Other people’s words about … the fear of flying
Recently, I spent a weekend in Perth, Western Australia, celebrating a friend’s fiftieth birthday.
Read that sentence again. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? I hopped onto a plane in Adelaide on Friday afternoon, and arrived in Perth two hours later; I rented a small, sunlit apartment in West Perth for two nights; and then late on Sunday afternoon, I hopped onto another plane and flew back to Adelaide. This is the kind of thing people do all the time, if they can afford to. It’s what people call a ‘holiday’, a ‘break’.
And this trip was both of those things, and for me, that seems a little like a miracle.
In my twenties, I spent over two years travelling and living overseas: waitressing in London, volunteering on an archaeology dig in Texas, working in a factory and then an ice cream shop in Germany, and, in my last year, teaching English in Cairo and Jakarta. I was a well-seasoned traveller by any standards. By that age, I had already had emetophobia — a fear of nausea and vomiting, which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before (here, for example) — for over fifteen years. It caused the odd anxiety attack, but nothing else. It certainly didn’t stop me from my travels.
But then, in my late thirties, something happened. Something — some edifice of bravery or stability or spontaneity inside of me — crumbled. For some reason, I began to feel queasy and nauseated more often, and so, because of the emetophobia, I began to feel anxious more often. The sickness and the anxiety always accompanied each other: sometimes it was hard to tell which came first. (This is the emetophobe’s eternal dilemma: Do I feel anxious because I am nauseous? Or do I feel I nauseous because I am anxious?)
My illness and anxiety seemed to be magnified when I travelled interstate or overseas. They became even worse if I was travelling in the company of people I loved, people I really wanted to travel with. I booked rash, non-refundable trips to visit my dearest friends who live interstate — Perth, New South Wales — and then cancelled my bookings, losing all the money I’d spent in the process. I planned holidays in Portugal and New York, with family, with friends, with people I loved, and then I cancelled those trips, too. I wanted to go on those trips, but I felt that I couldn’t.
In the end, I stopped going on holidays anywhere beyond the state borders of South Australia.
I just stopped.
Fear of holidays is a very strange fear to have. Adelaide author Elisa Black is one of the few people who understand it:
The anxiety during this trip was so intense that it is almost too much to remember, no matter how hard I try. I know I thought I was going crazy. I know I was exhausted …
Constant dread, that is what I felt … What I wanted was to not feel this way, to be normal, but if that wasn’t possible then I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe, where everything could be controlled …
from ‘The Anxiety Book‘
by Elisa Black
Those phrases: constant dread, and I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe. They say it all. For me, they speak to a form of social anxiety. For many years, I have been ashamed of my phobia. What is there to fear about vomiting? And so, when I get nauseous, and the nausea triggers my anxiety, I am also flooded with feelings of shame. I try to act ‘normally’ during the course of an attack of nausea, but my terror and my shame impair my performance. (Note that word, with all its implications: ‘performance’.)
What I long for when I am nauseous is to be alone. I long for some kind of sanctuary.
Fear of holidays and travel is one thing. But then, too, there’s the fear of flying.
Winter in Adelaide this year has been very stormy. We have had one of the rainiest winters ever recorded; we have had statewide power cuts; we have had floods. It is spring now, and yet winter still hovers and menaces. The night before I left for Perth, there was another storm, and when I went to walk my dog the following morning, I saw that branches from the pine trees that line the esplanade by the beach had come down, barring our path over the dunes.
It did not seem a very auspicious day for flying. All that wind! All that turbulence! I wondered — I truly wondered — if I could get on the plane and fly to Perth as I’d promised.
Oddly, I am not actually afraid of the act of flying itself: unlike many anxious fliers, I don’t fear plane crashes or hijacking. I once knew a woman who feared flying because she had a fear of sharks, but I don’t share this particular terror. My fear is, I think, more like a form of claustrophobia: it is a fear of becoming nauseated and thus anxious whilst I am trapped inside a machine, way up in the air, with no escape. I am not very good at staying still when I am anxious about being sick. I do not lie down, as most people do when they feel unwell: I go outside; I pace; I tremble; I sob melodramatically; I run away. I do not like to be witnessed or contained. An aeroplane is, unfortunately, the perfect vessel of witness and containment.
Scott Stossel shares my fear:
For instance, the fear of vomiting … makes me afraid of travel because I’m afraid I’ll vomit far from home. It makes me afraid of flying not for the conventional reason that I’m afraid that the plane will crash, although I also have that, but I’m afraid I’ll get motion sick and get nauseous … The horrible kind of self-fulfilling vicious cycle of emetophobia is that if you’re prone to acute anxiety and nervousness, as I am, it often manifests itself with stomach symptoms.
from an interview on NPR with Scott Stossel
author of ‘My Age of Anxiety‘
6 January 2014
At first glance, today’s post might seem to be all about fear. Yet here I am, back from a wonderful weekend in Perth, despite all my fears.
So what I am writing about today is, in fact, celebration. Forgive me if it seems solipsistic, but this is about me breaking a pattern. It’s about me, stepping onto a plane; me, flying; me, not getting ill while I was on holiday as I’d feared (though I did get anxious). It’s about me being able to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. It is about some part of me being restored after all these years: rebuilt. Not recovered, exactly: I am still emetophobic; I still have a funny tummy; I am still anxious; I still find recovery, from both illness and anxiety, a problematic concept.
Most of all, what I am writing about today is hope.
By the way, if you should ever choose to holiday in Perth, you must visit Kings Park, where most of the photos on today’s post were taken. It is a beautiful place: a kind of sanctuary, if you like. Take a picnic there with you, or a book; go for a wander with friends.
Enjoy your time there. Celebrate it. Allow yourself to feel restored.
And, wherever you are today, whatever you are doing right now, breathe. Smile. Wonder.