Coping with a Fear of Flying: A True Story

“Do you mind if I just… hold your hand?” 

“Yeah… I mean, no. No, I don’t mind. C’mon,” I said as I offered my hand to the stranger on the shared arm rest.

No one had ever asked so politely to hold my hand. Men and boys take your hand at will in their attempts to romance you or get their mack on – regardless of your wish for them to do so. Ladies, it seems, use a different hand-holding protocol. Kinder.

Transport to new and exciting vistas for some, hours of white-knuckled terror for others. You decide. Cabin interior, Virgin Airlines.

She clutched my hand. I remember her hand as delicate. Not that my hands are mannish, calloused or anything opposing delicate. Maybe it was because she chose to make herself so vulnerable to me that her hand felt like a baby bird, bony, frail and fluttering against the newness of the world. Had her hand fallen from the nest of mine, there was a decent chance she’d die of a panic attack.

We were returning to the States from Barcelona and boarded a 747, finishing a quick stop-over in London. When she took the aisle seat to my left, she introduced herself by warning me that she had a fear of flying. I told her not to worry and have a seat.

Our plane ascended. The usual rumblings jostled us a bit. I was glad to get on with the business of flying home. This young woman was terrified. We held hands.

I observed her in my periphery. She was in her early twenties, South Asian-American and well-dressed. I usually think of young people as fearless, almost to the point of recklessness. Not her. She took deep, measured breaths, and repeatedly flicked the wrist of her other hand, to self-sooth or fling the anxiety from her fingertips.

“I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry,” alternating her apologies and her gratitude, still holding my hand.

I turned to face her and look her in the eyes. I thought maybe if she could see the reassuring calm in my face, she would also calm down. Didn’t work.

“Oh, don’t apologize. We all get scared sometimes,” I said.

When I used to feel anxious on a plane going through turbulence, I looked at the flight attendants, collected and still distributing sodas in plastic cups with ease. I imagined I was on a big sailboat, navigating through choppy waters. I busied my mind by reading magazines, solving crossword puzzles and watching in-flight movies. These are the ways I cope and they work for me.

I asked her if she flew often.

“Actually, I’ve been flying a lot this week,” she replied. “My boyfriend lives in London and we’d gone for a weekend in Amsterdam, so I’ve been on an international flight, like three times in the past seven days.”

Love can sometimes makes you do things you might not necessarily choose for yourself in the absence of, I thought.

She continued, “I can’t seem to shake it, though, the fear.”

Plenty of people deal with a fear of flying. For some, their fear so consumes to a degree that hinders their lives. Bravo to this woman. She hadn’t rid herself of her fear, but also found her own way to cope with it. She’d ask a stranger to hold her hand. I pitied her, and I was happy to help ease her suffering. In this way, I was grateful that my travel companion, Barbara, and I weren’t seated together.

We were flying British Airways, which has an interesting policy of assigning customers their seats. Unless you want to fork over an additional £25 per person for the privilege of choosing your seat as soon as you book a ticket, you have to wait until 24 hours before departure to choose your seat without incurring any surcharge. British Airways’ seat selection policy depends on the kind of ticket you buy, of course, but we were in the cheap seats for our European excursion. Bogus. Naturally, we would have preferred to sit together but somehow forgot to try our spotty internet connection or to call the airline our last full day in BCN. And by the time we arrived at the airport and checked in, there weren’t two seats together anywhere on the plane. It wasn’t a big deal.

Barbara, a few aisles away from me, switched her seat with someone who wanted to sit beside his spouse. The trade landed her in pseudo-first class. She waved, walked up to the forward cabin, belongings in hand, past the curtained divider. Lucky. After, she claimed it wasn’t that great, but I would have enjoyed a foot rest! I’m petite, too, and sitting with dangling feet have a negative effect on posture.

Barb was enjoying the high life in Premium Economy, in any case. And here I was, back in coach, holding this stranger’s hand. I didn’t let go until she said she was ok.

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6 thoughts on “Coping with a Fear of Flying: A True Story

  1. Hi Sarah! You asked for honest feedback so here it goes. I enjoyed reading it! I thought it was a nice story. I loved how you described her hand as a baby bird and then tied the reference into this visual: “Had her hand fallen from the nest of mine, there was a decent chance she’d die of a panic attack.” That’s my favorite line! The only parts that I didn’t like were when you used slang such as bogus and mack-on. (I know bogus isn’t a slang word but it was used as slang here.) I felt that it made the piece choppy and broke my concentration when reading. You also said you respected the woman (you wrote bravo) and pitied her in the same sentence. I wasn’t sure why you said you pitied her when she was able to get on the plane and could fly. She isn’t debilitated by her fear. She said she flew multiple times in a single week. I was kind of envious of her for being able to get on the plane in the first place (I need a vacation).

    • Hey Sara! Thanks for reading & your thoughtful comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. It’s funny how real life writes better than any fiction!

      Let me address your thoughts.

      My intention behind the slang is the reader hears my voice, that it unmistakably sounds like me. And, when I talk, I use slang. I can see how that language would leave people “outside” or how it would jar some readers. I’ll have to think more about how to negotiate these ideas. Your point is a great one.

      The word pity does give an impression that the speaker is looking down on the pitied, more a negative connotation. Empathy or compassion would be better words to describe my feeling.

      You’re a great reader, I’m glad you’re in my corner! I hope you get that vacation – or even staycation – soon!

      – Sarah

  2. I loved reading this act of compassion on an airplane. Kudos to YOU, and to your wonderful posting about it. Thank you also for linking my blog post called Fear of (Not) Flying. Fun that you found me. I’m like the sweet woman who flies out of love. I hate it, but I won’t let it stop me.

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