Flying High Again, Substance Free(ish)

By now, most friends and family know there are few things I enjoy less than flying. Yet, here I am in France, and I didn’t take a weeks-long cruise to get here. As of a week ago, I still would have preferred a root canal to flying, but a new program and a supportive partner have me feeling more confident than I have in years.

The backstory: For a few years, I had the problem managed with a mixture of Ativan and alcohol. It’s not a great way to go through life, but it seemed to work until last summer, when Erin and I had to make several long-distance trips. (I’m fine during takeoff and landing. It’s the rest of the time I flip out. That means the longer the flight, the worse it gets.)

What changed? I think it’s that my irrational fear of death would now also involve Erin, since she would be with me on all those trips, and thus also facing certain doom. In the weeks leading up to our trip to Kauai, my mind would flood with images of Erin and I, teary eyed and clutching hands as our flying coffin shuddered, lurched and broke apart at 35,000 feet, sending us into the cold embrace of the Pacific Ocean.

To get through the three-leg trip, I consumed a lot. That day also featured a near breakdown at LAX as everything was wearing off. I reloaded and averted a crisis. For Erin, though, it means flying with this:

This movie was NOT exaggerating.

As patient as she is, it’s no fun to be a babysitter. She suggested we find an alternative. I’m ready to listen when the wheels came off on the overnight flight back. An over-the-counter sleep aide was rendered useless, turning me into a drowsy, hyper-adrenaline-fueled puddle. After more pills and booze, I returned to Earth, but felt powerless and defeated.

Enter the SOAR Program. Founded by Tom Bunn, a 30-year commercial pilot and licensed therapist, the program is a combination of rational facts and mental strengthening exercises designed to keep you in the present instead of trapped in the movies you make in your head.

Captain Tom: chill ass dude who wants you to know you are more likely to die in your sleep than on a plane.

Our purchase included several DVDs and phone counseling sessions with “Captain Tom.” The most important things (that everyone else already knows):

  • Airlines are filled with highly trained professionals who know what they’re doing. They don’t want to kill you, and they also want to get home to their families.
  • Modern passenger jets are highly sophisticated machines. Every system has a backup.
  • Safety hazards (turbulence, lightning, etc.) aren’t really hazards to pilots. As in most situations in life, facts are your friends.
  • Everytime a cable news channel says “ERMAHGERD ARE WE ALL GONNA START DYING ON PLANES?!?!?!?!?!” you should remember that this is the safest period in human history to be flying.

Anyway, if you want to read more about it, you can. The SOAR website also features a great community message board for people to share tips and success stories.

Fast forward to last weekend. After spending several hours going through my exercises, I’m feeling alright, but the anticipatory anxiety is lurking just below the surface. Six hours to Reykjavik is a long way. So I pack the Ativan but don’t take any, and Erin and I unwind at Surdyk’s Flights with some cocktails. Just two, though. Not five. Enough to join Erin in thinking more about the next year than whether I’m going to die before the sun comes up.

A recommendation Captain Tom makes is to ask to meet the pilot. So we do. Rather, Erin asks for me, because I’m embarrassed. Everyone, the gate agents, flight attendants and pilots could not have been nicer. Our Icelandair pilots showed me their weather data and pointed out (correctly) where we would experience turbulence. When we hit that turbulence, I thought about my new friends up front being calm and in control of the situation. If I couldn’t be in control of the situation, then I’m happy they were.

Additionally, the strengthening exercises (mainly associating the parts of flying with great, calming moments in your life) really do kick in automatically after you do the training enough. While Erin snoozed, I did not lose my shit as we bumped away while crossing the jet stream. I waited to use the bathroom until it was over, but still a victory. As we descended into Reykjavik, Dana the flight attendant — who checked on me throughout the flight — tapped me on the shoulder with a smile and a “you survived!”

Now, the rest of Europe awaits, and train tickets are often not cheap. That means Ryanair and EasyJet are likely to become frequent travel options. I’m ready.


4 thoughts on “Flying High Again, Substance Free(ish)

  1. Amy Wasson

    Hooray for you, Andy! That is a HUGE deal to overcome. Thank you for sharing this very personal story. The things we do for love . . . . 🙂


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