After nearly 17 years of an all-consuming fear of flying that left me grounded, I got on a plane in July with my husband and flew to Washington, D.C.
I even flew back without Dustin. I thought I was cured. So did Dustin. Nothing unusual happened during either of the flights in July, besides the fact that I cried like a baby and gripped the arm rests until veins popped out of my hands.
But I had taken the first step, and that was the most important thing. So Dustin and I scheduled another trip to D.C. in August. I would be flying with my husband both ways this time, and it seemed I had little to fear.
I still cried on the flight down, and, like last time, I worried about the flight home the whole week. But I always thought I’d do it. When I woke up the morning of our return flight, my heart was pounding in my chest. I ate breakfast with the familiar hum of anxiety in the back of my mind. I felt sick to my stomach.
The airport was busy because it was Labor Day weekend. I mentally sank into myself, the way I always do when I’m nervous or afraid.
Dustin made hopeful small talk that I was too consumed to hear, and he reminded me how in less than two hours, our boys would be waiting for us at the airport. He never thought I’d back out.
We got on the tram that would take us to the CRJ-200 waiting on the tarmac. Two children, who were traveling alone, were crying in the backseat. This got my heart rate going again. I thought about my own children crying, and my mind went to dark places. Still, I thought I’d fly.
Once I was buckled in my seat on the airplane, I lowered my forehead to my knees, and Dustin rubbed my back. The flight attendant noticed us and came over to make sure everything was OK.
The two children were still sniffling and crying behind us. “My wife is afraid of flying,” Dustin said. “But she’ll be fine.”
“Would you like to meet the pilots?” the flight attendant asked. “Sometimes that helps.”
I unbuckled and followed the flight attendant to the front of the small airplane. I really wanted this to help. But when the pilots turned around, they looked like they were 20. My throat went instantly dry.
“It’s going to be a great flight,” the captain said with a boyish grin. “There’s some bad weather ahead, so it will probably be bumpy, but —”
I turned around, pushed Dustin aside, and ran down the steps to the tarmac. I didn’t care that my purse and computer were still inside the aircraft.
Dustin came down the steps, and I could see that he was frustrated — maybe even panicked. For the first time, both of us realized that I might not do it.
“Get on the plane,” Dustin yelled over the noise of the other engines.
“Just get on the plane and we’ll be home in 2 hours.”
“I can’t do it.”
I was hysterical now, and other people on the plane were beginning to peer out their windows.
One of the pilots came out and asked if he could help. He wanted to explain the principles of flight to us.
“I’m a pilot,” Dustin said, exasperated. “And so is her dad.”
The pilot looked confused. Then he asked if there was anything he could do.
I wanted to say, “Get about 20 more years experience and take back what you said about rough weather.”
When the pilot left us again, Dustin said, “We’re getting older, Sarah. Everyone is going to look younger to us — our doctors, dentists, the children’s teachers.”
But it didn’t matter what he said. I couldn’t get back on the plane. Dustin retrieved our bags and without saying another word (for about an hour), rented us a car and began driving me home.
Our plane landed safely in Bangor before we were outside of D.C. traffic.
Anxiety: it’s a rotten thing to deal with. It never really goes away, and it’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. My fear is irrational and inconvenient. I know that. And this week, on the anniversary of 9/11, I also know what I eventually have to do: get back on a plane and reclaim my independence.
Sarah Smiley is a columnist and author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.