How I Accidentally Cured My Fear of Flying

Landing on an alcohol-and-drug-free method for taking off.

Beginning with a trans-Atlantic flight to Africa in 1986 and ending with an Indian-ocean crossing in 2015, I held tightly to the staunch position of “nervous wreck” while hurdling through time and space.

Despite my near-paralyzing fear in those years, I managed to circumnavigate the globe a half dozen times. How? Ativan, alcohol and — above all else — the unshakable desire to be elsewhere.

Yet even with the means and the mania to travel, as well as the meds, I still shuddered at the slightest hint of turbulence. On every flight, I’d stare out the window for any potentially bump-inducing weather. Whenever I spied a menacing Cumulonimbus cloud, I tried to prepare myself for impending discomfort by grabbing onto the seat in front of me.

I interpeted every “choppy air” warning from the cockpit as a reason to chug a mini-bottle (or two or three or four) of booze. Never thinking that I was more apt to pass out in the aisle than fall out of the sky.

I once had the opportunity to ask a Boeing engineer how a plane stays up when the wind seems to be pushing the huge tin contraption down. He tried to soothe me with the following statement: Turbulence may be a problem for you, but it’s not a problem for the plane.

I argued with him a little — reluctant to let go of my fear. After all, it gave me an excuse to drink alcohol and take Ativan. A way to stay high at 36,000 feet.

Until the day I dreaded the most arrived.

No, I wasn’t in a plane crash. Not even close. In fact, by this time, I’d flown hundreds of thousands of miles over the course of 30 years with nary an incident other than bouncy air (particularly unpleasant over the Himalayas) and extended ground delays (particularly long while waiting out Arabian dust storms).

So what changed?

Me.

In an effort to live longer on land, I decided it was time to give up drinking. I figured that I’d probably have to give up flying too. How on Earth could I go up in the air without being under the influence of alcohol? I’d also run out of the anti-anxiety pills prescribed by my doctor.

But I refused to be grounded. Besides, I was in Abu Dhabi with plane ticket to the Seychelles departing in a matter of days. My desire to travel proved greater than my fear of flying.

So up I went on without the aid of my panaceas. Into the wild blue yonder. Over the Indian Ocean. Skirting around Yemeni airspace — which the captain said was closed due to the war being waged below.

That’s when it hit me.

The skies are a living and breathing thing, like human beings. There will always be turbulence up here. It’s to be expected, not feared. And no amount of alcohol or ativan will keep the plane from bouncing around.

Besides, there is a far more sobering reality with which to contend— those real life horrors that the ground has to offer.