“Can I close this door? A lot of people don’t like the idea of having doors closed. Will anyone here be uncomfortable if I close this door?” asked Dr. Martin Seif. The associate director of the White Plains Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center, Seif, in his 50s, has graying hair, a graying beard, and an energetic, bright demeanor. When he spoke, he gesticulated dynamically and his body bounced up and down. I was one of about 25 students (i.e., patients) at the first meeting of Freedom to Fly, a class at a small airport in White Plains, New York, that promised to cure a fear of flying in just six weeks.
Dr. Seif asked how many of us had been through security in the past year, not including today.
“In an airport?” someone asked.
I thought this was a fair question; phobics are nothing if not precise.
“Yeah, in an airport, where did you think I meant?” He rolled his eyes. “At an airport.”
Only a few hands rose; mine was not among them.
People in my life are always surprised to hear that I am afraid of flying. A fear of flying is less conspicuous than being afraid to leave the house (agoraphobia) or go to parties (social anxiety disorder). I have been afraid to get in an airplane since a very turbulent flight at age 19: the plane hit clear-air turbulence, and dropped what felt like 100 feet (but was probably only 10). A few people screamed. I gripped my seat and promised myself that if I survived, I would never fly again. By age 21, I had so thoroughly frightened myself about planes that I once dropped a boyfriend off at the end of the highway exit ramp to the airport instead of at the terminal—as if, in the 30 seconds I idled while I waited for him to grab his bags, a plane could have crashed into my car.
But fear, of course, is not always reasonable: it dwells in the realm of imagination, where anything is possible, except, of course, one’s perfect safety. In the world of intense anxiety disorders, walking down the street and not having a piano fall on your head feels like the least likely scenario.
Throughout my 20s, I continued to accommodate my fear in increasingly ridiculous ways, like the time I took a four-day train from New York to Seattle rather than fly. I was the only non-octogenarian on that excruciatingly long voyage, during which I lived entirely on PowerBars and tiny bottles of wine. The train attendants had taken to calling me “New York,” and every time I walked into the dining car they would shout, “Here comes New York!” Consequently, I left my tiny berth only once a day, when I walked the length of the train to buy four small bottles of Bartles & Jaymes red wine that I shoved furtively in my purse. (The guy who sold me the miniwine said I was his kind of lady.) I was so stir-crazy on the way back that I got off the train in Chicago and drove the rest of the way.
Not flying took its toll on my life and relationships. My vacations consisted of driving from New York to Florida, or driving from New York to Maine. I missed my college roommate’s wedding, in which I was supposed to be a bridesmaid, because she got married in the Caribbean. Another dear friend was married in France; I missed that one too. And though I was skeptical when I signed up for the Freedom to Fly class in 2009, I really needed it to work: my world had become so limited, and that was scary in its own way. According to the website, the class would culminate in a graduation flight from New York to Boston and back. I did not believe, for a second, that I would be on that flight, but I hoped that showing up each week at an airport would help.
I arrived at the airport two hours before the first class. Having not been inside airports for ten years, I remembered them as being dingy, crowded, and having the ambience of hospital waiting rooms (another place where people wait for death). I was surprised by how clean and new everything was. On the third floor, I watched planes take off and land and waited for one to catch fire. (Nothing caught on fire.) A disembodied voice reminded visitors not to accept packages from strangers or leave bags unattended. Luckily, I had no bags.
Eventually I joined my new classmates by the ticketing desk: young mothers, a few men, women in business attire. Their ages ranged from late teens to late 60s. Nobody looked outwardly terrified or strange. We all received name tags and had our parking tickets validated, banal and transactional activities that belied any unease. But the illusion of professional nonchalance was soon broken. A young woman (pretty, blond, unsmiling) wearing blue doctor’s scrubs leaned close to a man in his 40s (spiky hair, Yankees jacket). Referring, presumably, to the aforementioned graduation flight, she said to him, “So, these are the people we’re going to die with.” It was unclear if this was a joke or a prediction.
I did not believe, for a second, that I would be on that flight, but I hoped that showing up each week at an airport would help.
The logistics of moving a large group of nervous people through an airport are challenging. First we had to go through security. We were instructed to remove our shoes, which was discombobulating for those of us who had not flown since the thwarted shoe bombing of 2001. Official People checked our names and IDs against an Official List. Legitimate travelers—that is, people actually going somewhere on a plane—stared at us, no doubt wondering who we were and what we were doing and why we were wearing name tags. After security, we bypassed the gates and left the terminal through a side door. We crossed the tarmac and entered an employees-only building. Inside we found our classroom, which had a 1970s poster of a tiger skulking over the words “SAFETY FIRST.”
Counselors assisting Dr. Seif, all former patients of the clinic, introduced themselves by announcing what they had once been afraid of: driving on parkways, crossing bridges, eating in restaurants, leaving the house. They all described themselves with the same phrase: “99 and nine-tenths recovered.” Dr. Seif was also a former aviophobe (the term for someone afraid of flying). Once, while he was on his way to deliver a paper on phobias in Vermont, a freak snowstorm caused a long delay in his train ride; sitting there, he reflected on the irony of his situation, imagining someone standing at a podium, announcing, “Dr. Seif couldn’t be here today to give his paper on phobias, because he’s afraid to fly.” Another time, he told us, he was on a train to Florida with his wife, and two train cars uncoupled. They were stuck for 16 hours. His wife turned to him and said, “I’d rather fly and die than take the train again.”
A phobia is a type of fear that is irrational—out of proportion to actual danger and intense enough to lead to consistent avoidance of the source of that fear. The word phobia, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates back to 1786, where it was defined by an unknown author as “a fear of an imaginary evil, or an undue fear of a real one.” Types of phobias are surprisingly manifold. You can have a phobia of chickens (alektorophobia); Bolsheviks (bolshephobia); beautiful women (caligynephobia); hair (chaetophobia); meat (carnophobia); mirrors (catoptrophobia); teenagers (ephebiphobia); chins and knees (geniophobia and genuphobia); long words (hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia); names (nomatophobia); rain (ombrophobia); everything (panophobia); bald people (peladophobia); beards (pogonophobia); clothing (vestophobia); and fear itself (phobophobia).
But the most prevalent phobias, according to Martin Seligman, a psychologist and author of the academic article “Phobias and Preparedness,” concern “a relatively non-arbitrary and limited set of objects.” It is unusual, he points out, for people to have electric-outlet phobias or hammer phobias or chainsaw phobias, even though these are things that pose actual dangers. Triangulating from several “top ten phobias” lists created between 2015 and 2017—from sources as varied as ABC News and fearof.net—common sources of phobias include heights, spiders, holes, lightning, flying, injections/needles, clowns, storms, closed spaces, open spaces, and snakes.
“If we were rational people,” Dr. Seif explained, “we would be most afraid of things that are most dangerous, and least afraid of things that are least risky—that would make sense. But we’re not rational. Here’s the point: If we look at statistics, it is far safer for us to fly from here to Boston than to drive from here to Boston. Does everyone here believe those statistics?”
The class nodded, almost in unison.
“But how many people here, if they had the time right now, would get in the car with me and drive to Boston?”
A majority of people giggled and raised their hands.
“See, that’s because you don’t know me. Right now, how many people could get in a plane and fly to Boston?”
No one raised their hand. I studied the plaid carpet.
“No one,” said Dr. Seif. “What’s going on that makes us more afraid of something that’s safer and less afraid of something that’s less safe?”
Dr. Seif asked what frightened us about flying. “I’m afraid of the wings falling off the plane,” said one woman. All the other people in the room afraid of the wings falling off—let’s call them the Wings People—murmured “yes” and “mm-hmm” and showed nonverbal forms of agreement like smacking a triumphant hand on the table, vigorous head nodding, a grave furrowing of eyebrows. Everyone else, myself included, thought this was the most ludicrous thing we had ever heard. The wings falling off? We rolled our eyes at each other. We smirked.
Then someone said, “I’m afraid of turbulence.” I was one of the Turbulence People. We were stony-faced, nodding in pensive, moribund agreement that turbulence was indeed the greatest threat to mankind. The Wings People looked bemused and rolled their eyes and shook their heads at what they perceived to be an entirely specious fear. It went on this way for a while, the room factioning into the Explode-in-Midair People, the Surprise-Lightning-Storm People, the Plane Might Just Fall out of the Skys, the What If We Run out of Oxygens. Each of us had our own hierarchy of fear, where My Personal Fear was at the top of the list and Other People’s Fear was unfathomable. An unlucky few started to fear new things they hadn’t previously considered.
A petite blond woman raised a fragile hand. “Last time I flew was about four years ago. My fears started shortly after 9/11, but I don’t attribute it to 9/11. I landed the day before 9/11. I had been in Europe for three weeks and got back on 9/10. And then 9/11 happened the day after. I’m not afraid of terrorism, but I’m afraid of flying.”
“Do you have any other fears?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“You would be aware of them, unless it was a fear of aardvarks or something.”
One woman’s brother was killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11; she hadn’t been afraid before that. Another started to fear flying after her sister died, though her sister didn’t die on a plane. A tall, well-dressed businessman said he had never feared flying until he had a panic attack on a plane, and he wasn’t even sure what had caused the panic. Some people were afraid of irony: they would try not to have a good time on vacation to make it less likely the plane would crash. I could relate to that.
“One thing that’s marvelous about being a human being,” explained Dr. Seif, “is that we can have any thoughts we want. As we get anxious, the distinction between what we think and what we feel starts to diminish. It’s almost like the thought is as dangerous as the action—‘Don’t think the plane is going to crash!’”
To phobics, this logic is useless. If your body and brain feel afraid, it’s hard to believe it’s not in response to an actual threat. As I came to learn, there was zero relationship between my thoughts and feelings and the safe operation of aircraft: I had previously believed that my neurotic vigilance was somehow necessary to keep a plane in the air.
A soft-spoken, 50-year-old woman from Trinidad said that she hadn’t flown for 19 years, and that she felt imprisoned. We could all relate to that.
After about an hour of discussion, it was time to board a stationary plane. We walked outside to the tarmac. The sun had set. It was dark and spooky, and no one spoke. When we reached the boarding ramp, we marched gravely down the extension, like it was a gangplank on a pirate ship, slower with every step. I was one of the first people to board the plane. The interior was more or less what I remembered, except it seemed a lot smaller, the way one’s childhood home, revisited years later, can feel discouragingly minute. The plane was a “two-by-three,” which I later learned means two seats on one side of the aisle, three on the other. Dr. Seif reassured us that the plane the class would later fly on would be larger, a three-by-three. That didn’t sound much better, but I was told many times that the extra seat would make a “huge difference.”
As soon as the Trinidadian woman stepped onto the plane she burst into tears and keeled over, head first, into the first row of seats. Dr. Seif sat next to her and whispered into her ear. “The rest of you, go to the back of the plane,” he shouted. We dutifully shuffled forward until we arrived at the middle of the plane, at which point we all scurried for a seat. We figured that anywhere past the middle of the plane counted as “the back.” No one sat in the last row. Or even the last three.
I was in the aisle seat of a row of three. Selina, a young mother with a gregarious personality and bright pink lipstick, sat next to me. We hadn’t yet spoken or introduced ourselves when she turned to me and said, “If I say ‘Move,’ you move, because I’m going to be running off this plane.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Do you want my aisle seat?”
“No, I’m OK,” she said. She whispered to me, “My fear isn’t about crashing or height or anything, it’s all about … I would never go on this flight. Two seats here and three there, there’s no air, I just hate everything about it. The ceiling is low …”
I smiled. These were my people. We understood each other. I was very aware of a buzzing light, and it started to grow louder. “Is it me, or is that light insanely loud?” I asked to no one in particular.
“Assurance? OK, great. But that’s not the way life is. Nothing in life is risk-free.”
“It’s retarded loud!” shouted a guy across the aisle. We winced at the phrasing but were happy to agree on the main point.
Dr. Seif walked up and down the aisle, shaking people’s seats to simulate turbulence while arguing with a classmate, Jeff, who had announced his refusal to participate in the group graduation flight.
“Won’t you keep an open mind about it?”
“Then why are you here?’
“I want to go to Italy.”
“Then why not Boston?”
“The risk is not worth the reward,” said Jeff.
“You’re not willing to accept the risk of flying for no good reason, is what you’re saying.”
“I get your reasoning. I know there’s the physical chance that every time I cross the street, I could get hit by a car and killed, so I’m not going to go across the street today, because why waste the chance? That’s what you’re thinking—why waste the chance?”
“If your wife has a flight, do you beg her not to go?”
“I don’t know. If I was given assurance, I would fly.”
“Assurance? OK, great. But that’s not the way life is. Nothing in life is risk-free. But you’re willing to drive without assurance. Can you at least acknowledge the fact that you have a different sensitivity to the image of being in a fatal car crash as opposed to being in a fatal plane crash?”
“Even though the end result—your death—is the same?”
“Pleasant thoughts we have here.”
Part of the $650 fee for the Freedom to Fly class included two private sessions with counselors during which we would gradually expose ourselves to practice situations that triggered flying-related fears (mainly heights and claustrophobia). I was paired with Judy, a pleasant, trim former agoraphobe in her late 50s with short, sand-colored hair.
Our first session involved riding the glass elevators in the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square. This made me deeply unhappy, as it involved most everything I despise aside from flying: crowds, enclosed spaces, heights, Times Square. Our second session was riding the tram to Roosevelt Island and back. On the way to the tram we passed Stephen, another classmate, and Alison, another counselor.
“Did you ride the tram? How was it?”
“It was great!”
“We’re just on our way now!” said Judy.
It amused me to think that there were terrified adults all over the city, taking the subways one stop, riding the tram just to turn around and go back, stepping into elevators with no purpose, stalking the Ferris wheel in Toys “R” Us.
“Do you want to talk to the conductor?” Judy asked.
“No,” I said. “He doesn’t seem drunk.”
“I’m sure he’s quite sober. I’ve taken the tram so often people know me, and the Marriott employees probably think I work there.”
We stepped on the tram. I wrapped my whole body around a pole, thinking that this would stabilize me if the tram fell. The tram swayed side to side in the wind. Judy saw the look of terror on my face and said, “The tram has to give a little; if it didn’t it would break.”
All I heard was “tram” and “break.”
But we survived. I begrudgingly admired the view of the East River. Back on the Manhattan side, we said goodbye.
“OK, I have to go do tunnels with another client,” Judy said. “Do you like tunnels?”
I made a sour face and lowered my voice. “Nobody likes tunnels.”
After the first few classes a few people never showed up again, but most of us did. Over the next weeks, those of us who remained learned more about flying and anxiety, sat on the plane and met a pilot, whom we barraged with our heartfelt, diverse, and preposterous catastrophic scenarios. We received a six-page handout that listed every single unfamiliar noise—and explanation for said noise—one might hear on a plane. I still hadn’t bought a ticket for the group flight. To those of us who hadn’t yet bought tickets, Dr. Seif said, “Look. I’m not asking you to commit to taking the flight. I’m asking you to commit to showing up at the airport undecided, with an open mind. Only you will know if you really have an open mind, or if you’re faking it. But if you do show up at the airport open to taking that flight, even if you don’t take it, you get an A for the class.”
This seemed reasonable to me (and my grade-grubbing little heart). I bought a ticket.
On a cloudy Saturday morning in April, six weeks after our first meeting, the class met at LaGuardia. I had woken up that morning resolutely determined to fly. I took an antianxiety pill and hopped in a taxi. (If you’re reading this for tips, one of the most helpful things I learned in the class was to take meds at home, because anxiety typically builds on the way to the airport, way before you step foot on the plane.) I had often wondered if anxiety medication would prevent me from thinking I was about to die on a plane, or if it would prevent me from caring that I was about to die on a plane. It was most definitely the latter.
It might not seem like much, but even almost flying was something I couldn’t have imagined six weeks earlier.
Then the flight was delayed, due to weather (it was foggy). I can’t say I was displeased, because thanks to my new medication, I didn’t care much about anything. Then the flight was canceled. People gathered around Dr. Seif, some discouraged, some annoyed. I felt a sense of relief.
Since we couldn’t all get tickets on the next flight, Dr. Seif gathered everyone around and said, “This is not the group experience I wanted. We’re going home.”
I cheerfully started to gather my things, when I heard someone say, “Wait.” Tickets on the following flight had become available for all of us. We had been at the airport for two hours at that point, and I hadn’t panicked once. But, for me, the window of optimism was a small one, and it had closed. Firmly. Perhaps the medication had started to wear off. I decided to go home, along with two other women. As we walked out of the airport, one of them burst into tears, saying she was disappointed in herself. I, however, was extremely pleased. It might not seem like much, but even almost flying was something I couldn’t have imagined six weeks earlier. I took myself out to dinner to celebrate.
The following Tuesday, I drove out to the White Plains airport for the final Freedom to Fly class. Usually our conversations revolved around different ways we might die; today, most people seemed relaxed and happy. Dr. Seif chimed in excitedly, “The good feeling, the strong feeling, comes from the realization that you have a capacity beyond what you believed.”
But not everyone felt good or strong. Bradley, an anthropologist, was quite hard on himself. He said, “I thought to myself, there’s a 93 percent success rate for overcoming fear, and there’s only one person here that’s not feeling good, and that’s me.” Looking dejected, he told us he had brought his “tools” (games and other distractions) onto the graduation flight, but that he had been so anxious he couldn’t lift up the tray table and take them out of his bag. His anxiety literally froze him. The thought of this kind, gentle man knowing that something by his feet could help him but being unable to grab it just about broke my heart.
I decided to try again the following Saturday with Sarah, one of the other women who hadn’t flown. We asked Judy to come with us, and we split her fee and her ticket. As we boarded the first flight, we saw that it was nearly empty. Judy asked if we wanted to meet the pilot. Sarah, who looked green, declined. I was delighted. The pilot let me sit in his seat and wear his hat, and we took a picture. I asked if I could have one of those wing pins, but he said they didn’t have those anymore.
Now that we were best friends, the pilot let us sit in first class. Judy handed me a Warheads candy and told me not to put it in my mouth until she gave me the signal. Wondering if she was insane, I stared at the greenish candy as the plane accelerated. At the moment the wheels left the ground, Judy said, “Go!” I put the candy in my mouth. It was one of the worst things I had ever tasted. My whole face twisted and puckered. I made a whimpering noise. “In a minute, the sourness will go away and it will turn sweet,” said Judy. I wondered why she was torturing me. I gave her the most accusatory stare I could manage with a puckered face.
In a minute, as promised, the candy turned sweet. “We’re in the air!” Judy announced gleefully. She had performed a magic trick, which to me was more like a miracle. The plane had taken off, and I hadn’t even noticed.