It all started one unsettled morning as the 737 climbed out of Sydney. My window seat was on the starboard wing and no sooner had I folded the paper to the crossword page, the view was obliterated by a bright, white light, followed by an incredibly loud bang.

In a nanosecond, the hum of conversation around me ceased. A hundred or so travellers collectively held their breath. Less than a minute later, but what seemed like forever, the co-pilot casually announced that we ‘may have noticed’ we’d just been hit by lightning. The subtext? No biggie. The aircraft didn’t miss a beat; we continued to Melbourne with a minimum of fuss, got home, unpacked our bags and headed down to the local café.

I picked up the latte glass and my hand shook violently. Not exactly delayed onset post-traumatic stress but clearly my sub-conscious was running through a checklist of ‘what-might-have-beens’.

Fast forward a few months, without having the need or opportunity to fly again. September 11, 2001. I was just getting into bed when my husband yelled at me to turn the TV on. A light plane, he said, had crashed into New York City’s World Trade Centre. Horrified, I watched the second plane complete its mission of evil. Like the rest of the world, my heart ached for everyone caught up in that atrocity. My brain numbed by the use of a passenger aircraft as a weapon of terrorism.

As the coverage continued for days, weeks, months, watching that footage over and over, a fear took root in the darkest recesses of my psyche. I couldn’t see myself stepping foot on a plane again – ever. For the next seven years, I would change the channel whenever 9-11 footage was screened. I’d look up at jets flying overhead and a shiver would run down my spine. I couldn’t even drop a friend off at the airport without my palms streaming with sweat.

And constantly I berated myself. How pathetic I was. I’d let a tiny little bump on a flight between Sydney and Melbourne swell into a full-blown phobia. I drove to Sydney, to Noosa, to South Australia for holidays. I’d feign interest when others talked about the lights of Paris, the palm trees of Fiji, the trolleys of San Francisco. Been there, done that. I told myself there was no need to go there again.

But my husband hadn’t ‘been there’; in fact he’d travelled relatively little outside Australia. After seven years of grinding highway drives and car boots full of shiraz, he wanted to spread his wings. I had to confront my fear.
He sat next to me at the computer as I booked us flights to London. Friends counselled me to try a short hop, maybe somewhere like Adelaide. I was having none of that – it was London or bust. I sought advice from a doctor friend. He explained that the symptoms I was experiencing were the result of a chemical reaction. Stress hormones were being released over which, he said, I probably had little conscious control. He suggested anti-anxiety medication. I immediately made an appointment with my GP.

Her knotted brows told me this wasn’t going to be quite so straightforward. I would be given some chemical assistance for the flight, but only if I attended a ‘fear of flying’ course first. She gave me the name of a psychologist who had run a course for Ansett and was in private practice. I rang and begged for an appointment.

Airline fearful flyer courses often involve setting foot on an aircraft and being taken through the sights and sounds of ‘what’s normal’. This consultation was an hour and a half of statistics about why commercial aviation is one of the safest means of transport in the world. His coup de grace – statistically, I was more likely to be kicked to death by a mule than to end my days in a jet crash. Triumphantly, he sat back and asked whether I’d seen ‘the light’.

And therein was the problem – logically I had no issue with flying. I recognised on that level that it was a perfectly safe way of travelling. The thing about phobias is that they’re illogical. I wanted insights – I wanted to know how to deal with what I was feeling, and thinking. I wanted strategies, not statistics. I wanted my sub-conscious to catch up with the conscious. I headed straight back to my GP who gave me a prescription for Xanax with some strict admonitions about its use.

I did a trial run. Xanax being an anti-anxiety medication, it doesn’t necessarily put you to sleep but, on popping a tablet late one evening, I conked out half an hour later for a very encouraging deep sleep.

And so, the big day arrived. The first leg from Melbourne to Hong Kong left after midnight. The moment the flight began boarding, I popped the tablet. As we took off, I squirmed in my seat, eyes firmly clamped shut, mentally telling myself I was OK, trying to will myself into something approaching calmness. My husband tried to offer me sympathy; I told him off – I didn’t need anything else to reinforce how bad I was feeling. I waited 30 minutes, 60 minutes for the Xanax to ‘kick in’. Hours went by, the meal had been served, the plane was dark and everyone tried to sleep. My eyes were like saucers. I nudged my husband awake and asked for another tablet – it obviously wasn’t working.

We arrived in Hong Kong early in the morning. I had a raging headache from eight-and-a-half hours of staring into nothingness in the dry aircraft cabin. The fact I’d made it part way was scant consolation – there was another 12 hours to go.

When we re-boarded I repeated my procedure. Another Xanax (my doctor would have been horrified) and off we headed for Heathrow. Six hours in, again, everything around me was dark. My husband had stretched out in our exit row seats and was fast asleep. I was, literally, rocking back and forth and my mantra this time was ‘I’d like to get off now’. It wasn’t a panic attack but you could see it from there. I took another Xanax (I’d been given the lowest possible dose but it still worked out to be four within 24 hours!) and still I remained alert and held myself as rigid as an ironing board. Somehow the hours ticked by.

Of course, no-one had told me that adrenalin can countermand the effects of medication. Once we were safely inside the terminal, through immigration and on to the train heading for central London, that pesky hormone finally stopped pumping and the cumulative effects of the Xanax did their worst. I was a blob.

But I’d done it – I proved to myself that my fear of flying was just that – irrational, ridiculous, inconvenient and unwarranted. I’d like to say that once the drought was broken, so to speak, that I never had a problem again. Six years and a great many international and domestic flights since, I am still an uneasy flyer.

The sheer volume of air miles I’ve flown has de-sensitised me – to a point. While for daylight flights, even on long haul, I no longer take medication, I still need something to help me sleep overnight. When flights are only moderately bumpy, I can now concentrate enough to be able to complete a crossword, read a book, or watch a movie. When turbulence hits, I need a distraction, bless my iPad with its mindless solitaire game that has been known to get a severe workout between Melbourne and Singapore.

Logic will only get you so far; confronting the issue that stops you enjoying everything you want out of life is the only answer. I’m still doing that.

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