I don’t mean to blow my own horn, but I would have to call myself a seasoned flyer. I’ve taken over fifty flights in one year alone, and probably something like two hundred in my life. I’ve been on a flight where a three-year-old Ecuadorian child standing on the seat beside me has vomited directly at my shoulder as Miley and Me was arriving at its emotional climax, the unexpected projection ricocheting off my leather jacket in such a way that I couldn’t tell which drops on my face were tears and which were baby-spew. I’ve been on a flight where I’ve spent an hour in the W/C after eating a dodgy burger at Cancun Airport (following a two-day bender in Playa del Carmen), passed out and then woken in the medical centre of Mexico City Airport to the sound of shrieking in Spanish and the sight of blood trickling down my forearm from various failed attempts of nurses to insert a cannula into my shrivelled veins to rehydrate me intravenously. Yet every flight I have taken has landed safely at its destination, and I’ve walked off (or been carried off) the plane in one piece (even if that piece was a little spew-spattered, or looked like a human-sized prune in a velvet sportscoat). However, despite having all this personal experiential evidence, and a bunch of incontrovertible statistics (including that out of 37 million flights in 2016, only nineteen crashed) up my sleeve to reassure me that plane travel is perfectly safe, every time I’ve sat on a plane and the slightest hint of turbulence enters the cabin, the same thing starts to happen.
I freak out. My heart beats faster, my jaw clenches up, my palms perspire, my breathing becomes shallower. And then my brain starts to get involved. At first it tries to be helpful, by explaining that the unnerving sensation I’m feeling is most likely being caused by ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ – a jet stream dancing with the slower moving air at its outer edge. But this does nothing to placate my all-guns-blazing adrenal system. No amount of rationality can override the visceral, consuming feeling I get on planes that something is wrong. From an intuitive point of view, it’s a feeling that makes sense. Regardless of whether there is anything ‘wrong’ with a particular flight (which invariably in my experience, there has not been), there is something not exactly right about hundreds of fleshy, delicate, wingless creatures piled on top of each other soaring way above the clouds at almost the speed of sound in a giant, flimsy, tubular steel flying thing while it gets pounded by four hundred km/h winds.
So my mind starts to visit some pretty weird places. I start to strike up a conversation with a god, specifically the Judeo-Christian singular masculine ‘God’, whose existence I normally take as seriously as Yoda, the tooth fairy, or a gay member of the Liberal Party (Liberal with a capital ‘L’ in Australia meaning Conservative, bizarrely). I don’t merely pray to this God to spare my life, I try to construct compelling arguments as to why He should do so, essentially bargaining with him (reflecting my predispositions as a Jew and former lawyer). I try to explain that though I haven’t been a particularly good person, I haven’t been a particularly bad one either, and if I haven’t turned out as well as my Creator would have hoped, it’s because I’m young and youth is by its very nature selfish, and I fully intend to be a paragon of altruistic adulthood when the plane touches down safely, and if He doesn’t believe I’m worth saving just for myself, he should save me for all the deserving people I’m going to help in the course of my life through…through……writing books that are going to ‘touch’ and improve people’s lives and um…um….donating most of the money I’m going to earn from them to really worthy charities.
I also think about my mother and try remember what was the last thing I said to her, and I pledge to be a better son if and when the plane lands. I imagine my own funeral and hope that lots of people will come and that they will say nice things about me. The original voice of reason will occasionally try make itself heard over this hysterical, narcissistic, religious maniac, but then the voice of panic will just shout louder, coming up with arguments such as “if God does exist, and the plane crashes, and you weren’t praying when it did, then it would have been because the collective volume of the praying coming from this particular plane was not loud enough for God to hear because you thought you were too smart with all your rationality and science to pray, and so you’d only have yourself to blame for not only your own death but everyone else’s on this plane. Besides, who are you to just sit there breathing deeply like some non death-fearing schmuck?”
And then the turbulence stops. And I go back to watching a piece of Hollywood D-grade schmaltz the kind I only give myself permission to watch on long flights, a nice lady comes around with a trolley and I ask her for two adorable little bottles of Beefeater and one can of Tonic (if it’s Qantas, she’ll respond, “sorry love, we just have the ordinary bottles”). Some hours later, the flight lands. I text my mother to tell her I love her. Then I forget pretty quickly about God and being a good person. And I forget just how abhorrent an experience it all was. Until the next time I take off.
After my most recent life-wobble, the one that caused me to raise a white flag on my writing expedition to Laos and crawl back to Sydney with my tail between my legs, I spent a good couple of months living inside an enveloping cocoon of fear. Things that previously didn’t scare me at all now really frightened me – social gatherings, driving, using the oven, staying up past eleven o’clock, coffee, text messaging, grocery shopping, raindrops. And things that previously scared me a little now terrified me – the sun, in-grown hairs, commercial television, pork, shopping centres, human intimacy. And things that previously terrified me now became absolute no-go-zones. And flying was top of this list. Instead of inspiring a flicker of hope by reminding me of the world of romance and adventure that exists beyond the shores of this forgotten desert island, the little white symbol of a plane pointing in the direction of Kinsgford-Smith Airport that appears on street signs in Sydney began giving me heart palpitations while I was driving. I was prepared never to attempt to leave this city of broken dreams again.
But as the weeks rolled by, time did its job of healing, my memory did its job of suppressing, and I began to become less afraid of the world. I started to successfully attempt the activities I was so stringently avoiding, and began remembering how they used to bring me joy. I went to a barbecue and spoke to people and words came out in coherent sentences and no one called the police. I went to a screening of a film that finished at 11.30pm and when I get home I just went to sleep, instead of battling an anxiety spiral through the night triggered by the panic of breaking my strict sleeping routine. I was able to send a text message without first revising it five times and then re-reading it every five minutes until I received a reply in search of an explanation in my own social ineptitude for my interlocutor’s silence. I even managed to watch an entire episode of Dating in the Dark without wanting to plot the destruction of humanity (actually, I still came away wanting to destroy humanity, but I think that’s a perfectly defensible intellectual response to the experience of watching reality television in 2017). And then arrived the point in time when a downward-projecting vector in my head marked ‘fear of flying’ intersected with an upward-projecting vector marked ‘boredom with Sydney’ and I booked a flight, just a short one, to visit a couple of friends in Northern New South Wales.
As I took to my extremely cramped discount-airline seat, I felt entirely confident that seventy-five minutes after take-off, the slightly bogan yet competent-sounding captain would safely land us at Ballina Airport. Little did I know that I had just boarded what would turn out to be the worst flight I had ever taken. The first hour was uneventful. The ascent was smooth as can be. I looked out at the jigsaw pieces of Sydney’s coastline jutting into the Pacific Ocean and tried to spot where I lived. As we broke through some white, fully clouds near the Central Coast I whipped out my laptop and managed to write a few hundred words of a ‘review’ of a novel I had recently read (and hated) that will form the basis of a future blog post. But then as the plane began to make its descent, it was as if the hand of Poseidon had reached out from the great blue expanse below, grabbed the plane by its tail and begun to violently shake it. The view outside the window became an impenetrable black mass. When the plane dropped below the angry clouds, the torrents of water streaming horizontally across the windows made it feel like it was trying to swim its way towards the runway while resting its nose on a giant aqueous sledgehammer.
Just as the passengers were bracing themselves for a hard landing, gripping onto their armrests like un-anaesthetised root-canal patients in Soviet Russia mid-procedure, the plane reared up and returned to the clouds from which it had been ejected moments before. Ten turbulent minutes later, the once boisterous, now rattled voice of the captain penetrated the cabin, “sorry folks, due to some sudden flash flooding in Ballina, we couldn’t safely land the plane. We’re going to do a ‘go around’ and wait for better conditions, and will try again when cleared by Air Traffic Control. Please observe the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign, as you can expect these lumps and bumps to continue as we circle through the storm-clouds.” ‘Lumps and bumps’ must be pilot jargon for the sensation of a plane being thrown around like a piece of confetti in a washing machine. An hour later, the plane swooped down towards the coastal airport and then once again sprung up like a ping-pong ball that had just been served. The captain then made the call I secretly hoped he would after the first aborted landing, “folks, as you could probably tell, we couldn’t land that time either. We just couldn’t see the runway. The weather conditions are similar in the Gold Coast and Brisbane so unfortunately, for your own safety, we will be turning around and heading back to Sydney.” One hour later, and three hours after take off, I was once again standing outside gate 51.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been trying a form of therapy called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Despite my initial Hamlet-like resistance to accepting that the world is not actually the overwrought intellectual fairytale into which my mind continually weaves its external signifiers, I’ve begun to accept the effectiveness of mindfulness in overcoming anxiety and returning the trigger-happy ‘problem solving mind’ to its stables when there’s no actual race for it to run. I’ve also been trying to reposition anxiety triggers away from being bogeymen that must be avoided at all costs into being meaningful challenges that can be overcome to achieve a sense of inner peace and self-mastery. I’ve had a surprising degree of success with this strategy in refashioning formerly debilitating triggers, such as my daily interactions with my mother. But flight JQ460 proved to be an even more formidable ‘challenge’ than that.
At least, unlike previous flights, on this occasion I was aware of the tricks my mind was playing on me. I knew that my ‘fight or flight’ response, a function of the sympathetic nervous system, had been activated in response to a sudden, seemingly danger-indicating sensory perception. I knew my ‘problem-solving brain’ had been called on to do its job in the community of my vital organs, which is to identify the source of a threat, work out the best response to the threat to ensure my survival, and send messages through the nervous system to the appropriate muscles to carry out the actions required to get me to safety. I was aware of the kind of slippery situations this primitive system is designed to get me out of, such as seeing a lion in the savannah (threat – being eaten by lion, response – climb up a nearby tree, action – limbs moving in a climbing-like manner). And I was also aware that this system would not work so well when applied to the rather more modern situation of being scared on the plane, for the following two reasons:
- A lay-person passenger cannot conclusively determine the exact nature of the ‘threat’ presented by a sudden burst of severe turbulence. What is happening to their plane may be perfectly safe and normal, or the plane’s wings may be about to tear away from the fuselage, or the turbulence may be being caused by a nuclear bomb going off, or by Zod’s attempts to transform earth into another Krypton.
- Even if the threat can be conclusively identified (e.g. Zod being visible from the aircraft window), short of ripping open the emergency door and parachuting out, there’s no practical course of action the brain can decide to take which would ensure the safety of the body
So my problem-solving brain was faced with its least favourite combination of danger, uncertainty and powerlessness, and so left to its own devices was just going to keep revving up the flight-or-fight response while leaving the hand-break on. I knew that the best response would be to deactivate the hyper-aroused sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (through physical relaxation techniques such as deep breathing), and then maybe start to trust my thoughts again when all the thinking-circuits had returned to normal functioning. So I had the right psychological tools to deal with the situation. If the situation was five minutes of mild turbulence. Not seventy-five minutes in a cyclone and two failed landing attempts. It was like trying to reattach a burst fire hydrant with a screwdriver.
So my despotic problem-solving brain reclaimed its exclusive dominion. I thought about Dustin Hoffman repeating “Qantas never crashed” in Rain Main. I was still anxious. I thought about how Sydney to Ballina, which contains not a single topographical impediment, must be one of the safest, most predictable routes in the world. I was still anxious. I thought about how my one in eleven million chance of being a plane crash victim was one two thousandth of my chance of dying in a car crash on the way home from the airport. I was still anxious. I tried to delegitimise my anxiety by looking at the unperturbed faces of my fellow passengers, observing that the piece of electronic correspondence being drafted on a smartphone by the neighbour to my left wasn’t a sentimental ‘last letter’ to her loved ones, but just a boring work email. I was still anxious. The problem was that though I could convince myself that it was highly unlikely that the plane was about crash, I couldn’t be certain that this was the case. So my brain decided to manufacture the illusion of certainty by defaulting to ‘worst-case-scenario’ thinking, which entails the assumption that the least likely scenario of my being imminently reduced to a statistic in the history of aviation catastrophes was actually what was going to happen. The plane now being certain to crash, my problem solving mind had thus created a job for itself.
But what would be the best ‘solution’ to the situation of my imminent demise? The droll agnosticism I usually exhibit when my brain is ‘at rest’ just doesn’t ‘fly’ (excuse the pun) in an emergency such as being on a plane moments before its disintegration, because accepting the unknowability of matters of life and death does not provide a basis for ‘action’. Agnosticism is not something the impatient, control-freak problem-solving mind can work with. The sudden need for certainty (even an illusory certainty) explains my usual tendency on planes to manufacture a God to pray to (or bargain with). But I just couldn’t manage this convenient trick on Wednesday. For some reason, I was suddenly able only to think Atheist thoughts. Maybe it was because I had been reading the final chapter of The Brothers Karamazov immediately before boarding the flight, and I was coming to the realisation of my being more of an Ivan (the tormented, self-devouring intellectual) than an Aloysha (the loved and self-possessed believer). Or maybe it was because the day before my flight I had been to the Montefiore Home to visit my ninety-two-year-old grandmother (an exercise fanatic, staunch Communist, widow of forty-three years, and the epitome of a ‘tough old bird’), when she told me she was ready to die in one breath, and in the next complained about the persistent attempts of the Home’s rabbis to ram God down the throat of an Atheist like herself. The manifest courage I perceived in holding onto lifelong convictions even as one’s stage in life makes it increasingly inconvenient to do so left such an impression on me that when it came my own turn to face (what really did feel like) my own imminent demise, I couldn’t bring myself to manufacture any spiritual significance for the upcoming event. All that was about to happen was that trillions of particles that for the moment looked like a six-foot twenty-six-year-old nice Jewish boy in Birkenstocks would soon be scattered across the plains of the Northern Rivers. And the ‘solution’ was to try to face my fate with the same equipoise and dignity that I had recognised in my grandmother.
But if Wednesday’s flight was a dress rehearsal for my future beautiful Atheist death, it’s a good thing that those trillions of particles managed to walk off the plane still joined together in a human-like form. A few minutes after my Stoic awakening, I was once again inwardly whining about being too young to die, kicking and screaming like a child having a tantrum from the backseat of a car because his parents lied about how soon the journey would end. Oddly enough, when the plane did eventually land, instead of my usual determination to become a better person, I felt a sudden urge to become a less good person – to gorge myself on all the sensual pleasures I had given up at the beginning of this year when I deemed them impediments to my pursuit of a rich, authentic, meaningful life. Instead of texting my mother to tell her I loved her, I felt like texting her to ask her to pick me up, and then take me to a butcher, a tobacconist, a bottle shop and a gay bar (and then turn around and go back home by herself, obviously). But I didn’t text her at all. After politely declining Jetstar’s offer to put me on another flight to Brisbane and then bus me down to Ballina, I returned home, promised myself never to get back on a plane, took a well-deserved sedative and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
But then I woke up, and Sydney was still excruciatingly boring. So I booked a new flight for Monday. And I won’t be surprised if God decides to visit me again on this one.