Meltdown at 38,000 Feet

The problem isn’t turbulence. The problem is existential dread.

It’s 4 a.m., and I’m lying on the floor of the aft galley on a Boeing 737 headed for Mexico City. The cabin is dark, most of the passengers asleep. But back here in the service area behind the toilets, in a cold corner between the exit door and docked beverage cart, there’s enough fluorescent light to spot crumbs and tiny liquid stains on the floor a few inches from my face.

I’m not worried about germs, or how I must look to the man who just stumbled into the restroom, noting my presence with sleepy confusion. I’m concerned only with staying conscious. To that end, I’m doing breathing exercises I learned from a workbook on panic attacks. Inhale through the nose for a count of 4, hold for 7, exhale through pursed lips for 8.

After 10 breaths, my racing heart begins to slow into the mid-aerobic range. After 20, I can almost feel the blood settling back to my core. The nausea subsides, the sweating stops, and the shivers begin: little flutters of the shoulders and arms, the last traces of a poltergeist leaving the body. When the shivers come, the worst is over.

A flight attendant approaches with a thin red airline blanket. She’s the same one who found me tilted forward in an aisle seat about to black out, frantically fanned me with the laminated safety card, then walked me back here and laid me flat.

She covers me. “Feeling a little better?”

“Yes, thank you so much.” She must be the nicest flight attendant on the planet.

I do more slow breathing, intermittently dozing in the exhaustion that follows an attack, until the captain says we’re starting our descent.

Taking off from Los Angeles, where I live; and from Pennsylvania, where my family lives.

I’ve had panic disorder since I was a teenager, so my attack on Aeromexico was no big surprise. Only about 2 percent of Americans experience regular panic attacks, but boarding a plane evens the field among the frightened: Somewhere between 17 and 25 percent of us are afraid to fly. For more than 6 percent, or about 20 million people, the anxiety constitutes a diagnosable phobia.

Flying isn’t my only fear, but there have been times when it was my worst. I’ve thrown up before leaving my house for a flight to London. I’ve thrown up upon landing in Rome. I’ve come close to fainting in first class, in coach, and even on the ground at Chicago O’Hare and Las Vegas McCarran. For a couple of years I avoided planes altogether.

Unfortunately, travel is one of my favorite things to do as well as part of my job. I can’t get to opposite coasts, foreign countries, or far-off islands without boarding a plane, and I’m not willing to sit home. So I haul my psychological baggage alongside my carry-on, straight down the jetway and onto the next big white speeding rocket of angst.

Rationally, I know all the boring statistics citing how much safer planes are than cars. But biologically, wouldn’t it be strange if we all took to the skies nonchalantly, given that our ancestors spent most of the past 7 million years traveling no faster than the speed of walking? The list of smart, gifted aviophobes—Aretha Franklin, Wes Anderson, Cher, and Lars Von Trier among many others—would attest so. Even iron-willed despot Joseph Stalin trembled at the thought of it.

Taking off from Toronto.

That’s because when it comes to anxiety, sensory input can quickly override cognitive data. And when a land-bound mammal attempts to fly, the senses can go haywire. Consider:

I enter an aluminum tube with almost no space to move, and the door is sealed shut. The 450,000-pound tube accelerates to 200 miles an hour, then lifts into the air, rising to a height of 38,000 feet. This aerodynamic riddle is something a layperson like me cannot fathom, yet it’s happening.

Outside, I see clouds below, and anyone who’s attended catechism or Sunday school knows what clouds below mean. They mean you’re dead. As my primitive brain registers such danger signals, my frontal lobe tries to focus on a Sudoku or the latest Will Ferrell comedy.

This mildly dissociative state is uncomfortable enough. What makes it almost unbearable is the knowledge that there’s no way out. The two strangers in the cockpit hold my life in their hands. To a lesser extent, so do my fellow passengers, a bunch I can only hope doesn’t include any psychopaths.

I am hurtling through space in a scientifically plausible but emotionally chaotic scenario: riddled with uncertainty, lacking any chance of escape, surrounded by others yet totally alone.

When you break it down, flying isn’t just the fastest method of transport. It’s a laboratory for measuring just how many primal terrors — confinement, heights, strangers, loss of control — can be layered on a sensitive psyche before it cracks.

Taking off from Reykjavik, Iceland.

As with most dread, reason lends a bit of comfort, but not much. Sure, the plane remains airborne based on predictable laws of physics, the survival instincts of the pilots work in everyone’s favor, and chances are small that a lunatic has slipped a weapon past security.

But a mind like mine returns instead to questions such as, “What if the terrorist is working on the inside? What if we hit wake turbulence? What if a bird flies into the engine? What if I just can’t keep it together?”

The more I try to mentally eliminate these theoretical catastrophes, the more I twist myself in knots. The argument “I am 100 percent safe!” fails in an airplane because it fails in general. From birth to death, I am never 100 percent safe. Statistically, flying does very little to change that. What it does quite well, however, is bring this truth to the fore.

I’ve listened to audio relaxation programs devised by pilots, recited new-age affirmations, sipped herbal teas and Chardonnay, and swallowed benzodiazepines (no, not all at the same time). I snap a lot of iPhone photos on takeoff to distract myself. Often these coping skills help; sometimes they don’t. No matter how many I employ, if I fall asleep on a plane, my defenses come down and I’m likely to awaken in a full-blown panic, as I did on the redeye to Mexico City.

Then there was the flight were something actually did go wrong — something outside my own neurology, I mean. Heading back from the New Orleans Jazz Festival to San Francisco, my friend and I were scattered in different rows because we’d booked our tickets separately. About 10 minutes after takeoff, the pilot came on to announce that our hydraulic system had failed.

Hydraulics control almost everything a plane does: climb, descend, bank, land, brake. He told us he’d switched over to the auxiliary system — “which seems to be working fine” — and needed to circle back to New Orleans immediately to land. But first he had to dump our fuel.

We circled for about 20 minutes as I watched a thick white trail of gas vaporize from a release valve in the wing. I tried to locate my friend but couldn’t see over the seats. People went quiet. A few passengers closed their eyes. The flight attendants did a quick scan of things and strapped in.

We weren’t very high to begin with, and as we got closer to the ground, the pilot clicked on and said, “We don’t expect any surprises here folks, but hold on.” He didn’t instruct us into the brace position, and I wondered if he’d skipped that step to save us from agony in our final moments. I was shaking, of course, but curiously focused. For once, my fear seemed justified, and more to the point, universally shared. I did what I saw others doing: pulled my seat belt tight, bowed my head, and prayed.

That’s what it comes down to. I can read the safety information, note the exits, and use every little trick in my toolbox. But in the end, I’m basically looking at a flap of thickly woven nylon and a few hastily repeated ancient words.

Taking off from Honolulu.

When I told my friend Jim about my strange sense of calm during the emergency landing, he said, “See? If something goes wrong, you’ll deal with it. You don’t need to deal with it before then.”

Maybe it was timing, but Jim’s words stuck with me. All I had to do was accept my lack of control and forestall thoughts of a disaster until it occurred. My cognitive cornerstone changed from the unprovable “Nothing bad will happen on this flight” to the very provable “Nothing bad is happening in this moment.”

Success! Well, kind of. I still had panic attacks after that. In fact, the Aeromexico debacle happened long after the New Orleans landing. But I keep traveling: to Europe, to the Caribbean, to the Pacific, hoping to work my way up to Africa, Asia, Australia. A few years ago, I made 14 cross-country flights in 18 months. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that my most intense panic attacks usually take place in my bed. I can’t escape fear. I can only practice sitting with it — or if necessary, lying down with it.

I buckle into my seat, stretch a little, take a few deep breaths, and remind myself that the people boarding the plane, as well as the ones who fly and repair it, are basically good. I’ve noticed that air travel does wonders for both my humility and my sense of a higher power, so as we speed down the runway, I’m not ashamed to toss in the Lord’s Prayer, a tried-and-true classic that covers all the bases including surrender, sustenance, deliverance from evil, and forgiveness, just in case.

These rituals accomplished, I move on to Sudoku and Will Ferrell and snapping photos out the window. Whenever my monkey brain seizes on a terrifying scenario, I don’t say, “That won’t happen.” I say, “I’ll deal with that if and when it happens.” This has turned out to be a solid mantra at any altitude.

Taking off from Miami.

I’ve spent entire flights in conversation with myself. Other times, the fear disperses like a fog after takeoff. Then I’m free to study the cotton candy clouds, or shorelines I’ve only seen on maps pulling into relief, a thrill not unlike meeting a celebrity you’ve only known in photos. And suddenly I’m enamored with everything I’d initially dreaded: the height, the speed, the strangers around me, the miles of thin air below.

It makes me wonder whether the sanguine people on board feel the same level of enchantment. It makes me suspect that fear may be the price of elation.