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Why I Am Not at Home On a Plane

Posted Apr 17 2009 10:51am
What is home to you?

I am a nervous flyer. That is to say, I am now, in my late 20s, a nervous flyer. I have flown my whole life, with company or by myself, with confidence and ease of mind. When I was a toddler, my family lived in Norway, flying often across the ocean and around Europe. Then, when I was ten, we moved to France for a year. I remember those plane rides more vividly, and while I may have experienced some air sickness, I never felt afraid for my life.

Now, some 19 years later, I have developed a fear I cannot explain. I recently flew back to Austin, TX, where I recently lived for 4 years. It had been over 3 years since I had flown, and while it was unacceptable NOT to take the flight, since it meant going somewhere fun and exciting, I was, nonetheless, apprehensive about how the experience would be. It's hard not to build something up in your head that you are afraid of if you haven't done it in some time.

I worked hard with my acupuncturist in the weeks prior to my trip to try and discover where these feelings might originate. One concept that came to light was my strong allegiance to "home." By this, I mean "home" in the literal sense, but also the visceral sense. Home is grounded, safe, and full of personal meaning. It can be in multiple places, and with various people. For instance, Austin is one of my homes, and so is Mercersburg, PA, Highland Lake, Moscow, ID, and Bainbridge, NY. Home means being with my loved ones, my husband, my dog. Home means having two feet on solid ground.

"Home" is not careening through the air at 30,000 feet.

My fear generates partially from the idea of "leaving" home, whether physically (i.e. getting in a plane and going somewhere far away) or figuratively (i.e. well...dying, and having to leave everything I know behind forever). Getting on a plane opens up the possibility for both. Of course, part of my fear is irrational, and I realize this, but it makes it no less potent and real experientially.

Another element that ties into my need for "home" is the idea of buoyancy. Think about the saying, "I feel light as a feather." I immediately picture Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe drinking "fizzy lifting drinks" and floating merrily up, up, up! The saying has positive connotations; it means you are happy, free-spirited, and unaffected by the trials of the world.

But buoyancy can also involve feeling so disconnected or untethered to any sense of "home" that you actually experience vertigo (picture that spinning fan at the top of the ceiling that suddenly turns Charlie and Grandpa Joe's experience into a nightmare). This is how I feel on a plane. If the pilot has to lower the plane in altitude to avoid turbulence, for instance, I easily lose my sense of groundedness and control, and mentally feel afraid that something is wrong with the plane (i.e. we're "going down"). Not a pleasant feeling. There is a reason I don't ride on roller coasters either. I have never enjoyed feeling like my stomach is in my throat. If only I could just burp away the fear, Willy Wonka style!

My recent flight experience ended up being somewhat fine, and somewhat distressing. On the way to Austin, I was determined to make flying a positive experience and focused on my reverence for the amazing flying machine in which I sat. I venerated the mechanical precision of the wings and engines, and the miraculous buoyancy of this gargantuan contraption. In those rational moments, I knew that planes are built to be in the air, and are actually safer when in flight, and that air travel is the safest form of travel. The return flight, on the other hand, was a bit bumpy, and I was faced with having to admit to myself the reality of my fear. Looking out the window, travel-weary from our crazy week in Austin, I just wanted the flight to be over and to be safe on solid ground, to regroup, and continue to work on this new fear of mine. Luckily my sister was with me, and handles flying quite well. It was nice to have her reassurance when the plane would make sudden dips in the sky.

My goal in working on this fear is to achieve a "buoyancy balance" (catchy, huh?), wherein I am rooted in self-control, mental ease, and confidence, but have a lightness in spirit, and a bounce in my step. This concept is helpful in everyday life, as well as in addressing any of the fears we may experience, whether they are ingrained or new ones surfacing without warning. Hopefully, I will achieve some balance with my fear of flying. After all, I have a lot of traveling left to do!

Do you ever feel like your "buoyancy" is unbalanced? Have you experienced new fears as you grow older that you never did before? What gives you a sense of "home"?


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