Don't Let the Fear Keep You From Flying


“I’m a mandarin orange. I’m a mandarin orange. I will not fall out of the Jell-O.”

I had an extreme fear of flying until about three years ago. I remember selling sea travel to anyone who worried about the limitations of my high-skies anxiety.

“If you won’t get on a plane, you’ll never see Italy,” they’d say. (It was always Italy. I was very Italian, but I was also very English and very German. In my experience, the Italian culture has a way of dominating.)

“I’ll take a boat,” I’d rebuttal. I knew this solution was ridiculous and would require a month’s worth of vacation days. That, or I’d be visiting Bel Paese in about 40 years.

But when you have a gypsy soul and a fear of flying, something needs to give. (Like the Italian culture, my gypsy soul also has a way of dominating.)

I was 24 when I had my maiden flight. My husband and I were traveling from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Newark, New Jersey, for his best friend’s wedding. He sang “I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again,” as we approached the airport. If looks could kill.

The planes that fly between McGhee-Tyson and Newark-Liberty are typically ERJ-145s seating 76 passengers, one on the left of the aisle and two on the right. I was uneasy as I ducked slightly to board the regional jet. I was convinced if I laid across the floor, my head and toes would touch both sides of the aircraft.

I felt every bump and every minute of that two-hour flight. When I landed in New Jersey, my hand was stiffened into a claw from the death-grip I had on the armrest.

Flights in the years that followed were equally pleasant. I developed this strategy of burying my head into my traveling companion and closing my eyes during take-off to disorient myself until we were smooth sailing. When I flew solo, I leaned on Xanax or Ativan, but neither really relieved my anxiety.

As I type, I'm 30,000 feet above the Sierra Nevada mountains. It's pretty bumpy, but thanks to British Airways and their gelatin analogy, I'm on cloud nine. Three years ago, determined to tackle my travel fear, I took to Google. I discovered the largest airline in the U.K. offered a class on flight anxiety (talk about Youtility Marketing).

All it took was an education in turbulence – it's uncomfortable, but not dangerous. They liken the plane to a piece of fruit stuck in Jell-O. It might wiggle, but it's not going anywhere.

The flight following Turbulence 101 was a solitary one from Newark to Atlanta, and I opted for no anti-anxiety meds and a window seat. I even dared to press my nose against the glass, looking downward as we climbed in altitude. As the buildings below me vanished from sight, I felt weightless.

I leaned into this newly found freedom. Every day on the ground is just as bumpy – I'm a 34-year-old mom with an energetic 10-year-old and a full-time job. But on this Alaskan Airlines flight from San Francisco to Newark, my time is my own. While the air is a tad choppy, I'm just channeling my inner mandarin orange, keeping calm, and blogging on.

Why a mandarin orange and not a piece of pineapple you might ask? My Auntie, who passed when I was 18, was an indelible influence on me growing up. She was a retired elementary school teacher and a widower with incredible warmth and strength. She had a way of making you feel supported and safe. I can still smell the pot roast from Sunday dinners at her house. Her go-to dessert for the kiddos was orange Jell-O with mandarin orange slices.

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