Grab it by the tail

Photo by James Cridland

To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.
-- Katherine Paterson.

I wish I could tell you how it happened but the reality is that sometimes, we don't understand how things come upon us until time has sorted the sequence out. All I can say is that one day, the fright just seemed to be there, comfortably lodged in the area of my ribcage, secretly wrapping itself around my heart. I haven't been able to get rid of it since.

The first time I noticed, I was seated somewhere in the middle of a huge Airbus, stuffed with luggage and passengers coming back from Paris to the US. It was nighttime outside the windows but time was rewinding itself as we flew over the Atlantic in our crumpable metal cigar. To the left and right of me there sat a sea of elderly nuns dressed in habits. They had been attending a Christian symposium in Europe, revisiting the grounds of their faith and no doubt having found something still fertile and growing there because, I remember how unusually chirpy and chatty they seemed when I most longed for some rest.

Even at this age I was a pro at flying well, not so much in the luggage department, that would take another decade to pare itself down to those essentials on which someone like me, could survive on the contents of her carry-on alone, should the plane ever crash-land. No, I meant that I was an expert at handling myself at foreign airports and dealing with hotels and taxi drivers, cognizant of the little tricks that can hinder or expedite travel because by this time, I had already flown much and gone places.

I was dozing when the lights came on, the captain's voice rousing me from semi-sleep. We would be passing through some turbulence, could everyone please fasten their seatbelts? My seatbelt was already fastened - thank you very much. Unless getting up to stretch or to attend to private matters, I always tightened that uncomfortable strap no matter what because, I had once read about a Japanese airplane that had encountered freak turbulence. In the incident, one of the unbuckled passengers had flown straight out of his seat, hit the ceiling and unfortunately broken his neck. The moral of that story: buckle the seat belt. And so I did.

The jarring movements started quickly enough after the captain's announcement but I kept my eyes firmly shut and attempted to recover my doze. This went on for a few minutes and though I could feel the plane had accelerated and climbed higher in order to shake off the currents that plagued its stability, rather than have those maneuvers help, we seemed to have been caught in something worse. That was the first time I ever felt a spasm of pure fear while in the air. The first time I ever made crash contact with the knowledge that there was a long way to fall inside a little metal container with nothing but endless ocean beneath.

Gradually the conversations died down. All of us could feel that there was a difference this time. A few seats down my line a nun plucked out her rosary and began to pray. Many other nuns followed suit. Their low-key murmurings were no serious competition to my silent moaning or to the creakings of the plane. After what seemed like forever, we heard another message from the captain, everyone was to please remain calm, with their seat belts still buckled (as if anyone would have thought to get up at this point), hopefully we would be through the worst of it soon, he said.

I really don't know how long it lasted but the minutes shook and grunted by like a freight train set on an unstoppable collision course. In that everlasting interim, several of the overhead compartments popped open and belongings flew out. People yelled in fright. From the ceiling of the plane, a few of the oxygen masks dropped down, jostled out of their storage by the extreme movement and many on the plane took it as a sign that we were somehow doomed. Through it all, I felt the nuns and everyone else praying. I found my own religion on that trip. The fervent litany of my wordless Oh Gods bringing me closer to a state of spiritual trance the likes of which, I have felt only once again in trying to give birth my son.

Afterward, while the stewardesses went about righting the cabin and checking to make sure that the passengers were outwardly OK, I was told that there had been some people who had gotten sick and little children who had cried while alarmed parents had held them as tight as they could to their sides. On deplaning I caught snippets of conversations from the other passengers - how horrible, said one lady to another, I know, I've never gone through anything like that in my life... I daresay it could turn me off of flying again... Vraiment effrayant (truly frightening) said one French stewardess to the other right before they pasted twin smiles of practiced happiness and delivered their goodbyes.

I walked out of that airplane with something more than just my carry-on and tattered nerves that day. Something that has settled deep within me with the passage of years. It took me a long time to understand that my initial discomfort with air turbulence has grown into an unchecked terror that threatens the peace of those around me and raises concerns in my impressionable child.

I really thought that I could handle this fear myself. I thought I could handle it when I commuted every weekend for a whole year from DC to Houston, and I've thought I could handle it whenever I've been on a plane that has experienced something other than a mild shake. Three weeks ago however, on a flight back from Washington, I found myself hyperventilating and holding on to my son's hand with the grip of death. I could tell from his frightened little face that he knew something awful was happening to me and it was scaring him terribly.

Trying to get some control, I resorted to my most trustworthy distraction - my husband's trick of transposing the letters in the names of states but, you will laugh, I knew I'd finally reached my limit when Alabama was no longer Abalama but a stuck course of ay! mama! and the tears leaked unchecked from my eyes. R's visible worry got through to me in the end. I could tell that I needed to somehow reassure him immediately and that gave me the strength to pretend that I was OK. It helped that the flight became steady again but deep down I knew that it no longer matters that I think my fear of turbulence is ridiculous. Because however ridiculous, it it is real to me and I cannot handle it on my own. I've tried, but I can't.

This is the first of my New Year's resolutions. To seek professional help in overcoming my fear of turbulence and halt it before it becomes a fear of flying altogether. I cannot allow that to happen. In this day and age, flying is like taking a taxi for my family. We fly out of Houston a minimum of 5 times a year if not more and I cannot tarnish my son's experience with airplanes through my own negligence in seeking help. I'll do whatever it takes to get a handle on it so that it may release its handle on me. I hope I may someday overcome it. Wish me luck and no turbulence in my upcoming trips at least and let me know if you, like me, have developed a fear of something you had once not feared at all.

During the last few days, I've been wishing to catch up with many of you but having family in the house has occupied most of my free time. Now that my father has left (he went back to Panama this morning) and R starts school again tomorrow, I will have time to do my blog rounds and see how you guys have been doing. Of my family, only my mother remains with me here now. She will rejoin my dad in Panama after nearly 6 months of being in the US helping my sister with her newborn child. Houston is her last stop before she goes home and I mean to enjoy these last two weeks of her company, because it will be three months before I get to see her again. Until then, please forgive the absences. Thank you again for all your kind well-wishes for 2009. I return them ten-fold.



  1. What a wonderfully written post.

    I too have a problem with an awareness during flight that I used to ignore. It does make travel a bit more stressful which most people who know me would find funny given how much time I spend in the air. I hope you'll post your progress. I might be encouraged to seek out a little help in that area as well.

  2. Happy New Year and may you find yourself at ease in the air during the next 360 days. I would be interested to hear your progress as well... my thoughts will be with you as you move through this challenge! xx, Nona

  3. Wow! Milena, that sounds very frightening. I have no fear of flying myself, but I've experienced some pretty scary turbulence and it definitely can be heart stopping at times.

    I wish you good luck in learning to deal with it.

  4. Elizabeth: Hi. Thank you very much. My theory now is that the more we fly the worse it gets. Kind of like the older we get, the more aware we are that our time on this earth is drawing to a close. I'll tell you about it. Whatever might help me, might also help you.

    Nona! The same to you Nona dear. How are you doing by the way. And do keep me in your thoughts. I have a trip coming up at the end of February.

    William: It is. Quite scary. But not as scary as finding a 2006 jar of pickles with only the water left inside my fridge. That would truly freak. me. out! ;-)

  5. Great post. I also have a fear when I fly, so I would love to hear how you progress too. I fly because as you said, it is a part of life nowadays and it's the only way I can really get home.

    And I hope that you enjoy your time with your mom :)

  6. I suspect that someday, the big pharmaceutical companies will buy out the airlines and we'll be boarded up like cordwood after they've knocked us out for the duration of the flight.
    I have yet to be gripped by fear. I buy into the notion that the worst thing that can happen to me is death and when that happens I won't know about it. (Okay - I'm lying. I am not fearless. But it did make for a casually macho kind of comment, no?)
    Happy '09 Milena. And good luck.

  7. Dori: Thank you. I enjoyed your last post too. I know, you must fly transatlantically more than I do. And I will Dory. I'll enjoy the time. Like you, I know how wonderful and precious it is.

    Ron! I've thought of drugging myself before the trip. Indeed I have but then, I can only do that if M is flying with me and keeping an eye on R. Otherwise, we'd have a knocked out mother and a toddler with no supervision.

    The worst thing that can happen is the plunge before death in my view. If it all went quick that'd be one thing but I fear the falling.

    Unlike some macho people I know, I ain't afraid to admit how chicken I am in this. ;-)

  8. I had a similar experience once on a trip to London. Luckily an airline steward was sitting facing me in the bulkhead and basically talked through the entire experience explaining why the plane was moving as it was and how everything was really okay. I was still scared, but somehow this made it better and left only a bad memory, no lasting scars.

    Given the amount of travel you do and how much you enjoy it, I hope you will find someone or group that can walk you through this.

    Enjoy your visit with your lovely Mom!

  9. Hi Milena, I liked your fear of flying post. I, too, started out life unafraid, but as I got older I became more aware of my own mortality. My previous husband used to say that this kind of fear is vanity-driven - given how few air accidents there are (relatively speaking), you have to be very vain to think it could happen to you. That argument didn't help, but flying in MUCH smaller planes did (you can see what the pilot is doing and how the plane handles, and this gives the illusion of control), and, as you wrote, having to appear calm for the sake of the children helped too. Good luck with your quest in 2009.

  10. It's amazing how fear increases with age - maybe experience or maybe we just get wimpier. Sounds like a crazy experience - I'm glad it was nothing more than a "blip on the flying radar".
    Lots of lessons to be learned from your experience, but mostly that you're ok?

  11. I read much of this, but I have to be honest; I skimmed, too, because I don't want to take on your anxiety about flying!! I'd rather avoid thinking about it, haha! I think professional help is a good idea; you're so smart.

    Happy that you have had the love of so many around you this holiday season..."see" you soon.. :)


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