I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I became terrified of flying, but I can remember distinctly the first time my phobia turned our travel plans upside down. It was 12th March 2004, the day after the Madrid bombings. We were due to travel to Madrid for the weekend, looking forward to a long overdue catch-up with a friend, when we heard the news about the terrorist attack on the city. My husband, Tim, pragmatic as ever shrugged it off with the attitude that there was probably no safer time to visit. I meanwhile, still raw with the anxieties of being a first time mother, could only envisage a list of catastrophes that could befall us: catastrophes that inevitably included the plane crashing on the way.
I didn’t take the flight to Madrid. My husband spent a lovely weekend in the company of our friends whilst I stayed at home with our baby daughter, her shiny new passport filed away for use at a later date. I had no idea at the time that the events of that week would trigger an ongoing battle with aerophobia that I still struggle with to this day. Madrid was just the first in a series of cancelled plans, logistical trials and lots of wasted money.
Aerophobia, like any phobia can present varying problems: practical, physical and psychological. Ask any of the millions of sufferers in the UK alone (statistics show that up to one in five people are aerophobic) and they will give you countless examples. For four years after that first abandoned trip, my family had to endure all of these challenges with me. You may be wondering how much of a problem this can be, but what I haven’t yet mentioned is that I live on an island in the middle of the Irish Sea. There are two ways off! For Manx people, air travel is used not only for holidays but also for business, shopping trips, visiting friends, kids’ sports fixtures and school trips amongst other things. The overwhelming impact that my refusal to fly had on my family was that of a massive inconvenience.
We did attempt some air travel over these first four years, with varying results. Some trips were simply cancelled. For the ones that weren’t, the anxiety in the weeks leading up to the flights manifested itself in different ways. As soon as I knew something had been booked I would experience a weight in my stomach every time I thought about it. Closer to the time, sleep would be affected and in the days leading up to the flight the sickness in my stomach would rise to the bottom of my throat, making it difficult to breath and producing a constant nausea. At this stage I would also find myself on the verge of tears and functioning in a highly emotional state. The tears would start on the way to the airport, and by the time I arrived my hands would be wet with sweat, I would be shaking and I would feel dizzy. How I was never pulled over at any airport as a suspicious character is still astonishing.
Of course, I tried different coping mechanisms. Alcohol seemed to work in the short term but presented problems: what if it was an early morning flight? Don’t get me wrong, I’m rather partial to a glass of pinot grigio, but not for breakfast! What if you have to drive, or work, or be responsible for children? My next step was to go and see my doctor to ask for some prescription medication. I was so afraid that he would refuse me the magic pills that I had rehearsed my speech to him in the car on the way to the surgery, opening with the phrase ‘I know it’s totally irrational, but…’ Instead of making me feel better, he replied ‘No it isn’t, these things do fall out of the sky from time to time don’t they?’ and wrote me the prescription. Nice work doc!
I also had plenty of well-meaning people offering me advice on how to get over my fear: ‘Look at the statistics,’ they urged. ‘It’s more dangerous crossing a road than getting on a plane.’ I learned to smile and nod, and more importantly, not to scream at them angrily ‘I bloody well know that!’ I had studied the statistics myself. The whole point of a phobia is that it often defies rational thought. It’s like telling someone who is afraid of spiders that the eight-legged creature can’t possibly hurt them and then expecting them to suddenly shrug, say ‘ok’ and go and scoop if off the bedroom wall with their bare hands! It simply doesn’t work like that.
I discounted the merits of signing up for a fear of flying course after my sister-in-law’s dismal experience on one (by the end of the day she had accumulated the fears of everyone else on the course and came out with things to worry about that she had never even considered before!)
It was after one flight, which ended up with my crying for the entire thirty-minute journey and the cabin crew taking turns to fetch me water that we decided that it wasn’t worth the stress of trying any more, and abandoned air travel for a few years. We still took holidays – mainly to the Scillies and to France. Looking back, I’m not sure how frustrating it must have been for my husband to have to waste days of his annual leave entitlement to allow for the extra time we needed to make the 1500 mile round trip, packed into a car with no air conditioning in the height of summer with two pre-school children, back in the days before the iPad. If he ever felt any resentment towards me then he kept it very well hidden.
I had three blissful years of air free travel before I decided I was mentally strong enough to consider it again. The turning point came when I won a writing competition. The prize was a return trip to Paris (which meant taking four flights from the Isle of Man). The prize had never been the incentive for me to enter the competition – I would have been happy enough with the reward of having won. I tentatively booked the tickets only to postpone the trip a couple of weeks before take-off and re-book them for a later date. On the third time I attempted this, the airline gave me an ultimatum: take the flights before a certain date or lose them. I booked the flights for the latest possible date then filed the email away in a folder on my computer and forgot about it: literally forgot about it! I had a vague idea that I had booked the trip for some time in April, but experience had taught me that knowing the details of the flights made me worse. Imagine my surprise when a reminder pinged up on my calendar in the middle of February to tell me that we were supposed to be in Paris in two days’ time. I had done nothing. No hotel had been booked, no childcare had been organised and my husband and I had not booked any time off work. To me, it was the perfect excuse not to go. We couldn’t possibly organise it all in two days. Tim had other ideas. He turned the short notice into a positive. I had been spared the usual week of night terrors that came before a flight. I was too busy trying to manically organise everything required for the trip to focus solely on the fear, and two days later I found myself in the beautiful French capital having survived two drama free flights.
After that I was convinced to try a family holiday to Fuerteventura. Again, the distraction technique came into its own after I discovered that I couldn’t find my passport the day before we were due to travel. This resulted in a full blown row, with Tim accusing me of deliberately hiding my passport in order to sabotage the holiday (I hadn’t – I’m just not particularly organised in the art of household administration!) and about two hours of sleep after conducting an all-night search of the house. By the time I reached the airport fatigue had trumped anxiety.
Shortly after that trip I began to feel that my fear was subsiding. It hadn’t disappeared, but it was no longer a debilitating force in my life. Tim continued to book trips for us, and as long as I wasn’t told the exact details (for some reason this caused me stress and still does), I could cope. A couple of weeks ago my husband delivered the news that he would like us all to visit his brother in Canada this year. For some reason, transatlantic travel still makes me feel sick with worry. I procrastinated for a full week, offering a variety of excuses as to why I thought it was a bad idea, even offering to pay for them to come to visit us instead (apparently I’d missed the point!) We had the same conversation that we always have when he offers the solution of taking the children and leaving me here:
Tim: ‘Why? We all want to go and you don’t. The kids will have a great time!’
Me: ‘What if the plane crashes and you are all on it and I’m not there? Fine, I’ll come then!’
Tim: ‘So you’re basically only agreeing to come because you think we’re all going to die.’
Tim: ‘That’s the most stupid reason I’ve ever heard for going on holiday.’
Me: ‘I’ve just said yes!’ [strops off stage left]
Will I board the flight? I hope so. After over a decade of fear, guilt, cancelled plans and letting people down I’m getting bored of the whole aerophobia thing. There’s also the added logistical problem of us having rented our home out to six French motorbike fans for the duration of the holiday, so if I wimp-out I’ll be camping in our back garden for a week.
On a final note, we did eventually make it to Madrid last year to visit our friend, twelve years after our original trip was disrupted. I’m hoping that we will spend the next twelve years catching up on all of the other plans we’ve missed out.
Angela’s debut novel, The Fear of Flying Club (published by Pillar International Publishing) is a light-hearted story about a group of people who meet on a fear of flying course. To buy your copy please click here.