How can I fly?
November 26, 2007 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out how to get on an airplane.

Due to a possible family emergency, I may need to get on a plane at a moment's notice. The problem? I haven't flown since January 2000. Ever since then, the very thought of flying sends me into a vicious panic attack, full shakes, crying, near-crap-my-pants kind of terror. (Long story short: my Dad died and my mortality circuit got fried - and, no, he didn't die in a plane crash).

The last time I actually attempted flying was early September 2001. I was hopped up (or down) on much Ativan and I still started screaming and crying before even checking in, and had to be dragged out by my best friend.

The majority of my dreams over the last seven years have been related to my fear of flying. I'll be on a plane about to take off and start freaking, I'll see vivid plane crashes, etc.

(Mind you, before my Dad died, I had mild nervousness regarding flying, but all in all I loved it, and flew fairly often - 5-6 times/year).

The inability to get on a plane has had severe effects on my life over the last seven years; missed job opportunities, missed family and friends. And now, at a time when I should be focused on my very sick Grandpa, I'm thinking all about me, and that's just not fair.

What I really need is a B.A. Barracus style shot-in-the-ass service, but I don't think they exist. (Besides, I'd REALLY like to be able to enjoy flying again).

So, Mefites, any tips for a not-just-fearful-flyer-but-crazy-terrified-flyer?
posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
With a description like that, do you expect us to just give you a pep talk and send you on your way?

Go see a therapist. Your issues are beyond Ask Metafilter.
posted by rentalkarma at 8:25 AM on November 26, 2007 [9 favorites]

Try hypnosis.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:29 AM on November 26, 2007

Yeah. You do need B.A. Barracus grade service, and unfortunately that's not available via a textual medium. Fear of flying isn't a particularly exotic phobia, so there are professionals who are capable of assisting you to overcome it. Rephrase this AskMe to read "Where can I find a therapist in Waltham, MA, to help me with my fear of flying?"

Now, drink this nice glass of milk.
posted by mumkin at 8:32 AM on November 26, 2007

Therapy + Valium.
posted by infinityjinx at 8:32 AM on November 26, 2007

Seconding rentalkarma. If seven years have passed and the mere thought of flying still induces near-paralyzing horror, no amount of text on the Internet will provide meaningful assistance. Speak to a therapist or similar professional.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:34 AM on November 26, 2007

It's easy when there is a stressful situation in your life like an illness in the family or a dying relative transplant the sadness/anxiety you have over something you can control on to something you can. I've been there, and I'm very sorry for your stress and unhappiness.

That said, no one HAS to fly. If you decide that you absolutely can not get on a plane then you will not. It's always an option though probably not a very palatable one for all sorts of reasons but be honest, you're not joining the army, you're not fleeing a planet that is about to explode.

So, you want to fly and you should fly. First thing, yes, go to a therapist. If you're the screaming in airports type you are unlikely to be able to just get good advice or rational "the risk is so low as to be almost unmeasurable" data here and not be that person. Add to that that you may wind up getting yourself in trouble in the airport if you truly can't handle the level of stress that flying or the thought of flying gives you. Something that is wrose than not flying is getting yourself psyched up to fly and being unable to fly because you lost your shit in an airport. I realize you may be speaking in hyperbole above but I also realize you may not be.

I fly for work all the time. I don't like to fly particularly but it's fine with me. I decided at some point that I'd rather die in a plane crash than live in constant fear of dying in a plane crash and that's that. Death is final and unpredictable but plane crash deaths are speedy, usually, though scary. I like my life, I'd prefer to keep living it. But I like fearful me so much less that I don't want to be that person in my own head and I don't want to be that person in public. You're going to have to figure out what is going to motivate you to change.
posted by jessamyn at 8:35 AM on November 26, 2007

But, what if Cat Pie has to fly tomorrow because of this emergency? Therapy ain't gonna get them far by then, I'd imagine.
posted by tristeza at 8:36 AM on November 26, 2007

Therapy in the long run, and for the short run? Take your car in for a once-over by a trusted mechanic, and start booking hotels.
posted by notsnot at 8:41 AM on November 26, 2007

I still started screaming and crying before even checking in

These days, that sort of lunacy will get you tasered, or worse. If I were you, I wouldn't fly now at all. I'd take a bus for the family emergency, and see a therapist to work through these issues slowly. Atavan, alcohol and other stopgap measures may just make your situation worse.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:47 AM on November 26, 2007

But, what if Cat Pie has to fly tomorrow because of this emergency? Therapy ain't gonna get them far by then, I'd imagine.

Get the car ready and find a friend who would be willing to come along for the ride - you can get fairly far in 24 hours if you have two people splitting the driving.
posted by mikepop at 8:48 AM on November 26, 2007

See your G-P right now and get a prescription for a few doses of anxiety drugs, to be used when you need to fly soon. That worked for my sister.

Cheer up! You're much, much more likely to die a wasting cancerous death over several painful months than in a lightning-fast plane crash, but no one talks about that. You're much more likely to be mauled to death by a wild pig than eaten by a shark, but it's the sharks that get the news. Know that our brains are terrible at estimating risk, and we tend to focus on the wrong things.
posted by cmiller at 8:52 AM on November 26, 2007

Maybe you need much stronger drugs. My girlfriend used to be afraid of flying and she takes some weird sort of tranquilizing thing, Trankimazin...I don't know what it is, but you need something like that.
posted by creasy boy at 9:04 AM on November 26, 2007

I can relate to your problem all too well. This kind of thing is not going to be solved in the short term, as mentioned above. I'm sorry for your emergency, but like others have said, you will probably not want to get on an airplane at this point.

Therapy can help, but please be selective when choosing a therapist. I spent several months working with a woman who felt more comfortable blaming other people for other problems in my life than working on my fear of flying. The best thing she did, however, was to have me read a book called Don't Panic by R. Reid Wilson. The same author has an outstanding fear of flying audio program. The book deals with understanding and controlling panic in a panic attack situation and the tapes deal with becoming familiar with airline safety and procedure. The tapes go through a whole flight and explains noises, bumps and other things that may make you uneasy. There are also breathing and thought exercises included.

It sounds like you have a very long history with fear of flying, however, and books and tapes alone isn't going to solve this.
What has helped me (and I stress helped because I have not been cured) has been a combination of therapy, careful long-term study of the book I mentioned above, long-term study of the tapes, a small dose of xanax and support from family and friends.

The support is important. Someday your family will understand how difficult this is for you, but right now in light of this emergency, they may not. A lot of people will want you to just "buck up" and do it, but it's not as easy as all that. It's a fear beyond normal fear, isn't it?

I hope you find the help you need and that your family emergency is resolved positively. Also, if it helps, you definitely aren't alone. Good luck and keep us posted!
posted by bristolcat at 9:06 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Get the car ready and find a friend who would be willing to come along for the ride - you can get fairly far in 24 hours if you have two people splitting the driving.

For the short term, that is about right. Or call up Amtrak or Greyhound assuming you don't have to go to another continent. You simply will not be able to conquer your fear of flying in a short time. In addition, you certainly do not want a graduation flight to be a stressful death/illness in the family flight. You could end up making your phobia even worse than it is.

Getting rid of a phobia is usually done with gradual desensitization; that is unfortunately difficult to do at all with airplanes, but that is why a therapist is essential. They even have flight simulators nowadays. You can try SOAR, developed by an ex Pan Am pilot.

BTW, it is exceedingly common for Fear of Flying to occur in people at the transition between adolescence and adulthood (say college and shortly after) when that person suddenly has to bear a stressful life loss or change. Good luck. (but don't get on a freakin plane tomorrow!)
posted by xetere at 9:06 AM on November 26, 2007

School yourself in some good old fashioned breathing techniques. Practice them from now until you get on a plane. (I can't find a good link. Anyone?)

Practice thinking about it, too. When the panic bubbles up, go into your breathing routine. Yeah, this is going to be unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as getting tasered in an airport.

Can someone go with you? There's a thing that I've found helpful if someone else can be there (I'm not afraid to fly, but I've been anxious about other stuff. Who hasn't?) This person, they are in charge of Answering Questions Calmly, no matter how repetitive or silly. You ask them whatever you want. Keep that potentially-spiraling frenzy vocalized instead of letting it fester in your head.

It may also be helpful to set up benchmarks. Maybe even write them down and cross them off a list. 1. Get to Airport. 2. Check in. 3. Get through security. 4. Board plane. 5. Read emergency instructions. 6. Listen to instructions spiel. Etc. Throw in some things to do during the longer periods of time so that you have another task to complete.

Make sure to let the flight crew know that you're a very nervous flyer and that you're working very hard to not freak out.

If it were me, I'd skip the tranquilizers/sedatives. Being fuzzy and drugged up while in an anxiety-producing situation sounds like a bad trip to me. I know that they work well for some people, but me, I'd rather be really sure what's real and what's not. Plus, relaxation also means being more inhibited, but keeping your inhibitions well under control is what you need to do here.
posted by desuetude at 9:08 AM on November 26, 2007

(Needless to say, not flying would be best.)
posted by desuetude at 9:10 AM on November 26, 2007

I'm curious to know if you had ever taken Ativan before the incident in 2001. My grandmother had a similar reaction (screaming, crying, trying to run away) when she took Ativan for anxiety about a situation similar to yours. Ativan can induce a pretty severe freak-out in some people (described in the Wikipedia entry as a "paradoxical effect"), especially at high doses. For her, that meant that the Ativan actually made her have more anxiety and fear, not less. This may or may not be relevant to you, but it seems worth mentioning, since it might have made your experience with flying in 2001 worse than it would have been otherwise.
posted by ezrainch at 9:40 AM on November 26, 2007

What I learned from cognitive therapy about my own panic attacks was, in a nutshell, that I didn't fear going to the mall or the grocery store or teaching my classes; what I feared were the panic attacks. But the place where my panic attacks started--in front of my class--was also a place that I despised, since I had resigned from this position and was still "stuck" having to teach an entire two quarters before my resignation took. The panic attacks were a RESOURCE for me to avoid what I hated.

Once you get yourself wrapped around the idea that you find flying and airplanes detestable places (and a lot of us share this), and that your fear is really about the attacks, you'll be on the way to managing them. Look, you know, cognitively, that you are really very safe on a plane. You know that fears about flying are irrational and silly. What you have to do is buck up and say "I'm panicking because I hate flying." And therewith, for some of us, is the path to recovery.

I still get panic attacks, but in the midst of them I now have, usually, the presence of mind to address what exactly is bothering me and what I don't want to do. Once I acknowledge that, say, I really don't want to be at this party because I feel trapped in the company of a lot of people I cannot stand, it doesn't force me to enjoy the party, but at least it forces me to accept what the real problem is. I can't use panic attacks as crutches anymore, unless I want to.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:42 AM on November 26, 2007

My ex swore by getting tanked before getting on the plane. I did it once with her and it seemed to work fine. For her. I was actually more nervous being drunk, but hey, she needed the company.
posted by kpmcguire at 9:49 AM on November 26, 2007

Sounds like you need Cory Doctorow's Ninja Air. Or a therapist. Or a private jet.

I wouldn't actually recommend getting heinously drunk/stoned/drugged. Quite apart from the physical effects, with the ludicrous security situation in most airports these days, you're likely to be treated suspiciously rather than with calmness and consideration.
posted by unsliced at 9:55 AM on November 26, 2007

For the short term I-really-need-to-get-on-a-plane-now, maybe you could see your regular family doctor for something in advance that is a little stronger or different than ativan. I'm thinking of the stuff they use in sedation dentistry. For my panic-attack inducing series of root canals that I desperately needed, my dentist gave me something called Halcion. I felt like I practically slept through the whole procedure (4 hours in the chair...) and a couple hours after. But it didn't knock me out - i was responding to questions and doing what I was told by my denstist and her assistants. I wasn't really functional either, however; I took the pills an hour before my appointment and had to be helped to and from the office, and was just really really sleepy. The best part, however, is the mild amnesia is can cause - I have almost no recollection of the appointment itself. Perhaps you could convince a GP to give you something similar (it is sometimes prescribed as a sleeping pill, as well). Try one out, see how you react, and then use them if the inevitable emergency occurs. You *will* need someone to keep you company throughout the whole event, however.

Note - i'm not a doctor, and have no idea if it would work, but it's what'd i'd try if i were in your situation. Don't do anything before discussing your options with your GP!
posted by cgg at 9:58 AM on November 26, 2007

School yourself in some good old fashioned breathing techniques. Practice them from now until you get on a plane. (I can't find a good link. Anyone?)

Square breathing helps anxiety. Breathe in for four counts, hold it four four counts, breathe out for four counts, hold it for four counts, repeat.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:59 AM on November 26, 2007

Seconding xetere and desuetude. You have a genuine phobia of flying and if possible arranging an alternate form of transportation would be best. Then, after this emergency has been resolved you can take your time and work with a professional to resolve your fear of flying. It doesn't seem realistic to me that you can solve the problem (fear of flying) immediately.

Also, it sounds like you have a negative feedback cycle here. You seem to be just as anxious about having a panic attack as you are with flying. I'm surprised the Ativan didn't help. Have you tried any other medication? If you absolutely must fly, an anti-anxiety / anti-panic attack medication should be helpful.
posted by monarch75 at 10:21 AM on November 26, 2007

Is there a chance you can fly with a trusted companion, even if you can't drive? Buying them a ticket may be well worth the extra expenditure if you're medicated. This might be someone who you trust or just someone who can hold your hand, or talk you through this. They can also give people a heads up when you start hyperventilating that you are an anxious flyer rather than some of the other conclusions security/other passengers might come to.

I agree that if possible, you should drive. If flying means something to you you should spend the next months working on this with a therapist, developing techniques to see you through your first flight. Perhaps your first flight could be on a private plane, with your therapist on board with you? Most areas have small flying clubs, and I'm sure you could find a pilot to take you up for a flip (pilot talk for a quick ride).

Here it would be ok for you to freak out (as long as you didn't touch the pilot and as long as the pilot knew what was going on) and it might be helpful for you to release the tension of being anxious about making a scene in the airport/on the airplane.

After a few short flights (which you could get for less than $100 each) you might "graduate" to a short flight?

All this is predicated on the idea that you want to be able to fly again. As for flying *tomorrow* I nth the suggestion to speak to your physician immediately. Also, no caffeine, take a sleeping pill the night before (lack of sleep can, for me at least, promote anxiety), and write on your hand the things you need to do in the airport, e.g.:

Keep breathing DEEPLY, etc
posted by stewiethegreat at 2:41 PM on November 26, 2007

It sounds like your grandfather is very ill, and I'm sorry to hear that. I don't know if you are waiting for worse news before departing, but why not start driving out to be with your family now? It looks like you are in MA -- if you can get one or two people to go with you to trade off driving (and sleeping), you should be able to get anywhere in the lower 48 in 2 days. Buy your friend an airline ticket back, and you can either drive back later or sell the car (or return your rental car) and take the train/bus.

If you have a bad enough reaction in an airport these days, you can get arrested or worse. Dealing with this probably won't help with your family emergency.
posted by yohko at 7:28 PM on November 26, 2007

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