Learning to Fly

Flying seems to be something causing many of us discomfort. For some people the notion of flying on an airplane can be downright scary. My fear of flying kept me grounded for ten years. What does the fear of flying have to do with cerebral palsy you might ask? Well, my fear of flight seemed to be more complicated than riding in an aircraft. Think of all the physical activities taking place when someone decides to take a trip. All the planning we go through from finding somewhere to stay, renting the car, booking our flight. Then, we pack, find ways to and from the airport, handle security, and navigate through crowds of people. Traveling finds us in unfamiliar surroundings, when cerebral palsy can already cause struggle in surroundings that are familiar. On top of all this, it’s usually not something we are required to do, unless done for work. Flying became something that could be justifiably given up, in my mind anyway. Not going on trips meant saving money. It also meant avoiding the stifling panic filling my body over the idea of air travel. But, relinquishing myself from traveling stole something from living. Of course, this loss didn’t occur to me at the time. The opportunity to visit amazing places around the world is a blessing. A blessing not to be stolen from us by fear.

Growing up we seemed to travel all the time. We would take family trips almost every year, sometime two trips. Airplanes were seemingly another part of life. Our family took some summer trips to Hawaii after school let out. One year heading down to Phoenix in June. We started traveling to ski during the winter with family friends. Following my 7th grade year in school, I flew to London on my own to visit a friend who had moved there. Airports and airplanes had been part of our yearly lives. However, with age the vacations seemed to become more challenging. During my latter years of high school and into college, leaving home through flight became miserable. Heading to Hawaii with family or friends was a dreaded nightmare, even quick trips to Southern California were tough to bare. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and simply stopped going. It was difficult for me and the people who love me most. But, the fear of getting back on the plane to fly home kept me from relaxing, and seemingly ruined the entire vacation. Being on vacation felt isolating.

After allowing the fear of travel to win, it was challenging to get back onto an airplane. During those ten years of panic, two failed attempts were made. The first was a planned family vacation to Hawaii. Having made it all the way through security and to the gate, things were looking good. Sitting in the waiting area to board the plane, panic overwhelmed my body. The plane was never boarded, they refunded the mileage for my seat. My mother and brother went on to Hawaii, while a car took me back home. The second challenging situation inside those ten years was another failed attempt. A trip was planned to visit my brother while he was attending college in San Diego. The trip would involve my mom and me flying down to spend a long weekend with my brother. It would be fun to visit San Diego and see his life at school. This time we made it through security, survived the waiting area, and even boarded the airplane. Upon sitting for some time, anxiety again filled my body uncontrollably. Just before they shut the aircraft door to pull away from the gate, I couldn’t take the panic anymore, got up and walked off the plane. Again, my mom flew to visit my brother, while a car took me home. It would be years before my next attempt to fly.

There seems to be undeniable selfishness in these actions. Fear can bring about unsettling emotions and unpredictable behavior. It was a blessing to be given these opportunities to travel. Blessings allowed to be destroyed by fear and panic. Maybe resulting from the inability to let go of control and feel comfort inside my own skin. The fear doesn’t simply cause anxiety and hurt for me, which were my thoughts for years. It can also hurt those people in my life. Your loved ones go on these amazing trips, but they’re missing your presence. The vacations aren’t quite complete without the entire family or entire group of friends. Beginning to realize the impact of my fears on others, began to change my thought patterns. It seems not many people would choose to have their selfishness impact those they love. For me, life presented a situation, which had me looking for solutions.

The fear of flying wasn’t the only thing keeping me grounded. Moving through airports also caused feelings of anxiety. Cerebral palsy has always caused speed challenges when performing physical tasks. The many physical tasks required in security lines was daunting. Since flying for the last time, different security procedures had been implemented. Laptop computers had to be removed from carry-on bags, removing belts was required, shoes had to be taken off, and boarding passes were shown in combination with identification. Those are a lot of physical tasks for anyone going through security. Added to the challenge can be the speed required, as everyone is scurrying to reach their flight. Now imagine you had to perform all these small tasks, but you were required to think through how to perform each of them before doing so. Down to your brain telling your hand to grab the zipper of the carry on and pull, or grasp your free shoe lace and pull, then loosen the strings to remove your shoe. These are some thoughts cerebral palsy requires. It’s tough to simply do things, CP requires me to think through a physical task, then perform the task. When a time restraint becomes involved, and I’m unfamiliar with performing the action, panic can crowd my brain. Finding ways around these challenges became important to more fully enjoy opportunities of life.

Years had passed since the last attempt at flying. Now, there was going to be a wedding in Cancun. Driving to Cancun wasn’t exactly going to work, so that left me with a decision. Having allowed my fear to interrupt other trips and weddings, the outcome probably seemed predictable. According to past behaviors, this wedding would be skipped as well. When news of the location came, my mind began thinking. The marriage was for a close family friend, someone we spent many weekends with growing up. We went on trips with their family and he was like a third brother. The occurrence of this wedding drove me to explore ways of flying again. It wasn’t a trip to be missed and being there to witness the event felt important. The pursuit of a solution began. It didn’t take long to find something that might just work. My secret to flying might be found in medication. Anti-anxiety medication to be exact.

So, after my visit to the doctor. The medication was to be taken an hour or so before our flight. Following my previous two experiences with the airport, who truly knew if this plan would work. But, it was definitely worth another attempt. Before leaving for Cancun it seemed productive to try the medication. My first experience with it was positive. The meds provided the feeling of relaxation. My muscles weren’t as tense and worry seemed to subside. There was hope, but taking it before the fear of flight could evoke different reactions. So, the pill was taken on our way to the airport. Hopefully it would give relaxed feelings from the time we were dropped off and I would end up on the flight.

The medication prescribed to help me fly worked. Walking through the airport was a much calmer experience than memory served. We left on a late-night flight bound for Atlanta. Flying late provided relative peace inside the airport. There were less people moving through security lines for redeye flights, which took some pressure off physical tasks. Being on the medicine had me walking more slowly than normal. My family found themselves turning around in wonderment of where I had gone, as the pill had me casually strolling through the airport behind them. Like there wasn’t a worry in our world. The quiet in the airport found us handling security with relative ease. My brother being there to help out with my computer or wherever else he could lend his hand. We made it to the gate without much anxiety for me and waited in relative relaxation to board. At 11:00 the flight took off with me sitting next to my brother and off to Cancun we went.

Our trip to the wedding in Cancun was awesome. The marriage took place on the beach just in front of our villas. Those seven days were full of some great memories, as friends and family all stayed together. We hung out by the pool and swam in the Caribbean Sea. A couple days were spent playing golf, where the best man recorded a hole-in-one. It turned out to be the most relaxing vacation of my life to that point. One of my biggest fears was being concurred, as it had been ten years since leaving home. The idea of flying home still caused some thoughts of trepidation. But, nothing like the encompassing anxiety of vacations past. We flew out of Cancun during another pretty quiet time. Many of the wedding attendees flew out around the same time, providing extra comfort. My pill was taken during the drive to the Cancun airport like before. We made it through security okay. The first feeling of panic hit just before taking off, but off we went. There was an all-night layover in Atlanta, we boarded an airplane the following morning bound for home.

Following ten years of stifling fear, the Cancun trip was my turning point. Who can tell where my flying ability would be if they hadn’t opted for a destination wedding. The strength came from somewhere to get on that plane. My mother always says, “it’s never just one thing that makes something work or not work.” There was motivation to board that plane and medication to help. But, also family to provide support each step of the way. At that time in life things were also different. New friends helped with words of encouragement. A friend at the time who sadly I don’t know any more gave me a handwritten book of spiritual quotes. That book remains in that carry-on bag. It takes different things from different places to overcome gripping fears. Thankfully there have been amazing blessings in my life to help me do just that.


















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