I blame the flight to Ogdensburg. Nothing disastrous happened on the flight itself, but something disastrous definitely happened inside me.
Before Ogdensburg, I was a champion flyer. My parents were travelers, for work and for pleasure, and as a small child, I flew with them to London, Vienna, Paris. I can remember peeling back the warm tin foil on meal trays, the different foods tucked into their little compartments, as though made for a child. I remember liking night flights best of all, the feeling that we were floating through outer space.
That child grew into a restless adult, for whom flight provided both a way to stay in motion and a delicious kind of stop-time. In the air, I was unreachable. It was a chance to sleep or work or simply marvel at, say, the scorched-earth stretch of desert between Las Vegas and Reno. The color gradations in an ocean that can only be seen from above. And yet all the while I was still moving—moving very fast, in fact. It was the illusion of stillness, not stillness itself, that I loved.
In April 2013, I was traveling to Ogdensburg, New York, connecting to a Cape Air Cessna in Albany. That year I had been traveling a lot, three to four times a month on average. I was used to planes. I was even used to small planes—the Bombardier Q200, the Embraer RJ140, Cessnas—so the journey from Albany to Ogdensburg should have been nothing more than a chance to read or gaze at the mountainous landscape below.
Maybe it was the combination of duration (ninety minutes), vicious turbulence, and the sharp, unforgiving shapes of the mountains, but within ten minutes of departing, my heart was flailing. My skin was burning, sweat-slick, like I was about to either melt or combust. I tried to breathe slow and deep. I tried to read my book. I tried to reason with myself, to stamp down fear with logic. But I couldn’t do anything except listen to the roar of the propellers and imagine those propellers stopping, the horror of that silence, and the plane plummeting from the sky and exploding into the side of a mountain in a bright orange flame.
Thirty minutes in, these imaginings were unbearable. I wanted to stand, to run, to hurl myself on the floor. I wanted to open the door and jump. I was so certain disaster was a second away, a breath away, and I wanted a say in my demise—that was the level of irrationality I had been seized by. Suspended over the mountains, a trap door inside me opened and fear spilled out.
When I landed in Ogdensburg, I splashed cold water on my face in the airport bathroom and chalked my panic up to the turbulence, but in fact I have never recovered from that flight.
The fear is the worst on small planes or in rough weather, but on every single flight I have taken since Ogdensburg, it’s there: a hot stone at the bottom of my stomach. And there have been a lot of flights—Madrid, Key West, Nebraska, Iowa, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, Miami, Atlanta, London, D.C.—and there are many more on the horizon. The thunderous heartbeat and the wet palms have bloomed into tears and pleading (who exactly do I think I’m pleading with?), into vomiting in the tiny bathroom, into gasping, white-knuckled panic attacks, the likes of which I have not seen since my early twenties.
It’s startling when you think you’re done with a particular part of your life—in my case, the panicky part—only to have your body one day announce: Not so fast.
I have tried breathing exercises, meditation, mantras. I have tried pleasurable distractions: engrossing novels, internet, movies, magazines. I have tried dripping cold bottled water down my back. I have tried drinking those tiny bottles of wine. I have tried soothing music, aromatic oils. With each flight, I try to change the script, try to imagine the plane gliding along, the wheels kissing the runway, but always I return to the plane dropping through the clouds. Oxygen masks, wings snapping, fire. Human imagination is a marvelous thing until it turns against you and shows you its teeth.
I have not yet tried therapy or medication. I hoped this new anxiety was a phase and that if I simply kept flying, I could kick it. To make an appointment or fill a prescription seemed like admitting the opposite. Now it has been a year and a half since Ogdensburg and I am finally starting to acknowledge that this fear is not something that will pass over like a flu, but might actually be here to stay.
There’s a scene in Amy Hempel’s story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” where the narrator enrolls in a fear of flying class. When the instructor asks about her worst fear, she says, “That I will finish this course and still be afraid.” Fear is an ordinary emotion, something we feel all the time in zips and jolts. The prospect of a specific and unending fear, however, feels less ordinary, like being stuck in a maze you yourself have constructed and yet can’t figure out how to disassemble. So I look at all the flights that lay before me and I think, What if there is no cure?
I am impatient with fear, both in other people and in myself. I swim past the buoys in the ocean, take the long way home on foot at night, just to prove to myself a point I don’t quite understand. I have a limited threshold for phobias and aversions. I get impatient with my mother when she expresses anxiety about eating raw shellfish or me walking alone at night. I get impatient with my sister for being afraid of change, general and specific. I get impatient with my in-laws for being afraid of dogs. I get impatient with friends who want to examine every angle before making a decision, so fearful are they of choosing wrong. I am aware this impatience is not at all one of my better qualities.
I teach fiction writing for a living and when my students come to me and say that they are afraid to write a particular story or they are afraid to present their stories in workshop or they are afraid to begin at all, I listen and I nod and then we watch The Honey Badger video and I deliver Tom Hanks’s “There’s no crying in baseball” line from A League of Their Own. We laugh a little and I send them on their way. Sometimes a nudge is what a student needs, but either way the subtext is clear: Sell that fear someplace else. We’re all stocked up here.
When I was teenager, I had a friend who was mortally afraid of flying. One summer, she accompanied my family on a trip to Colorado and I remember her white-knuckling the entire flight to Denver. She cried. She begged to return to the ground. It seemed limiting to me, to be that afraid of something—it was like building a corral around yourself and who would want to do that? As though my friend wanted to build a corral around herself. As though to feel the way she felt in that moment was a choice.
Nearly two decades later, my friend is a professional fighter pilot and I am the one white-knuckling a simple commercial flight. Eventually she got so tired of her fear that she began studying aerodynamics. Once she understood how flying worked, she was no longer afraid and once she was no longer afraid, she fell in love.
Have I have added the study of aerodynamics to my list of things to try?
Yes. Yes, I have.
The other list I have been keeping is a list of theories. So far it includes:
Timing. I flew to Ogdensburg newly married. Our Cambridge wedding had fallen on the week of the Boston marathon bombing and to witness the aftermath of a terrorist attack was a stark reminder of life’s sometimes violent uncertainties. My husband and I were moving from Baltimore, a city I loved, to a small town in Massachusetts. I was on the hunt for a new job. I had a new book coming out that fall, a looming deadline for my next—a novel that is, perhaps not incidentally, preoccupied with the mysteries of the unconscious mind. Transition can be a real shit-starter and maybe, on that particular week, bouncing above those mountains for ninety minutes was more flux than my system could handle.
There was also the part of me that was just very tired. I had been traveling at a frenetic pace and was feeling the miles. And yet my calendar continued to fill. I kept saying, Yes, I will go there. Yes, I will do that. I was acting against myself, and I knew it, and yet I kept charging on. Maybe the fear is my body’s attempt to ground me, to get me to do the very thing I have little talent for: staying truly still.
History. My grandfather’s twin brother, who died in a plane crash at forty-two. The frightful British Airways flight I took as a child. I was six, too young to remember, but according to my mother we departed from London and then turned back several hours later, dumped our fuel in the North Sea, and made an unscheduled landing at a small airport. She remembers the terrible sound of fuel gushing from the plane. The motel where the passengers spent the night. The sense they had all narrowly escaped disaster. Maybe the fear was hardwired then and lay dormant like a sleeping volcano, waiting for the right time to stir.
Karma. For being impatient with other people’s fear. For not being more understanding of my terrified friend on that flight to Denver. For quoting Tom Hanks instead of telling my students that sometimes it is okay and right and perfectly natural to be afraid. Maybe.
If this was happening in a work of fiction, it would be a classic case of misdirection: the fear isn’t really about flying, but about the messy, dark thing beneath, and the story would locate the source. In real life, we should all be so lucky to have insights with the regularity of fictional characters.
Since this is happening to me in real life, I have only theories and when I add them up, the sum is unsatisfying. I am devoid of firm insights. I’ve tried regarding myself as I would a fictional character, tried searching for the source, the dark thing bubbling deep inside. The thing I want to hunt down, to dig out—but how? I only know that on planes I now turn into a person I don’t recognize.
When another form of transit is possible, I take it: This summer, I decided against a sixty minute Cessna flight from Boston to Albany in favor of a five and a half hour train ride. My fear has succeeded in slowing me down a little now that I have to think about the cost—Do I really want to go to that place? Is it worth how I will feel during the flight? But I refuse to stop flying altogether, no matter how difficult it becomes. The only thing more intolerable than fear is the idea of fear preventing me from doing what I wish, and I have even discovered a benefit or two to continuing on with the thing that scares me out of my mind.
When I returned from Ogdensburg to Albany, a member of the ground crew opened up the little Cessna like a can on the tarmac and asked how we were doing. I shouted, Grateful to be alive! He laughed, but I was not joking. Every time a plane lands, I am exhausted and also exhilarated to still be a part of the world. The fear is so real that to have survived feels, time and time again, like a miracle.
Also, I have more empathy for my fellow travelers. I used to be the kind of flyer who did not want to chat. I had Things To Do. Windows to Look Out. Now I am more inclined to listen or talk or help if I can, and I have been moved by the strangers who helped me.
Take this recent flight from Martha’s Vineyard to Boston, only thirty minutes airtime. You can and you will, I told myself as the Cessna sat on the runway, vibrating from the buzz of the propellers.
When the plane rose above the cloud ceiling and we were surrounded by bright blue sky, I lost the ability to breathe. I could feel the free fall. I could see the plane being swallowed up by the ocean. Soon I was hyperventilating.
An older couple was sitting in front of me. After I tapped the woman on the shoulder and assaulted her with questions—Is the plane supposed to be this high? Is the pilot going off course?—she told me that she had a daughter around my age who used to suffer from panic attacks. Next I thought she asking me if I wanted some of her husband’s “relaxing pills” and I shouted, YES, wanting to be heard over the propellers—if elephant tranquilizers were an option, I would have gladly swallowed them, no questions asked—but in fact she was saying her husband had “relaxing music.” She handed over his earbuds and iPod.
My daughter would call me on the phone and we would breathe together, she said. Now you’re going to breathe with me. The woman’s white hair was pulled back. Her gaze was firm and calm, the look of someone who had experience with talking people down.
I closed my eyes. I put on the earbuds and listened to the light chimes. I breathed.
Slow down, the woman said when I started breathing too fast. That’s good. Keep going.
When I opened my eyes, I could see water, a scattering of white boats. The husband pointed through the windshield and there was the Boston airport, the dark stretch of runway. On the ground, I thanked the couple for their kindness. They lived in New Jersey and were traveling home. I never got their names.
Now you’ve conquered something, the husband said as we climbed out of the Cessna. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had conquered nothing, had vanquished nothing. The next time I flew, I would feel the fear all over again, the fear I still do not understand. That day all I had done was survive it.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection, and The Isle of Youth, which won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and The Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, Find Me, is out from FSG in February. She is currently a Writer-in-Residence at Bard College.