If weeks had theme songs, and those theme songs had catchy choruses, this week’s song might be called something like ‘Looking Up’, the chorus, ‘Are we going on the plane today?! Today, today, up up away.’
Okay, so clearly I’m no lyric writer, ask my brother-in-law about that. But the point is, we’ve spent the week pointing upwards every time a plane flies overhead, accompanied by E’s repeated over-excited question, ‘Are we flying today?’ She’s clearly elated about her first o/s trip and I share her enthusiasm…only there’s something else too, something I can’t tell her, or even want to let her sniff. I’m also more than a little….nervous.
I wasn’t always so stubbornly land-legged. So trembly winged.
When I was just nineteen, I farewelled my best friends and parents at Sydney airport over a giant plate of pastries, and walked boldly through the departure gates. For the first time ever, completely alone. On the other side, passing my passport and body through customs, I cried the dramatic, anticipatory tears of someone very young and idealistic on a journey. With six months in Europe and Canada visiting relatives ahead of me, my hopes and expectations were packed fuller than my near-bursting suitcase.
At risk of giving my age away, this was in the pre-Internet era. The only screen in the airplane was the communal TV dangling over the aisle. If distraction was what you were after to pass the time in the air between here and there you had to wait for the scheduled movie times to roll around. But I wasn’t concerned. I had the elderly Dutchman beside me to converse with, dipping my toes into the accents and idiosyncrasies of my destination. And I had something else too.
As I said this was in the days before even so much as email. Without a phone with portals to friends and family at my fingertips I was forced to rely on what was right in front of me. In my case, a precious letter from my brother Greg, containing brotherly wisdom beyond his years for my sojourn (and yes, that’s what we called it). Then, his missive was important to me as I contemplated the next few hours. I didn’t know yet that it would be word-fuel for the next many years.
But perhaps I digress. There I was in the plane, up in the clouds, dangling over who knows what ocean or mountain range. I didn’t have a clue. And I didn’t care. I was on my way. And nothing, I thought, could stop me.
If you’ve been reading here for a while, or perhaps not even that long, you may have picked up that I write quite a bit about anxiety. Because of The Big A’s slippery nature, I like to use metaphors and word pictures to try and catch it by the heel and hang it before the reader in plain sight. And this post is no different. Anxiety is a leech. An insidious, blood-hungry one that is constantly finding new targets to attach itself to, often inexplicably.
So it was that after years and years of flying with no problem, my passport enviably full – Europe, China, Fiji, New Zealand, Canada, Tasmania – about six years after that first trip solo to Europe, the leech anxiety met me mid-air. I could blame all sorts of factors for my nerves’ mid-air collision: the motel room above a nightclub we once stayed in the night before a flight that sent techno pounding through the thin walls and into my bloodstream; the fact that I ‘lost’ Dr M in the airport and we almost missed a flight, or the most likely culprit, the stomach bug I developed on a trip home from Europe with Dr M and my family that saw me hunkered over and helpless for twenty or so hours, just waiting for the end. In a sense, though, the origins are insignificant, because by the time I was twenty-five I’d developed a full-blown phobia of flying.
Fast forward another decade and you find me here, tonight. A woman in her thirties, mum of three kids, over educated, under slept, thinking about the flight we are taking in forty-eight hours, watching all my fears parade out before me like a line of toe-tapping air-hostesses, and hoping I can do it. Or rather, knowing I can do it, but at what cost?
If you’d been following me around the last few days you might have witnessed some slightly unusual behaviour, like on Monday when Dr M and the boys and I dropped Evie off at school, and, as we often do, went to have a hot drink and a play to get out some of the Monday-blues. Only this time, the cafe had a view of the tarmac, and the playground was a large, indoor space with plenty of things for two young boys to make a mess of, like the guard ropes between check-in aisles. That’s right, my little family and I were — in the parlance of those wishing to face down their phobia’s— busy ‘rehearsing.’
It was the wise woman who first taught me the value of ‘exposure’, of gradually approaching your fears, step by step, like a game of What’s the Time Mr Woolf , moving closer towards them until they no longer had the power to chase you away. The last time we ‘rehearsed’ in earnest was before any of the kids were around yet. Dr M had a research trip scheduled in the US, a library tour that encompassed the book-lined corridors of Yale, Harvard, Princeton and NYU, to name a few. If you know my husband and I at all, you know what sort of lure just those names would have over me. I was determined to go with him. Only there was one problem. I was scared to step across the threshold between land and air, onto the magical vehicle of the sky that would take me there. And so we rehearsed, practicing everything from breathing, narrating, and planning, to taking a ‘practice flight’ to Melbourne. And so it was, eventually, I got on that flight to the library-land of our dreams.
Was I nervous? You bet ya. Did I feel like my heart might explode out of my carefully-curated for comfort outfit, or worse, I might run up and down the aisles with my knickers on my head? Definitely. But in the process of meeting with the wise woman, practising, and rehearsing, I had learnt one very important lesson. The secret that ultimately got me flying again….
Yep, that’s right. When your heart is pounding louder than the plane’s engine, and your feet are surging the will to run, when your hands are shaking, and your mind tells you get out now, the right response at first feels like the wrong one. When everything within you tells you to fight, the victory is not actually in action, but in putting down your weapons.
If I’ve learnt one thing about anxiety over the years, it’s this. When you call fear’s bluff, it’s not so tough.
When the Big A wants to tell you it’s time to call in your armies, rally your troops and battle, or if that doesn’t work, run for the hills, acceptance says nothing more than to strand your ground. In the war against anxiety, pacifism is a prime position.In backing down and telling fear you don’t mind if it comes near, you tell yourself you can handle it. It won’t destroy you. Because it can’t.
There’s more too. Acceptance tells fear to check the dictionary. Where ever in the world did we get the idea we had to walk through life unafraid, or we couldn’t walk at all? Walking scared might look like hands shaking, stomach lurching, knees knocking (though I’m not sure my knees have ever actually really knocked) but it’s better than pretending we are invincible, or that we can do it all effortlessly.
Only One is powerful enough to stare fear in the face and conquer it. And, alongside him, one day we too will be fear-less, and peace-full. Fullstop. Until then we can settle for trying to call fear’s bluff and offer it some toast (which, incidentally, is my preferred food group in times of intense anxiety).
So, here I am tonight, writing this down for myself, and perhaps for you too. Is there something you are afraid of that doesn’t make sense, something that you may be ashamed of if someone knew? Something you fear will overtake you if you don’t stay permanently poised on your toes, ready to pounce before it pounces on you.
Each time you show it you aren’t afraid of being afraid, fear moves a little less bravely.
Until suddenly you find that you and fear are flying.
P.S. If this is helped you at all, or struck a chord, please comment below. Feel free to share too. Fear seems to get shyer in direct sunlight.
images from Depositphotos