I have Xanax in my purse for situations like this, I remind myself as I pull the slack on my seat belt even tighter. First, I fidget with the tray table latch. Next, I pull the window shade up and down, trying to distract myself before takeoff. I scan the other passengers as they board for suspicious activity. Does that laptop he’s stowing look like a bomb? I noticed the pilot’s expression, too, just in case, because we all know the stories.
“Mommy! Look at them putting the suitcases in!” my 6-year-old daughter pipes up. For a few minutes we watch through the window as the handlers stow the luggage under the plane.
Soon after, we’re taxiing faster and faster down the runway – this is always the worst part. There’s no turning back now, I always think, but my daughter loves the speed and the anticipation of a new destination. She chatters the whole way, and I’m answering all of her questions. She’s making me laugh, and before I realize it, we’re in the clouds, marveling at the pink sunrise from high above while nibbling cinnamon raisin bagels. There was a time when I never would have believed a scene like this was possible for me.
For most of my life I’ve had a crippling phobia of flying. I share this with my own mother, who disliked travel and only went on inconvenient road trips when it was absolutely necessary to avoid confronting her terror. I never admired this in her. Growing up, I was often frustrated that we weren’t going on exciting family trips to distant islands and exotic locales like my friends were. But now it looked like I was following in her footsteps. I couldn’t help it, though.
Whenever I’d think about getting on a plane, I’d become physically ill with fright. Even medication didn’t help, and I canceled trips at the last minute more than once where I lost a lot of money, just so I wouldn’t have to fly. Other times, I managed to make my flights, but I’d be sick from anxiety and my trip would be ruined. So, just like my mom, I began to avoid leaving home.
When I had my daughter, I knew I had to change. I didn’t want my daughter to continue this legacy. I didn’t want her growing up wishing she could travel, wishing her mom was “normal.” My own mother had a hard time confronting her fears, and while I have a ton of compassion for her (I actually think some of this is genetic), she didn’t model bravery for me. Therefore, I grew up controlled by what scared me. I needed to find the courage to break the pattern for the next generation.
I always imagined my daughter traveling the world, having all the adventures that I was too scared to go on. I didn’t want her living her life in fear, so since she was a baby, I’ve been flying with her. It has never been easy. The first time we flew, I was consumed by thoughts about everything that could possibly go wrong. Except … nothing did (aside from the usual annoyances of air travel). I vowed to fly with her again. It wasn’t like I had much of a choice: all of our family members live out of state, and most of them reside all the way across the country. Visiting loved ones, for us, meant airplanes.
Pretty soon, a strange thing happened: When I flew with my daughter, facing my fears wasn’t nearly so difficult any more. Having another person to care for and focus on instead of myself and my overactive, disaster-obsessed imagination took my mind off of my phobia. When I made her well-being a priority, my mind was too busy to run amok.
Worried about entertaining a child on a plane ride, I came up with all kinds of activities we could do mid-flight. Except, I found out they worked for me even better than they did for her. Seriously, try sculpting with Play-Doh on a tray table — best anxiety reliever ever.
I like to bring party favor-sized tubs of it in a plastic bag in my purse. Coloring is also incredibly calming, so much so that I bought myself an adult coloring book and a set of colored pencils just for traveling. Last winter, a pack of Uno cards saved my sanity on a six hour red-eye, and gave me a chance to engage in something fun that my daughter and I could both enjoy. These activities, combined with a little “faking it ’til I make it,” really work. Oh yeah, and we also eat a lot of chocolate while we’re in the air. I feel like it helps me associate flying with a treat.
Now, when I think about the future, I don’t simply picture my daughter backpacking around the world on her own someday while I sit at home admiring her pictures on Instagram. I think about the trips we can also take together, bravely trekking as mother and daughter. She’s only 6 now, but we’ve already had some amazing times together as traveling companions. I can only imagine what’s yet to come, what adventures we’ll share, and what amazing parts of the world we’ll see.
I’m so glad that my daughter, without even realizing it, helped me confront my fear and inspired me to explore.