With the year in its final days, I’m giving some last thoughts to all of the amazing stuff I’ve been able to do this year.
I saw the Rolling Stones. Ate amazing food. Went to more live professional wrestling shows than I’d like to admit to. I even learned to appreciate certain types of mayonnaise.
But that’s nothing, really. I don’t think there’s anything I’m more proud of this year than getting back on an airplane for the first time in almost five years.
It wasn’t always like this. My first flight was at two-and-a-half weeks old in December 1985 when my mother took me to New Jersey. My grandmother was terminally ill and it was one of the few opportunities she’d have to meet me before she passed.
The first I remember was another trip out east a few years later. My mom surprised me after a day trip on a Metra train in preschool. When she went to pick me up, she asked; “Do you want to take an airplane too?” She had packed my bag and we went straight to the airport. I remember sitting in the window seat staring out the window, looking at the ground below and wondering where the adventure would take us. Taking a plane was always something special. We didn’t do it all too often, but when we did, it was always very exciting. Little did I know that some people I knew didn’t have that opportunity until they were older.
But when I turned 21, it changed in an instant. On another trip out to New Jersey (I apparently don’t go anywhere else), I was with friends that were several rows in front of me. I’d never been by myself where someone I knew wasn’t arms length of me on a plane. The anxiety started to build. The sensation of takeoff – what seemed like a ceaseless climbing feeling was unbelievably intense. Every synapse fired. I gripped the armrests and my palms sweat. Slight turbulence was heartstopping. I have no idea how I got there and back. I managed to fly two more round trips the following year, and after that, September 28, 2008 would be the last time I’d get on a plane for four-and-a-half years.
I’m positive that after that flight I didn’t actively decide to stop flying, but after abruptly canceling a plane trip that December it started to come into focus that it wasn’t going to happen.
After that, I wove an artful tapestry of excuses and devised alternate routes of travel to get me where I wanted to go. Oddly enough, these were the most active travel years of my life so far, as I saw The Hold Steady perform nearly fifty times in cities across the United States and Canada. I’d carpool with friends, take Amtrak or make creative and elaborate Megabus itineraries. One time I even took a 40-hour train trip from Chicago to Spokane where my friend from Vancouver picked me up, and then we drove the eight hours back to Vancouver. On the way home, I took the same train back, only to stop in Minneapolis before taking another bus ride. It was not for the faint of heart.
For that first year it was easy to say that my travel-by-ground scheme was cheaper since we were going to so many cities in such a short time to see one band. But after that, it was a hinderance. It became an avoidance of a very obvious fear. I was openly admitting I didn’t like to fly. It was a way of life. In 2010, I moved to New York. Every time I came home it was a 20-hour Amtrak ride. Once was in a car, but the trip was cut down only by a few hours. I had lost touch of the problem. I’d lost the feeling of what it was like to be up there. All that was left was bad memories and a lot of wasted time.
In retrospect, this was a relatively innocuous personal issue. By 2011, my health took a serious downturn. I was also deeply depressed and made the decision to return to Chicago and seek help. The first six months of my illness were the most difficult. I was very paranoid and fixated on fears that had no bearing on my current situation. A major focus point? You may have already guessed.
At this time, I was unemployed and spent most of my time watching reruns of “The Wonder Years”. That was most of my day. If I wasn’t doing that, I would be thinking about flying. If I could do it again. If I could go anywhere, really. I wasn’t much for leaving the house at that point either. I knew it was time to go back into therapy.
After spending most of that year learning how to refocus and deal with my issues in a proper manner, I started to focus on smaller issues and knew in my heart it was time to face my fears. I had bought a ticket to WrestleMania in November, and by the time it came in April, I wanted to be on a plane to New York to get there.
It helped that my Mom would be joining me on the flight because her sister lives nearby in New Jersey. So, I wouldn’t be alone. My therapist and I strategized about what exercises I could use to preoccupy myself when I got on the plane. I have never told anyone about this, but I watched videos on YouTube of people secretly recording takeoff so I could remember what it sounded and looked like. Lastly, I got a low-dose prescription to help settle my nerves and curb a potential anxiety attack.
April 3, 2013 came quickly. I remember waking up very calm. No real nerves. As we rode to the airport, I sat quietly and stared out the window, and noticed a plane in the sky. I realized that would be me in a few short hours. It was here. It was happening. No turning back now.
We sat at our gate for what felt like forever. As we boarded, I remarked how little room there was between rows of seats. It seemed so much more compact than I remembered. Soon after, the plane taxied down the runway and time stopped. The moment was here. The rumble began, it moved forward. I stared out at the ground, and almost effortlessly, we were in that “precipice between groundlessness and flight”, as Ani DiFranco once said. I was in disbelief until I saw Allstate Arena below me out of a window on the opposite side of the plane. It was over. I was in the sky.
It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to do something that absolutely terrifies you. The moment you cross through that passage is like nothing else on this Earth. It’s a revelation. Any construct you have immediately crumbles. It empowers you. You’ve conquered it.
I’ve flown three more times this year – home from New York and a round trip to San Francisco. For the most part, it’s been fine. Flying takes you places you could never go any other way. Or maybe that it’s simply convenient and time-saving. There’s many ways to look at it.
For me? I suppose I’ll be staring out the window, looking at the ground below and wondering where the adventure will take me.