There goes the fear


I type this from 36000 ft, somewhere on a flight path between JFK and LAX. And while I am sitting here I marvel at how things change over time. I marvel at how we are capable of changing our head and feelings about things.

On the morning of  September 11 2001, I was on my way to the airport in LA, where I was living and working at the time. I was to make one of my routine trips to the New York office of the company I worked for at the time. As I prepared to go to the airport, a friend who was going to give me a ride called me to tell me to turn on the news. It seemed that some plane had just hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and my friend wondered if my flight might be delayed.  I told him that although it sounded like an awful fluke accident, I didn’t how it could affect my flight plans. I imagined some small piloted craft had hit the tower, some prop plane whose pilot had been drunk or something. I turned on the news just in time to witness the second plane hit the other tower, and the next one hit the Pentagon. That is the moment the shock set in, and I obviously never made it to the airport that day. We spent that day, two friends and I, wandering around the eerie quiet of LA, wondering if we or some other target would be next. We tried in vain to reach friends and colleagues in New York, but all communication was jammed and it was several hours until we heard from them.

Two weeks later, when flight restrictions were lifted, I finally took that flight to New York. What I found was a city that was shell shocked and bewildered. I found a city where everyone was still mourning, where the xeroxed copies of faces were still plastered on so many walls, beseeching people for information about loved ones who had gone missing that day. I traveled to ground zero to witness the massive scale of the destruction, the strange dust that still covered the buildings, and notice the odd smell that still hung in the air. I connected with old friends and found that everywhere we went out, the city was partying like it was the end of the world. People were drinking heavily and doing drugs all over the place it seemed, throwing caution to the wind, clearly a way of coping with the shock and future uncertainty.

On the flight back to LA, my plane experienced perhaps the worst turbulence I have ever seen. We flew through a heavy storm and the winds blew the plane in many directions, side to side, up and down. The flight attendants were strapped in as well for much of the flight, as nervous passengers gasped and grimaced and pushed their call buttons for some assurance that was not forthcoming. We landed in one piece, everyone a bit shaken, but apparently never in any serious danger. Over the next few months I noticed that I began to develop an aversion to certain situations, notably flying and elevators. I began to experience a series of panic attacks at odd moments, increasing in frequency and duration over the next several months.

I began to worry greatly about where this was heading and what, if anything, I could do about it. My job required a fair amount of travel and I began to intensely fear taking the next flight to New York and back, obsessing over the weather conditions and seating in the cabin, at all times trying to assure myself of the safest, calmest flight I possibly could. Around this time I really started to fear losing control of my life. It seemed my fears were starting to define me, and just thinking about them could trigger a panic attack.

I finally consulted with my doctor about my intense fears of flying and being trapped in elevators, and he prescribed some medication to take before flying. It wasn’t practical to take before riding elevators or daily because of the time to take effect and the unfortunate side effect of making me a bit drowsy. Still, it did wonders for me. Over the next several months and 8 or so flights that I took, I would take one of these pills before boarding the plane. When turbulence happened, it no longer seemed the existential threat that it had previously. It seemed like bumps. After several months of taking the medication before flying, I gradually stopped taking it on several flights, and then altogether. During this time my panic attacks stopped, and I stopped being worried about flying. And since that time several years ago, even bumpy flights don’t seem to affect me. I was amazed that I could train myself out of this fear.

Around this time I read a book about how the mind works that I no longer remember the name of, but which held a key insight that I found fascinating. It described the mind and its habits as a series of pathways much like rivers. It talked about how these pathways or channels became deeper and stronger the more they were exercised. It talked about habit formation and how just like a river that is fed more water, they get stronger the more they are fed, or dry up if they are lacking stimulation. The impulses and stimulation that move through our brains can be channeled in many directions, and these same stimulations can effect completely different thoughts and feelings depending on how they are experienced.  This was clearly what had happened to me, and it has inspired me since. We have the power in ourselves to change our attitudes and challenge our fears. We might require a little help now and then (as I did with the medication) to get things going, but as we train ourselves into our fears and habits, so can we train ourselves out of them. Once those rivers are dried up, so too does our fear.

As I look out the window, I see wisps of beautiful white clouds in the distance to my left and beyond that the hazy ground below.  Everything else is clear blue sky.