Some people grapple with their own mortality through meditation, or mountain climbing, or making a pilgrimage to some lost, crumbling temple full of monks. Some do it because they’ve just received a diagnosis of terminal illness or reached their 80th birthday. I just have to step onto a 737.
Flying was once something I looked forward to with glee—the ritual of handing the uniformed guards my passport, stuffing my bright purple backpack with books, pens and stacks of printer paper and maybe even being allowed to buy a bag of candy at an overpriced Hudson News store. I loved the kindly smiles of flight attendants; the tiny screen embedded in the seat in front, packed with three subpar movies; the anticipation of flying to a new place, where the people, roads and shapes of the treetops were different from home.
As a kid I never even remotely considered the dangers of air travel. But four years ago—as I’ve since learned, age 18 is when anxious dispositions most commonly manifest themselves—I became acutely, painfully, and uncontrollably aware of every single one of them. Instead of feeling like a contented guest in a hotel, I felt trapped inside a hollow metal tube, whose every shudder, buzz or whir set off alarm bells in my brain. My father’s claustrophobia, dormant in my genes, suddenly sprang to life and I became more aware of the air itself, rushing in and out of my nose; of my airways, which often felt as though they were closing up; and of every miniscule change in altitude as we rumbled through the open sky. I began to, and often still feel, a sense of pure aloneness and isolation from earth, out of control and petrified without my feet on solid ground.
The logical part of me knows this is absurd. I readily acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all when, in the midst of rising panic, I look from side to side and see a man in a football jersey, crunching his pretzels and swiping at Angry Birds his iPad, or an elderly woman sleeping, mouth agape, with her shoes taken off and tucked neatly under the seat in front of her.
And yet I grip the armrests, unable to decide whether to stare at the safety card in the seat pocket or close my eyes and become even more aware of the fact that we are suspended thousands of feet above earth. I try to imagine the air ahead as an invisible freeway, but without fail the thoughts bubble up involuntarily as does the electric knot in my stomach. Was that sound normal? Is there an obstruction in the engine? Are the pilots paying attention? Every turn of the wings, every adjustment of the flaps and the ruptures in the air it causes becomes the beginning of a spiraling plummet to our doom. Every sound vibrates through my body, my limbs like a human tuning fork, shuddering, poised and ready to overreact.
As the terror rises I’ll often have melodramatic imaginings like scrawling a note to my family, or sending one last text message as we fall. I’ll imagine clutching the hand of the person next to me, exchanging a final moment of eye contact and empathy with my fellow humanity.
I’ve become better at soothing myself when these thoughts arise. I know they’ll disappear the moment our wheels touch the runway (providing the brakes don’t fail and we simply hurtle down the concrete, engines roaring, until we crash into a plane, tree, human, or large body of water. The possibilities are endless.) But still, flying remains the ultimate showdown between emotion and reason. My frantic, senseless imagining of an imminent, fiery death facing off with that calm, analytical voice who understands the existence of the laws governing energy and matter, and the statistics of air travel.
These days I’m usually able to keep myself in a state of semi-controlled fear. But sometimes, when the terror grows large enough, reason simply loses patience with anxiety. “OK, so what if we do go down in flames? You can sit here worrying about it and feeling miserable, or you can enjoy every last second of your life. It’s out of your hands, so might as well enjoy every moment on this goddamn plane.”
I can acutely remember when this last happened, somewhere over Northern Florida this past January. As I stared out of the window at the wing (which was shuddering a little too much, if you asked me), and the patchwork of fields below, something clicked. My breathing settled. My senses seemed to expand, my hyper-aware body drinking in every sensation. I felt overcome by marvel and wonder at the fact that we were hurtling through the air on synthetic wings, over a magnificent, expansive landscape, on a planet that is merely a pinprick in a vast universe. I reveled in every sensory fiber, cell and neuron in my being that allowed me to feel the seat beneath me and the breath in my throat. A sudden calmness and joy washed over me, and, for just a few seconds, all fear dissolved. It was transcendent. Is this what it’s like to no longer fear death?
Like many Americans, I’ve been prescribed anti-anxiety meds for my so-called ailment—chemical aids that dull the senses and slow the brain. I carry a few of the yellow pills in my bag whenever I fly, but so far, I’ve decided not to use them. Something about the extreme fear response heightens our sensitivity not just to the possibility of death, but also the brimming energies of life.