I am sitting on the ground, my legs curled up into my chest and my head between my knees. My hands are over my face and I’m breathing heavy.
I know I am going to die.
My anxiety was welling up in the morning as we prepared to leave my parents house for the airport. It was a year earlier that my fiancée and I had the really rough flight, but we made this trip home to Wisconsin from Arizona on a red-eye with no issue. But now, as we prepare to return, I am hyperventilating, oscillating between wanting to throw up and pass out.
I can’t get on that plane.
My thoughts are irrational and I know it:
The flight number has a four in it. I was born on December 4th. The departure time has a 12 in it – 12 for December. This is the flight that I am supposed to die on. I can’t get on this plane. I can’t let my fiancée get on this plane.
My fiancée calls a friend and he tries to talk to me, and it is useless. I’ve made up my mind. The gate agent announces our names in a final boarding call, but it’s too late. We are walking back through security, looking for a place to stay that evening and another way to get home.
Turbulence and Aftershock
That was 2012. My wife (then fiancée) and I moved to Phoenix away from all we knew, including family, but still had a wedding that we needed to plan and execute back in Wisconsin. I knew that meant travel on planes to get home, and I tried to ignore my anxiety about flying. I gutted out that first flight back, but couldn’t manage the return trip, at least not that day. A few days later I did get on a flight home, but it was the last one for a while.
For the next 18 months I refused to fly. I missed my bachelor party in Philadelphia. I skipped a company retreat in Florida. I convinced my wife that I should drive back for our wedding early with a friend and meet her in Wisconsin, then we could “road trip” for our honeymoon. While other couples flew to Hawaii or Europe after their wedding, we drove between six and 14 hours each day and made stops in Madison, Boulder, and Albuquerque en route back to Phoenix. (I planned all of that the day before we left.)
Fear is powerful and for that year and a half I let it limit me and define what I could and could not do. I thought I was being safe, but really, I was slowly falling apart.
After I missed the staff retreat, my wife called me out. I needed to get help. I conceded and contacted a therapist and, in addition, enrolled in an online fear of flying course. I began the process of overcoming a fear that was limiting what God wanted to do with my life.
Over the next few months there would be many trips that I took and several small steps toward being free of fear. In confronting my fear, I realized some critical things:
1) Fear limited me.
That is what it is designed to do. Sometimes this is good – we should have a fear of the dark alley at night when we are walking by ourselves. Punishments are built on fear – I am afraid of going to jail so I don’t try to steal from other people. But fear can take over our reason and make perfectly safe situations seem incredibly unsafe.
There are some things we fear which limit us and we need to break through those limits. Whether it is a fear of flying or a fear of starting a new business or the fear of asking that person out on a date – fear will always leave you feeling safe but you are dangerously sliding into mediocrity.
2) I needed support.
Inside my mind, I twisted all the rules and reasons for not getting on a plane. I needed people outside of myself that I trusted to encourage me and walk with me. That means I needed to overcome another small fear – I had to tell them I was afraid of flying.
It is scary telling people about your fears. I worried that people would laugh at me or get angry with me or tell me how stupid it was to fear flying. I made up scenarios where people judged me and rejected me because they thought I was weak. But when I started to tell people about my fear I realized that sharing your fears with people you love and trust, as well as trained professionals, is critical in overcoming them. Fears thrive on silence. Once you start to vocalize them to others, you shed light on the dark spaces where fear hides.
Part of support is finding a therapist. My wife was an incredible support, but I needed the help of Dr. Wade and Captain Tom Bunn to help me overcome this. I needed the right tools, which I found in the SOAR program. Get the right people and get the right tools – don’t fight fear alone.
3) It’s a process.
I wanted my fear of flying to go away overnight. It took time. I had to celebrate small victories along the way. Even when I was able to finally get on a plane again, I had a specific routine I needed to follow. I didn’t sleep at all the night before a flight. I couldn’t get a coffee in the morning because I knew that raised my risk for anxiety (so there were many flights where I landed with a brutal headache).
But, as time went on I started to sleep better at night before a flight and could order coffee knowing that I would manage the caffeine well. I stopped freaking out when there were delays and flight changes. I started to enjoy flying through or around storms. I celebrated all those small victories in overcoming fear.
I also recognize that the process may never end. Fear is never vanquished because we need that emotion for other real things (remember the dark alley). I know that, if I am not mindful of it, I could easily slip back into anxiety. I don’t want that to happen, so I still do my “pre-flight mental exercises”, talk to my therapist, and celebrate victories. Fear will not limit what God wants to do in my life.
Since I got back on planes in late 2013, I’ve traveled over 400,000 miles. I’ve been to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Canada, and New Zealand (with a layover in Australia, making it my longest flight). I’ve flown across the United States, been on “emergency landing aircraft,” flown through storms and been bounced around by a fair share of turbulence. The past two years I’ve hit the highest elite flyer status on my favorite airline, Delta. I still celebrate those victories and I wear my Diamond Medallion “brag tag” on my backpack, not to show off, but to remind myself that fear will not beat me.
Cleared for Takeoff
I am flying in first class (a complimentary upgrade) on my way to Canada for an event as I write this blog. We just got through a patch of turbulence and I am enjoying the winter view across the Midwest as we fly at 33,000 feet. The moon is rising as the sunsets, casting incredible hues of blue, indigo, orange, and yellow across the clouds and into the horizon. I am grateful that fear did not limit the great things God wanted to do for and through me, and I am excited about what tomorrow brings.
Join the Conversation: What fear have you overcome? Brag about it and share one insight you gained from beating it.