January 28, 2002 - Out of my Mind: No More Fear of Flying: An Aerophobe Reveals the Secret by Tunisia RPCV Jonathon Dobrer

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Tunisia: Peace Corps Tunisia : The Peace Corps in Tunisia: January 28, 2002 - Out of my Mind: No More Fear of Flying: An Aerophobe Reveals the Secret by Tunisia RPCV Jonathon Dobrer

By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, January 28, 2003 - 1:56 pm: Edit Post

No More Fear of Flying: An Aerophobe Reveals the Secret by Tunisia RPCV Jonathon Dobrer

No More Fear of Flying: An Aerophobe Reveals the Secret by Tunisia RPCV Jonathon Dobrer

No More Fear of Flying: An Aerophobe Reveals the Secret.

After six weeks of Peace Corps training, I showed up at the airport ready to board the plane for Tunisia. Well, that's not entirely true. I wasn't really ready. I still needed several stiff drinks and some drugs if there were to be any chance of my actually climbing into that tight tube of aluminum and strapping myself to a seat. Shelly Berman's words kept echoing in my head. 'You strap yourself in, so that you won't fall out if the plane makes a sudden stop--like against a mountain.'

The group's shrink, Harry, is trying to talk me into boarding and I'm being resistant--bordering on truculent.
'But Jon,' he says, 'that's not a plane.'
'Looks like a 707 to me Harry,' I reply tersely.
'Jon, it's more than a 707; it's a symbol.'
'Phallic?' I respond.
'Don't be smart. If you don't get on that plane, some day you'll regret it. Maybe not today or tomorrow but some day and always.'
'Harry, Harry, one more word and you'll be sued by the owners of Casablanca,' I warn, as he, being in touch with his feelings, begins to cry. Feeling bad for him, I put an arm around him in a manly and comforting way and say, 'It's not your fault. I'm a tough nut. Not even Freud could have talked me on board.'

I spend the night in New York, and the next morning book the old Queen Mary to Cherbourg. All my luggage already on its way to Tunisia, I make a quick pit stop at Saks 5th Avenue and buy some slacks, a sports coat, a couple of ties and a pair of shoes, then go directly to the ship.

After a pleasant crossing, a couple of days in Paris, and a train to Marseilles to catch the ferry, I arrive in Tunisia and park my hindquarters at the Peace Corps' headquarters. Not knowing what else to do, the director sends me to the Corps' Doctor.

Jerry, who would later become my close friend, asks a very simple question: 'If a bunch of angry Libyans were to invade and we had to evacuate you, would you get on board?' To which I replied, 'Jerry, I'm neurotic but I'm not crazy. I'd trample you to get on the plane, helicopter, auto-gyro or hang-glider.' That settled, I went to my village and spent two very nice years.

Flash forward about four years. I'm living in Berkeley, going to Grad. School and am invited by very dear friends to the Bris of their first son. A Bris is the Jewish ritual circumcision, and I decide that considering what this poor baby is going to go through, my fear of flying is really small stuff. I book the flight. I board the plane. I strap myself in, and, as the plane begins to move, I un-strap myself, stand up, and walk to the door, demanding to be let out. I'm told that this is impossible, 'as it would delay the flight and inconvenience the other passengers.'

I assure them that it won't cause a quarter of the delay that my screaming 'Balm!' would, and that I was quite prepared to do exactly that. Yes, I was ready to recite the biblical passage that asks, 'Is there no rest for the weary, no BALM! in Gilead?' I'm hoping that if I have to do this, I won't be arrested and prosecuted. It can't, after all, be against the law to pray. Using words with which I disci'plined my infant son, I explained that we could do this 'the easy way or the hard way.' It was up to them. The plane reversed itself and pulled up to the gate. I got off and went home.

This was not a victory for me but a terrible defeat. I no longer enjoyed my neurosis and phobia. I thought back, trying to identify its genesis. Was it all those documentaries from World War II with planes being shot down in flames and falling to earth or into the sea? Could I blame this on my mother's fear of flying, or the reports of terrible and bumpy flights from other family members? Might it not be my own experience when returning from Catalina to a then uncontrolled airport, when the pilot had to pull up quickly to avoid another plane on the runway and forgot to retract the landing gear? I remembered clearly the plane fighting to climb and the death-rattle of our stall.

Or was it just possible that being pushed out of an airplane at about 6000 feet played some roll in this? Now it's true that I had a parachute, and it did deploy but it was not a pleasant experience. That I was there in the open door of some single engine Piper Cub was clearly my fault and the fault of my 15 year old male hormones.

The mother of a girl I fancied owned a Sky Diving Club and she, my potential girl friend, suggested that I go take a leap. At the time this seemed like an invitation. In retrospect, it could have had another meaning but at fifteen with hormones raging, lust conquered fear, and I responded, 'Sure Baby, I'm afraid of nothing.' Maybe that was true but hanging from a wing strut a mile above a very unforgiving dessert floor with only a bag of laundry strapped to my back, was not precisely, 'nothing.'

The pilot feathered the engine. The instructor told me to just release the strut and fall backwards. 'Right,' I thought. 'Who's going to make me?', I queried somewhat belligerently. The answer came Diabulus Ex Machina, as my soon to be former buddy, gave me a big push. Back I fell. No, my life didn't flash before my eyes. I didn't have enough life to fill the infinite amount of time it took for my parachute to open. My heart seemed to stop, and an eternity passed before I was jolted out of my paralysis by the opening of the chute. This served not only to restart my heart but also to change my paralysis to terror. This did not seem like much of an improvement.

From all these experiences, I've come to believe that most of us do not, in fact, have a fear of flying. We have a fear of falling, of crashing, of frying and of dying . And all those rational statistics won't help. No amount of repeating that 'you're safer in the plane than driving to the airport' will assuage us. No theory of the physics of flying will rid us of the terrible certainty that air cannot support anything as big as a jumbo jet. Learning that the air does not support the plane under the wings but instead, it's the curve of the wing that is causing the air to rush over and under at different speeds and thus is actually lifting the plane with a vacuum, is so wretchedly counter-intuitive as to be no damn comfort at all.

Still uncomforted by reason or physics, today I fly. I fly all over the place. In the past five years, I've flown from L.A. to Vancouver and back twice. I've flown to and from Europe three times; back and forth to Chicago, New Orleans, Florida, and Albuquerque; and many times to San Francisco. Hell, I've even flown Air Mexico! What has made this remarkable change in me? It's really very simple: My wife.

When we became engaged, she let me know that she was flying to Europe for our Honeymoon and that if I wanted to join her, it would be a very good idea if I got on the plane. I was terrified and told her that I might shake and tremble, sweat and need to hold her hand, not like a lover but a frightened baby. I asked her if my being a frightened wuss would make her respect me any less. She replied with one of those damned ambiguous phrases which I seem to attract, 'Honey, I couldn't possibly respect you any less.'

So, when the time came, not precisely stoned but somewhat, let's say, 'medicated,' I climbed aboard the Air France jumbo jet, walked, what seemed like the last mile, down the crowded aisle, and strapped myself in. For a little Cesna or Piper, it's at least imaginable that it could get off the ground. But I still couldn't imagine how this aluminum monster could possible fly. Hearing the excited Flight Attendants bubble that Pavorotti was in first class did not exactly reduce my anxiety.

We taxied out to the waiting line, and then the engines began their roar. Grasping my new wife's hand Very Tightly! I turned and kissed her and told her how much I loved her. Maintaining my grip, physically if not emotionally, I closed my eyes and counted the seconds till the wheels left the ground. For some five minutes, my eyes remained shut, my heart pounded out of my chest, and I moaned, squeezed her, now bruised, hand, and squeaked every time there was a bump, a change of engine sound or a steep turn. Then I was fine.

During that trip and on every subsequent trip, I have no problems while we are at cruising altitude. I enjoy the movies, listen to the music, read, and talk like a normal human being. As time has gone by, my anxiety has narrowed. It has gone from days before the flight to just the time of the take-off. I still count the seconds and know that small jets take around 18 to 20 seconds and the jumbos about 30 seconds till rotation and lift off. This little game gives me the illusion of control, and it's enough. Now I look out the windows and even almost enjoy the landings. I keep track of the flaps as they're extended, the landing gear being lowered, and that final flare just before we touch down.

Now, I no longer have the terrible fear of being afraid. My wife accepted my fear of being an unmanly wuss. She gave me permission to be real. Now, thanks to her, I even fly alone.

That then is the secret. No, not marrying my wife. I'm not that generous, and she would probably resist nursing another twitching neurotic through the process. The real secret is asking for permission, mainly from yourself, to feel the fear and accept that it's OK to be afraid. It's the fear of being afraid that's paralyzing and not the fear itself.

Look at it this way: All the other people are the truly crazy ones, living in denial. It is not normal to sit in a seat at 35,000 feet and watch a movie. It's not normal not to have anxiety when flying in a huge, heavy, and ridiculously complicated piece of technology--All manufactured by the lowest bidders and assembled by the same people, and in the same way, as our cars.

But this is not rational stuff. That's why it's called a PHOBIA! Just go with the fear. Invite it in, and don't try to resist or deny. Eventually, if you're normal--better change that to--If you're a normal neurotic, you'll become bored by the fear, rather than terrified. You may never become a happy flyer but you can get on board and open up your world. It all begins with acceptance, acceptance of yourself and of your fear. It is also true that having an understanding mate, partner, and friend, doesn't hurt a bit.

By Peggy DoBreer on Wednesday, August 20, 2003 - 11:27 am: Edit Post

My latest phobia is publishing. After seven years of research and writing to complete a manuscript, it seems like it will take at least that long to figure out how to proceed.

The thought of mounting one of those camels at the top of the page, creates a little dread in me as well.

I like the article. I didn't know you were in the Peace Corps.

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