Fear, Flying, Cooking and Soaring

A few months ago, at a friend’s suggestion, I downloaded an online course called SOAR to cure my fear of flying. The teacher, a seasoned pilot named Captain Tom, talks his students through all the reasons we may be scared to fly and gives us facts and insights to gently debunk each of them. He goes into the psychology of fear. He touches on mindfulness and the power of compassion, and breathing. Captain Tom is my ideal teacher.

I’m partially through the webinar and I’ve made some progress. I can identify when the V1 and V2 velocity shifts happen (yes, that was me throwing in some airplane jargon). And I know that when the plane slows down and my stomach sinks, it’s a courtesy to the neighboring homes below, not because there’s something wrong with the plane.

I know that five dings doesn’t mean “WE’RE GOING DOWN.” It’s more likely that the pilot wants a glass of water.

With knowledge, the saying goes, comes power. And the point of power, I have come to believe, is freedom. While I’m not completely over my fear yet, I’m hoping to ultimately feel the freedom to fly to places I long to visit. I don’t want to stay home anymore because I’m anxious about what is arguably the safest part of the journey. If I dig a bit deeper, there’s also a subtler freedom at work. Even if I never go anywhere, I am shifting my perception of myself from “nervous flyer” to “nervous flyer in recovery.” And that feels good.

In one of Captain Tom’s recent lessons, I learned that the average age when flying becomes “problematic” for people is twenty-seven. According to Captain Tom, “Sometimes there has been a bad flight. But sometimes difficulty starts for no apparent reason. It is my view that, at around twenty-seven, something catches up with us.”

In my case, I was a decade younger than twenty-seven when I developed my fear of flying, but then again, I was younger when that “something” caught up with me. Looking back, I see myself as one of those Wes Anderson children. Big eyes, serious expression, deep in my fantasy doll-house world. I took everything seriously. I felt things so deeply that it made me physically uncomfortable. Maybe I wasn’t all that unusual, but it sure felt like I was an anomaly when everyone else around me seemed to be easily, breezily having fun. I can remember in high school when all of my friends would be zooming down roller-coasters at the amusement park and I’d linger at the whack-a-mole game. Maybe this was when the “difficulty” started.

I wondered what was wrong with them all for loving that adrenaline rush so much. A bigger part of me wondered what was wrong with me that I didn’t.

I remember elementary school Sunday nights being so nervous about school the next day and questioning how anybody ever slept peacefully. Over the years, I learned to hide it well, and eventually I self-helped enough to understand that the burden of sensitivity is what drove me to be a “Nurturer,” a protective friend and a sympathetic mother. It’s also what inspired me to open a school to teach people how to cook.

Because just as I decided in my teens that I wasn’t a good flyer, I knew I was a good cook. I probably wasn’t even all that good, but I believed I was and that’s the relevant point. Cooking was calming and meditative. I fed people. I created an environment that smelled and felt and tasted good. It’s not earth-shattering that I continued to grow in the activity that made me feel comfortable and competent and avoided the thing that gave me anxiety for the next twenty years. Like a cross-country skiing path, the grooves just got deeper on the cooking path and more and more snow fell on the flying part.

I did not become a professional chef, but I did grow into an excellent home cook and a very solid teacher. I opened a cooking school for people who have felt about cooking the way I feel about flying. Just like the way I’m learning what all the noises and movements are (the technical stuff) so that soon I won’t think of myself as a nervous flyer, I teach technique and skills so that my students start to think of themselves as cooks. I hope that they will navigate the kitchen with competence and at ease just as I will one day when I’m on a plane. I want my students to season according to their tastes, so that they learn to trust their palates, not mine. Just as I’m trying to get back to the place before I was scared, I’m trying to guide my students back to when they loved playing with food. I’ll be able to take the trips I dream about. They’ll be able to fulfill their own cravings and enjoy food again.

Captain Tom talks about the moment in our lives when we decide what we can do and what we can’t do. When that “something catches up with us,” we often manage it by attaching to a fixed notion of an identity. We decide who we are.

If we think about it, our identity is essentially a construction of ourselves that we create to make us feel secure. If we know who we are and what defines us, it gives us a solid scaffold to build our lives on. But as we grow up, we forget that we’ve built the scaffold.

We get stuck to the cans and the can’ts and the shoulds and the shouldn’ts, because, ironically, they give us certainty and comfort. Sometimes, we decide later in life to let go and see if we’re okay stepping outside of the identity scaffold, and trust me, it’s hard work. I think that’s what Gloria Steinem means when she writes about her quest to be the person she was at six years old. Before my Wes Anderson self, I was a confident, carefree and unhampered little girl. I wore tutus on the street and twirled my way through life. I wasn’t scared to fly. I wasn’t scared of roller coasters. I woke up with a skip and slept like a rock. And it wasn’t because I didn’t know there were a lot of things in the world to be scared of. It can’t be reduced to youth or naiveté. Captain Tom’s “difficulty” started. That intangible “something” caught up with me and I’m still trying to figure out what it was.

I’ve heard a therapist say that phobias are never really about the thing. They’re about a feeling of fear that is easier to manage when it’s connected to something concrete. Like snakes. Or elevators. When our internal radars are set to perhaps a finer calibration (like mine was) and our fight or flight impulse is a bit over-responsive, phobias give us a place to contain that. I avoided flying for twenty-five years because I assumed it was going to scare me, simply because it had for so long.

Flying scares me because of past patterns and misconceptions, not because I actually believe it’s likely that I’ll plunge tragically 30,000 feet.

The reason I started with Captain Tom is that I can’t feel whole walking around calibrated too tightly and frankly, it’s exhausting. Plus, I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m missing out on the life that the six year old me could have had, had I not made myself and my world smaller. And when I categorically decide that I don’t do something, or worse, that I can’t do something, isn’t that debilitating on top of being so very limiting?

My friend who suggested SOAR said it succinctly the other evening at dinner: “You just want to know you can.” That’s all really. I want to know I will not hold myself back because I assume anything about myself. Those are old patterns and old small feelings and I will continue to fight them. It may be overly ambitious to think I’ll ever become one of those people who just love the whirring of the plane and the view from the clouds. But simply the idea that I am not holding myself back anymore is worth the price of the download and my time. Maybe in a year or two I’ll actually enjoy the ride? Maybe I’ll be able to sleep on board without the help of a Clonopin and a bloody Mary? That would be icing on the cake.

There is something empowering about going out of those deep tracks onto the fresh, downy snow of the stuff that makes us nervous and shaky. Doing the stuff I’ve always avoided is a gesture of rebellion against the little voice in my head saying, “You can’t. You’re small. Leave that to the people who aren’t afraid.” I like to think every time I step onto new snow I’m chipping away at the wall between me and six-year-old me. I’m building a new scaffold. Or maybe I don’t need a scaffold at all. Maybe I’m just soaring.

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