of 25%, apparently) are afraid to fly: it’s the ultimate relinquishing of control, and to a group of people you likely don’t know who operate a metallic cylinder that hurtles you from one part of the world to another. The next time you’re on an airplane spend a few minutes pondering exactly what you’re about to do. You’ll quickly come to the conclusion it’s both the greatest and the most ridiculous thing imaginable. Now add OCD into the mix. OCD loves uncertainty; conversely, OCD sufferers need certainty, which is a fancy way of saying we hate not being in control. My life often gets consumed by “what if?” type questions, which can be particularly problematic when they settle on things like…
What if an engine fails?
What if the landing gear won’t go down?
What if a wing rips off?
What if? What if? What if?
I understand that’s mostly irrational. Moreover, I understand logically that aviation’s the surest mode of transportation conceived by humans. For instance, according to the Am I Going Down? app, this morning’s Thunder Bay to Winnipeg flight has about a 1 in 4,903,351 chance of crashing; I can assure you the odds of dying in a car accident on Highway 17 are much better. But anxiety in general and OCD in particular thrive on uncertainty. I cannot be absolutely, 100% certain the plane’s wing won’t rip off, which means it absolutely, 100% certainly will happen. 1 in 4,903,351? So you’re telling me there’s a chance! My brain isn’t like this every time I fly. Just…some of the time.
As ever, habituation helps; ditto mini exposure sessions, which tend to revolve around the notion that yes, this feared thing absolutely will happen. Honestly, you’d never know I was an anxious flier by flying with me: I spend most flights with my nose buried in a book. But occasionally my mind wanders, and sometimes when that happens you’ll notice me quietly gripping the seat handle and gazing off into space. If you see me doing that, reign me in. Bring me back to the here and now. Honestly, flying’s still mostly thrilling to me. The split second during take-off when the plane’s wheels are still on the ground but its nose is in the air’s one of my favourite things about being alive. The challenge, with flying as with virtually every facet of my existence, is not letting my mind get in the way of things I love.