I was so afraid of flying that I couldn’t set foot on a plane. This is how I overcame my phobia.

When I read that singer Ari Lennox had stopped booking shows overseas because aerophobia was “destroying” his health, I understood his dilemma.

The year I turned 30, I lived in New York with my cello, two adopted tabby cats, and my boyfriend, Brian. He and I conducted a contemporary classical ensemble. We pieced together concerts and part-time jobs to support ourselves while focusing on presenting works by living composers. After managing the artists, we have booked many concerts across the country for the upcoming season. I had also signed up for a three-week tour of East Asia with another band. Finally, my dream of playing for a living and traveling the world playing music seemed within reach. Yet something stood in my way.

For five years I hadn’t flown because I was too scared. Until I was 25, I flew occasionally, but never comfortably. A psychiatrist diagnosed me with panic disorder as a teenager, and flying became one of the main triggers. Every little turbulence made me brace myself for a nose dive. I shivered in my seat and stared out the window as if fixing on the ground would help the plane stay upright. On a trip to visit a college boyfriend in Slovenia, I hyperventilated until a flight attendant asked me to lie on the floor with an oxygen mask.

Did I inherit a distrust of airplanes from my father, who couldn’t fly until he was in his thirties? Or did the crash scene in the movie “Alive” trigger my catastrophic thinking? Whatever the reason, I irrationally believed that flying in the sky put me in danger, and I inadvertently gathered “evidence” to prove that I was right. The landing was always my favorite part because, from my distorted perspective, it was miraculous.

Portrait of the author in 2003, when she was too afraid to fly.
Portrait of the author in 2003, when she was too afraid to fly.

Without a real need fly anywhere, I stopped doing it. Instead of taking a flight I had booked for my best friend’s wedding in Virginia, I rented a car in New York and drove all night to get there on time. The addictive relief I felt overcame any embarrassment or stress from spending extra money on my credit card. In the years that followed, I took buses and trains from New York to Texas, Nevada, Utah and California to perform one-off gigs. But this kind of avoidance behavior allowed my fear to snowball and my muscular courage to atrophy.

When Brian optimistically surprised me with tickets to the Bahamas (with a secret plan to come up with), we made it all the way to the gangplank before I froze. He shook my hand and reasoned with me. In desperation, he tried to pull me forward, but I flailed my limbs in all directions and shouted “Noooo!” until he lets go. I dropped to the linoleum floor and leaned against my carry-on. Brian sat down beside me in silence. After our flight left, he turned to me and said, “I think you need to find some help.

“I know. I’m so sorry, I said. My heart ached.

Four months into the tour abroad, I promised to change. Practicing religiously on a flight simulator program made me believe I could fly a real plane, but I still couldn’t get my foot on it. A neuro-linguistic programming practitioner in Australia hypnotized me over the phone. Six sessions later, I felt the same. My therapist recommended a support group at LaGuardia Airport. I made some phobic friends, but I still haven’t flown.

As a last resort, I booked a $49 “trial” flight from New York to Boston to visit my grandmother.

A week later I saw other passengers leaving and the waiting room emptying out. I saw an apparition of myself giving the attendant a ticket and casually walking along the catwalk. The real me came out of the airport exit and slipped into a taxi. The shabby seats were soothing, as was the bouquet of dirty leather, sweat, and gasoline that flooded my nostrils.

“Have a good trip?” asked the driver.

What a deception. I wanted to change without taking any risks.

The author's cello takes off (with Brian) for a concert in Utah in 2006, while the author takes a train.
The author’s cello takes off (with Brian) for a concert in Utah in 2006, while the author takes a train.

The next day, I gave up on the China tour, knowing that they would never hire me again. Then Brian kindly suggested that I withdraw from the shows next season.

For weeks, I disappeared into our beige sectional couch, numbing myself to replays of “Dawson’s Creek.” Vibrant images of my bandmates in Beijing peppered my Facebook feed, as I felt humiliated and helpless. I was afraid that Brian would leave me. Not wanting to accept my failure to overcome a self-created problem, I decided to try one more time. A Google search led me to a program at the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, New York that ended in a graduation flight. I registered immediately.

Dr. Martin Sief, a psychiatrist and recovered aviophobe, founded Freedom to Fly to help others overcome their phobias like he had. For six weeks, we met pilots, accepted our fears, discussed dealing with panic, and boarded a stationary plane for desensitization. Most importantly, I had an individual counselor, Barbara Bonder, who made me so comfortable that I wanted to adopt her as a second mother. Having tackled a phobia different from mine, she knew how to listen carefully and when to get me back on track.

“Leigh, you don’t understand. You justify your fears,” she said. “Label your anxious thought – give it a name, if you will. So tell that voice to be quiet.

I called my “what if” voice “Fred”. Fred wondered if the graduation flight was going to crash.

“Stop it, Fred. Go away, I say.

“What will it do when your body explodes?” He asked.

“SHUT UP, FRED,” I said. “It’s anxiety. I’m not in danger.

“How can you be wrong if you feel something so strong? ” He asked.

“Because I’m broken. My spirit is clearly broken,” I said aloud as I walked down Broadway.

If I couldn’t trust my own thoughts, feelings, and instincts, then who or what could I trust? Nothing made sense anymore. All I knew was that Barbara was expecting to see me at the Delta Terminal in LaGuardia at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 20―in two days―and that I had to report. I clung to that thought like a castaway on driftwood.

The author and Brian backstage before a concert with Fireworks Ensemble at the Miller Theater in New York in 2010.
The author and Brian backstage before a concert with Fireworks Ensemble at the Miller Theater in New York in 2010.

Two days later, I met the class and Barbara at LaGuardia. From the safety line, I called Brian, my mom, dad and grandma to say I love them, just in case. When we reached the catwalk, I stopped short, but Barbara hooked her arm in mine and pulled me forward. This time, I couldn’t resist.

A flight attendant greeted us as we boarded the plane, and I just stared in response. Barbara pushed me down the aisle to my window seat and sat down next to me. Immediately, I buckled and tightened my seatbelt, and she demanded to see my comfort items.

Big tears fell on a photo of Brian holding a puppy. “Hey! Stop crying,” Barbara said. “Look around. Do you see someone else crying? She brought her face closer to mine. I think of this as our “Moonstruck” moment, like when Cher slapped Nicolas Cage and told him to “get over it”.

As the plane slammed and bounced along the runway, I circled some words in a magazine that started with the letters “th” – a way to keep my mind busy so catastrophic thoughts couldn’t take over – and read cue cards. The buildings on the horizon began to fade. Then the nose tilted upwards, and with a shiver we lifted ourselves off the ground.

For the next three minutes, I closed my eyes and measured time with a 5-5-5 breathing method. Inhale, hold, exhale, repeat. By the time we reached 10,000 feet, the plane’s engines slowed down a bit as the upward tilt of its body eased. I opened my eyes and turned to Barbara.

“I fly,” I whispered.

“You fly,” she said with a smile.

Once we landed, she hugged me and said, “The first 10 times are the hardest. Persevere.” I hadn’t thought of what was next. Forming a new habit would take repetition over time. This I knew from a lifetime of playing the cello. I flew every every week for nine weeks, then I flew every month for six months to play shows with Brian and our chamber band.

Two months later, I traveled from New York to New Delhi, India, and even fell asleep. Halfway across the Atlantic, the plane swayed so much it woke me up. I looked at my friend, who was sitting next to me and looked nervous.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We ride the waves in the air, just as a boat rides the waves in the ocean. It’s normal.”

With that, I fell back asleep.

Leigh Stuart is a professional cellist from New York who has toured the United States extensively and has performed on Broadway, as well as Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, United Nations, Library of Congress and at Radio City Music Hall. She is a member of the Chamber Orchestra of New York, the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra, and the instrumental music faculty at Berkeley Carroll School. Leigh lives in Westbeth Artists Housing and is working on a memoir. You can find out more about her at leighstuart.comon Instagram at @lstuartnyc and on Twitter at @leighstuartnyc.

Do you have a compelling personal story that you would like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.