When I was a child, I wanted to be an airline pilot. I thought it would be the most romantic way to spend my days floating amongst the clouds. My dad traveled for work when I was a kid and when he came home, he would go down on one knee expecting a hug and I would run up to him expecting the in-flight magazine. I couldn’t yet read, but I would find the page with the pictures of the aircraft and memorize their seating charts. I was probably the only 5-year-old who could tell you the best place to sit on an airplane.
Romantic notions of flight aside, I didn’t become a pilot because I don’t like to fly; it terrifies me. I just can’t get past the fact that I’m strapped, with a lap belt no less, to a chair in an aluminum cylinder with wings and engines 35,000 feet in the air.
I love going new places and always look forward to traveling, but my excitement usually turns into anxiety seconds after I park my car. Two things confront my senses the moment I get out of my car; the smell of jet fuel and the sound of jet engines and as I process those two things I can feel my anxiety spike. It increases again as I enter the terminal and I see the security check line. I’m probably the only person who is actually happy when they see a long, slow moving TSA security check line because that gives me a little break from my now constantly increasing anxiety.
But my freedom from anxiety doesn’t last long because the inevitable always happens and I make my way through the security checkpoint. Clearing security is significant because it’s at that point that I realize that I am going to have to board the aircraft. Arriving at the gate, boarding the plane, and sitting in my seat all cause my anxiety to increase and by the time we push back from the gate my breathing is shallow and fast. I am hot and I can feel perspiration running down my face. I’m bordering on a panic attack.
My wife gives me peace and calming essential oils and I rub it on my wrists and on the back of my neck. And then they turn at the bottom of the runway and that plane accelerates and now I’m holding on for dear life. I’ve got headphones on with loud music and I’m reading at the same time because I just want to overwhelm my senses. As the plane takes off I can feel all of the gravity that that aircraft is fighting against, I can feel it in my chest and I can’t breathe. That’s how I fly. Some of you can relate.
A few years ago, a man about four rows in front of me choked on a flight. The person next to him quickly hit the flight attendant call button, she came and performed the Heimlich, clearing his airway. We continued on to Nashville without further incident.
When we arrived home, we picked up our kids from my parent’s house and my dad asked me about our trip. I told him about the choking incident. He immediately looked at my mom and asked her if she remembered when I choked on a plane as a small child. She recalled the time when I was two or three years old.
I asked a therapist friend of mine if my fear of flying could be related to the childhood choking incident. She immediately said yes. She explained that even though I didn’t have any explicit memories of the event, I had implicit ones. In other words, my body remembered what my mind couldn’t recall. My body had associated flying with choking, and over the years formed a narrative that bad things happen to me on airplanes. My anxiety was because my body was getting ready for something bad to happen. My body was in survival mode and trying to alert me to the coming danger.
I am happy to report that I can now actually make it onto the plane without any panic attacks. The essential oils don’t need to travel with me anymore, and I can actually take off without having to overwhelm my senses. Take-off, landing, and flying through turbulence doesn’t bother me now because I learned about a trauma from my past and with help was able to process it.
So why does that matter? We can so easily overlook our histories and focus on our kid’s stuff, but if we don’t do the work to come to terms with our own stuff, we will never fully be able to help our kids process their hurts and fears.
We recently flew to Orlando with our six children. My eight-year-old daughter sat next to me on the flight. She was very excited about going on vacation and on her first flight right until the moment she sat down. She grabbed my arm and she started sobbing when I buckled her seatbelt. I asked her why she was crying and she told me that she was scared and that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go with us. So what did I do? I employed the only coping skills I knew; I got the oils from my wife, I put her headphones on her, cranked the music, and I told her to play Minecraft.
It startled her when we pushed back from the gate. As did the safety briefing, taxiing, and accelerating. As we took off she asked me if we were flying, and I smiled and told her to look out of the window. She did and with a smile on her face declared that we were flying. I responded with a smile on my face.
The flight was very smooth until about forty-five minutes before we landed. The pilot announced that the weather was clear at our destination, but that there was a storm between us and Orlando. He said that everybody needed to sit down and to buckle their seat belts and that the flight crew needed to do the same. My anxiety level spiked…for my daughter. Then we didn’t level off, we actually went nose down and accelerated and my little girl went “whee, it’s just like a roller coaster.”
I once sat across from a flight attendant who told me that she used to be afraid of flying. She said that she realized when she was 17-years-old that she wasn’t afraid of flying; her mother was and she thought that she was supposed to be afraid too. If I had not been able to work through my issue on airplanes, think about how my daughter would view flying. If when she was stressed and she looked at her dad, I was freaking out the same way, she would hate flying.
Always be willing to do the work necessary to process your past because if you’re not willing to do the work, sometimes the hard work of coming to terms with your story, you will never be able to help your kids the way they need.
“You cannot lead a child to a place of healing if you do not know the way yourself.” – Dr. Karyn Purvis