02/08/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Why I'm Afraid to Fly

I hate to fly. Well, more accurately, I hate the idea of being 30,000 feet in the air. But it wasn't always that way. I was admittedly a latecomer to the game of aviation. I took my first uneventful flight at the age of 23 to move from Texas to New York City. This was a few years before 9/11 when security measures were about as lax as the dress code for Southwest Airlines. Headed to Newark on a direct flight, (Note: Not the most glamorous introduction to Manhattan.) everyone in my immediate seat vicinity thought it was adorable that I had never flown, not unlike having encountered an American-born Balkie. And the comparison probably wasn't a stretch. Although I went to college in Austin, I grew up in a small rural town in Texas where summer wasn't a verb, but "fixin' to" was. More specifically, flying was considered a luxury or something you did only when a long-distance relative died -- a relative you really, really loved. Not long after my first take off, the rumor of my novice flyer status had begun to spread throughout the cabin, and people began making their way down the aisle to gawk at the full-grown adult who had never been above tree level. Watching me struggle to lower my food tray, a French-Canadian man seated next to me decided to take custody of his primitive flying partner, showing me the way to the bathroom and then congratulating me after I successfully burst out of the accordion-like door. A few hours later as we made our descent, I peered out the window and marveled to him about the glistening lights below. "Yes," he said, dotted in a French accent, "Thoz are zee refineries." We had a smooth enough landing inexplicably followed by claps and cheers from fellow passengers. This has happened on a few occasions since, and it still catches me off guard. To me, celebrating generally means you've overcome or achieved something, and at the time, I couldn't help but wonder if I was naive to have expected we should all arrive alive. As we deplaned, my air Sherpa and a gang of other well-meaning passengers accompanied their personal Minnie Pearl to the luggage carousel, probably fearing I would end up bagless and my organs harvested by the time I reached the cab stand. But with my first flight behind me (and pancreas intact), I made it to New York without incident. And it was the same for countless flights for years after that one.

So why all the drama, literally, out of the clear blue sky? Your guess is as good as mine. Although fairly risk adverse, I'm not a particularly anxious person. I think my fear started creeping in a few years after 9/11, but I don't think it's associated. But at some point, I began to notice we were really freakin' high in the air, and it began to give me cause for concern. Take offs are the worst for me. The buzzing noise and the unsteady climb only emphasize that a giant machine held together with rivets is in charge of whether my clothing and I are reunited in one piece. Often when I'm packing, I feel like I'm sentencing each item to my own potential doom and feel slightly guilty. I'm sorry, I silently lament to the wrap dress and wedges that probably won't end up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Probably.

While other passengers are happily snacking and enjoying horrible sitcoms, I'm looking around at my fellow passengers and checking the wing for mischief-making gremlins. You would think others' calm would clue me in that there is nothing to fear. But given my paranoia -- and the fact that many are actually enjoying said sitcoms -- I simply assume everyone else is an idiot. When the standard safety instructions are reviewed for securing oxygen masks, for me, they might as well be calm procedures for managing a potential nervous breakdown. On the occasion we fly together, I silently pity my eight-year-old for being assigned to me as her sole source of oxygen in case of an emergency. I'd like to assume I'd be able to think clearly and follow instruction, but a part of me knows damn good and well she's better off pairing up with a perfect stranger. I know this because I had the theory tested on a Ferris wheel a few years ago. When she was three, my daughter, my husband, another couple and I put good judgment aside and boarded a six-person car on a double Ferris wheel at a local aquarium. You would think my fear of heights or the texting teen operator would have alerted me that this was a bad idea, but I slid in beside my family anyway -- not unlike the jerk who picks up the mysterious hitchhiker or inexplicably feels the need to shower when there is a murderer on the loose. The walls of the open viewing car were high enough that there were no seat belts. As we reached a height of 20 stories, a small entrance door left ajar (see feckless teen) caught the rotating arm of the Ferris wheel, docking our car in one position. So as the wheel moved, our car remained rigid and began to slowly tilt to one side. At first, we laughed nervously, but within moments, we were all scrambling against gravity gripping in vain at the smooth surfaced seats with nothing to secure us. As we reached enough angle to dump us, the plastic door snapped off under the pressure, freeing our car to jostle violently above the city skyline. Luckily, my child just thought it was a delightful part of the ride, but as my husband recalled, "All I could think about was how was I going to grab you both and still keep us all inside." My plan was different, at least judging from how, at critical mass, I abandoned everyone and clung to the center pole like a stripper late on rent. And as my child later recounted, "Mama was screaming 'frog! frog! frog!' the whole time." Which is true because in the moment, I assumed we were all seriously frogged.

So just add a few thousand feet and a 100 or more passengers, and I think you have your answer of just who is her better safety advocate.

In fact, if you gave me the choice between a plane crash and being attacked by a shark, I'll take the shark every time. I can punch a shark. He might spit me out. Perhaps he'll be happy with just a limb and go about his day. But in a plane, once you're higher than a building, you have no chance. And don't get me started on the idea of everyone around me screaming and panicking as we meet combined fates. I can't even attend my child's annual school bingo night for aversion to such theatrics. As we climb higher, I began to fantasize about lying flat on sidewalks or putting my cheek firmly against a mound of perfectly packed dirt. I try to read magazines then the thought occurs to me, "What if I die reading People?" On the outside, I'm a pretty cool customer. But inside, I'm Sylvester the Cat wrapped like a shivering turban on the head of Porky Pig when they stay overnight at the haunted house. In a more illogical twist, once we reach climbing altitude, I'm fine. I don't care for bumps, but I can walk about the cabin or read with little fear of a plunging death. And I adore landing. Statistically, it's probably the most dangerous time during a flight, but the way I see it, we are closer and closer to living. Cue the claps and cheers.

Although I didn't allow my fear to limit how often I flew, it wasn't terribly convenient to feel my heart bursting out of my chest each time I wanted to travel any significant distance. A friend recommended Xanax, and I hedged. I'm a lightweight when it comes to medication. I'm even afraid of Tylenol P.M. for fear I'll wake up driving in just my panties or robbing a convenience store. Not to mention, I'm a bit of a control freak, having once challenged an anesthesiologist prior to a minor surgery on his ability to knock me out fully. (His laughter was the last thing I remember before waking in the recover unit.) But I was desperate. Prior my dosing, I declared, "Unless this pill makes me think I'm on the ground, it won't work." One pill and 20 minutes later, I was ready to fly the plane myself. But such artificial comfort comes with its own perils. For example, I am a security nightmare. If the dose kicks in too early, I clog up the checkpoints, my laptop abandoned at the X-ray machine while I walk away wearing someone else's shoes. My ticket has to be pinned to my clothing or I'll lose it -- and laugh it off while I amble off into the bookstore for a nap. Take your eyes off me for a moment, and I'll emerge from a gift shop bearing my weight in candy and wearing a gigantic novelty cowboy hat and a column of neck pillows atop my shoulders, like a polyester version of a South African neck ring. Once, in my stupor, I decided I could no longer tolerate the tag on my neck pillow and with a forceful yank, foam beads exploded all over fellow air travelers mortifying my husband and my child. My husband bought me another, and I proceeded to rip the tag again, leaving another trail of beads in my medicated wake. Thankfully, it is one useful tool for keeping up with me should I disappear. By the time we board, my husband is practically operating my limbs for me, like the puppet Madame after a martini lunch.

To manage some false sense of control, over the years, I've even cultivated a list of personal flying rules:

  • No small planes
  • No discount airlines
  • No connections if possible
  • No seats in the back
  • No planes where the interiors appear tattered
  • No airlines with dumb names (i.e. "FunJet": I want my airline to be all business. There's nothing fun about this; "Spirit": Exactly what I'm trying not to be before landing safely; "Wizz": Enough said.)

On the other hand, I've always wanted to fly Virgin Airlines. I don't know what it is about Sir Richard Branson that inspires in me such confidence. He just seems too charming to be associated with a death spiral. And I guess any airline that can bother with providing passengers the option of purchasing fine art mid-air must truly have it together regarding basic plane maintenance. Contemporary works and free-floating black boxes just don't go together.

But thanks to the help of medication, I think I've conquered most of my flying demons. My next challenge? A friend has offered a private charter jet for an upcoming birthday celebration. This puts two rules in conflict: my small plane rule and my other rule of enjoying luxury travel. With refill waiting, I've tentatively agreed. And if I see any wing gremlins, I'll simply offer him Xanax, a candy bar and one of my neck pillows.