Although the airplane's been around since 1903, I wasn't used to it. Laden with lucky charms, I approached each flight as the last few hours of life, I played games to block out the experience of flying, I never got out of my seat, or looked out the window, and generally flew anesthetized with booze.
Avoidance is what Capt. Cummings calls it. Anything to avoid facing the fact you are on a plane, in the air. So much stress was involved in avoidance and the indecisiveness of whether to fly, I'd arrive at my destination without psychic or physical energy, with only a few days' respite until it was time to worry about the return flight.
I didn't hold out much hope my fear could be overcome. I once took a how-to-have-a-baby course and it still hurt. Positive thinking was not my long suit. Besides, mine was a long-standing phobia, born somewhere on a squall-hit honey-moon flight to Florida, and maturing as my family grew. I struggled with it for 21 years. Then I decided to do something about it.
During five three-hour sessions at the Madison Hotel, my fear was bombarded with films of planes soaring and dipping in glorious skies, deep-breathing exercises, autosuggestion and truths to replace the myths and misinformation I carried with me about flying.
Clearly, Cummings regards positive thinking as just a Band-Aid for phobias. Instead, a form of behavior modification based on the workings of the right hemisphere of the brain -- the part which is imaginative and responds to non-traditional approaches of imagery and words -- is used.
I shared with my course mates an altered perception of the reality of flying. With every bump, rock or roll of the plane, I was sure that both I and the plane were in dark peril. But I learned that Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) won't hurt anyone. I discovered warm air is more turbulent and denser and there is no such thing as air pockets, only areas of reduced air pressure. Short physics lessons -- "Something in motion tends to stay in motion" -- simple demonstrations of lift (blowing across a piece of paper) taught me things I had not known. I learned planes can fly with one engine. (There's a well-rehearsed procedure for it.) And inexplicably, lightning does not harm planes.
But most of what took place was on a deeper level. Beyond my awareness.
"Imagination is more powerful than knowledge," said Albert Einstein. So I played my tape and practiced its relaxation exercises, I listened to imageries of beaches and sea while the noise of jet planes grew louder on the tape. I faced my fear instead of yielding to it and discoveered it was a fear of dying -- not flying. I read the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross on dealing with death.
Gradually, the desensitization process took hold. One sunlit Saturday, our group boarded a resting DC-10 and touched its metal body, jumped up and down in the aisles and "befriended the plane." Some of us used a plane's john for the first time in our lives.
The day of our gragdation flight on a 747 to Detroit dawned bright and clear. For the first time, I approached a flight with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I wanted to go.I was able to eat before the flight. I was able to be in the airport without weakness in my knees. I was expecting a miracle.
But just before takeoff, I started to waver. Ed Cohen, a Detroit physician and Former Fearful Flyer, held my hand and assured me my pulse was better than his.
The takeoff was "choppy" (a word Fearful Fliers use instead of turbulent).
I wiggled my toes, breathed deeply, pushed back in my seat and pictured the plane as a horse and buggy going over cobblestone roads.
Then, as we "slipped the surly bonds of Earth," I seemed to slip away from my fears. But my real graduation took place on the return flight, when I watched takeoff from the window and saw how beautiful the horizon is from above the clouds.