I Went 15 Years Without Flying B/C Of My Post-Air Force Anxiety

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fear of flying
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And how I overcame it.

There is a certain amount of embarrassment that comes with a fear of flying. It is even more embarrassing when people find out you spent five years in the United States Air Force. It's the equivalent of a podiatrist being scared of feet. 

My fear didn't manifest overnight. I've been on more airplanes than most people can dream of, from short helicopter rides to 18-hour flights to Korea. I've had close calls as a passenger. It's a hopeless feeling and for a brief period, you have the uncertainty of ever seeing your loved ones again.

I've also had the misfortune of seeing one of my aircraft crash upon takeoff. It happened 300 yards away from me and every time I hear a plane overhead it's the first thing that comes to mind and I dream about aircraft disasters almost every night. 

I've been diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression and eventually PTSD, even though I don't feel as if I earned that diagnosis; I know many men and women who have seen and done a million times worse.

I'm not only embarrassed of my fear of flying, I'm embarrassed why I'm scared of flying. I'm basically the poster-child for supplying other military branches endless jokes at the Air Force kid who has a panic attack every time he hears a jet engine. 

I have been treating my PTSD for over a decade now. I have gone to over a year of steady group therapy. I have talked to my counselors and doctors. But I never brought up my fear of flying. I went almost 15 years without getting on a plane. I would drive 24 hours straight before considering flying. My logic was it's easier to avoid flying than it is to talk about why I am scared of it. 

I'm not naive enough to believe my anxiety doesn't play a huge role in my fear of flying. I have tried the methods I've learned at CBT and DBT to combat my negative thoughts. They work to an extent but eventually they get the better of me.

A few months ago, my 12-year-old son asked if he could fly to New York with me to see my parents. It was the first time I had to confront my fear of flying. Upon even the mention of flying, I started shaking.

I had the choice to either face my fear or reinforce it. I summoned the courage to talk about my fear of flying with my doctors the following week and he gave me homework. Every time I had a negative thought about flying, I had to write it down and rationalize my thoughts. It was really eye-opening.

I didn't realize just how much time and energy I spent focusing on my phobia and how many of my thoughts were irrational. I came to realize that every time I saw a plane fly overhead, it wasn't a guarantee it was meant for doom. If I heard a variance in the engine flying over my house, that doesn't mean I needed to run outside looking for a crashing plane. I continued to talk about my fears with my therapist and I eventually got to the point where I decided I was going to book my flight.

The night before my flight I got about three minutes of sleep because I kept playing negative thoughts on a loop. The next morning I was exhausted. I focused on my coping mechanism and put together a calming music playlist for the flight.

As my son and I made our way through security, a sense of calm come over me. I'm not sure if it was the countless hours of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy training or the Valium my doctor gave me for the flight, but either way, I was ready to face my fear head-on. 

As we took off, I grabbed my son's hands so hard they started losing circulation. Every time I heard the plane make a sound I assumed we were going to crash. I looked at my son and he was watching me like a hawk. He was scared, too, and was looking to me for assurance that everything was going to be OK.

So I did what any great dad would have done and lied to his face. I explained turbulence and how the aircraft was designed to go through adverse weather conditions. Basically, I told him all the things I should have been telling myself. About an hour into the flight, I was calm and the last thirty minutes of the flight were actually enjoyable. 


The vacation was amazing. We visited family we hadn't seen in years and I got over my fears. I'd love to be able to tell you that today, I'm completely over my fear of flying but sadly, that's not true.

I had another panic attack before my return flight. I even tried to book a train ride home. But again, I faced my fear. I had all my coping strategies ready and I flew home.

I still have dreams about places crashing. As I write this sentence a plane flew overhead and I once again had negative thoughts. My fear of flying will be a life-long battle. I've come to accept the fact that I'll always be scared to fly, but I refuse to let that fear prevent me from living my life.

.......

Joe Guz is a 38-year-old military veteran. He writes about his struggles with mental health using a comedic spin. Check out more of his writing here.

 

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