A few years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, I became an easily panicked airplane passenger. I'm not sure what specifically brought it on, but one spring day in 2013, on a 50 minute flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles -- one I'd taken dozens, if not hundreds, of times before, without ever having a problem -- I found myself hyperventilating during takeoff, then gripping my armrests through the light bumps of turbulence, utterly convinced we were going to crash. The smiling flight attendants and very standard pilot announcements from the cockpit, letting us know it was just some normal air pockets, nothing to worry about, but we should keep our seat belts fastened, did nothing to soothe my catastrophizing mind.
Overhearing the whimpers I was attempting to stifle, the woman sitting in front of me turned around and gently offered her hand to squeeze, and a Xanax. I accepted both, and felt slightly better as the drug took affect, but I was embarrassed, and the chemically-induced fog stayed with me for longer than I liked. I knew I needed to find a better solution.
On subsequent flights, I tried box breathing, meditation, valerian root, and an app with a recording that is supposed to calm you down, all without success. Not only was it upsetting to feel so afraid of plummeting to my death for the duration of my flight, it was also humiliating to lose it in front of strangers with the misfortune of sitting next to me. Every time I booked a flight, no matter how happy I was to be heading to the destination, the days leading up to my departure were filled with dread.
Then, on an early morning flight to New York last winter, I took my seat next to an older woman in a bright orange skirt suit, full makeup, her nails jewel-toned talons.
"Good morning! Are you headed to New York for work or pleasure? Me, I'm going to see my daughter and her family. They live in Brooklyn."
"Work," I responded, as it became clear to me that this woman was going to want to talk. She pulled out her iPhone, and showed me photos of her daughter and grandchildren. I did my best to appear calm as it hit me that I was going to have to handle her chatter in addition to my usual fear of flying. I tried to simultaneously breathe and nod at her blather about her daughter's job, what their plans for the week were, and how the weather back east would be.
As the plane took off and hit a few air pockets, I felt the usual drop in my stomach and feelings of unease. The woman paused her story when she noticed I was clenching the ends of the armrests, and holding my breath.
"Oh sweetie, are you scared?"
"Sorry, I just have a hard time with flying," I whispered. I just wanted to get through this--the last thing I wanted was to have a conversation with this stranger about it.
"Listen, the way I see it," she told me, "if this plane is going down, holding onto your armrests isn't going to save you. There's literally nothing you can do about it. Besides, when it's your time, it's your time. "
As she went back to talking about her plans with daughter, I played her words back in my head. As callous as her advice had sounded, she hit on something I had somehow missed: there was, in fact nothing I could do. Because, as crazy as it sounds, I realized in that moment that, on some level, I had believed my fretting about crashing to be way of taking action and control. Just as I believed the worrying I did back on the ground was. Holding my breath, gripping the seat, curling into myself -- part of me believed it was actually making me safer.
As she continued talking, I made the choice to unclench my body and relax in my seat, leaning into the bumps of the plane turbulence, repeating to myself, there is nothing I can do. And the most amazing thing happened: I actually started to feel better. My breathing steadied, my pounding heart slowed. Suddenly the self-imposed burden of keeping the plane in the air with my mind was lifted.
The woman kept up her chatter until I found a moment during a brief pause to politely tell her I was going to listen to some music on my phone. She nodded, and I slipped my headphones in my ears, and turned on Sam Cooke. The plane continued to shake with turbulence, but still, I felt myself surrender. Because even though i was hurtling above the earth in what was basically a very aerodynamic canoe with wings, I wasn't in charge of any of it.