Up, Up, and Away

For the last 16 years, my husband has spent about a third of each year traveling for business. The kids and I miss him when he’s gone and though he loves his job as a media consultant, enjoys the places it takes him, he misses us, too. Ever the optimist, my husband likes pointing out the upside of all his travel: “Look at all the frequent flyer miles we have.”

The downside to all those free miles, which then equal free tickets, is my fear of flying. For me it’s no little thing, but instead a full-blown phobia rooted in a bad experience while traveling during our honeymoon in Hawaii. All those years ago, while flying at night over the Pacific between Honolulu to Maui we hit turbulence so severe that the plane’s door flew open. For interminable minutes the only thing that drowned out the sound of rushing air was the unified terror-screams of the 16 passengers on board. Finally, the co-pilot sprang into action and shimmied his way to the open door and managed to shut it—quite a feat. In the decade that followed that flight, I was terrified of air travel and my family only vacationed if we could get there by highway.

Several years ago my husband raided his plane and hotel point accounts and planned a family vacation for us to, of all places, Hawaii. 

With great reluctance I consented to the trip, which in my mind was like returning to the scene of a crime. Still, the actual trip was months away and I allowed my mind to consider the white sandy beaches of Maui, the fruity cocktails served in coconuts, the luaus, and the breathtaking sunsets. I tried to block out the 12 hours in-flight that I would endure getting to that beach and those cocktails from my home in North Carolina.

As the trip grew closer my trepidation increased exponentially. “Why should I relive the nightmare of that flight?” I asked my husband. “There are perfectly nice beaches within driving distance. Myrtle Beach is only a three hours away.”

“Are we only going to travel to places that can be reached by car? Forever?” he asked. “You can’t let fear control your life.”    

The man had a point. But I didn’t want to white-knuckle my way through 12 hours in the air. A few weeks before our trip, I turned to the miracle of modern medicine and asked my internist for help. He prescribed something that would allow me a nightmare-free nap between point A and point B.

The morning of our departure I woke at four-thirty for an eight o’clock flight. I am not a morning person so for those wee morning hours my exhaustion did a good job of displacing my anxiety. Once at the airport my shoes were x-rayed for first time. Much has been made in the news of the imposition of heightened airport security on the traveler. If I traveled frequently, I very well may feel put out by it. However, I took comfort in the increased security measures. I only wished there were a way to pat down the atmosphere to root out undetected turbulence.

Seated on the plane, I popped my first little white miracle pill. A solid snooze later and I woke to our landing in Chicago to switch planes. The next leg of the trip would be a nine-hour, non-stop flight to Maui. Settled in again, I took another pill and was sound asleep before take-off. I woke mid-flight, ate something called “Fiesta Chicken,” and thanks to some unexpected turbulence, I noticed the water in my glass wobbling. For good measure, I downed one more pill and fell into the arms of the Sandman.

At baggage claim in Maui, I sought out a bathroom, caught my green-around-the-gills reflection in the mirror and felt a strong wave of nausea. I dozed intermittently on the hour-long ride from the airport to the hotel. While my husband and kids checked us in at the front desk, I stayed outside in need of fresh air. Nausea hit again and this time, my in-flight Fiesta Chicken dinner christened the hotel sidewalk. My brand new Nike sneakers were collateral damage. If I weren’t so queasy and wiped out, I would have been mortified.

The next morning, still queasy and at last appropriately mortified, I called my doctor. His long distance diagnosis—I took too much medication, didn’t drink enough water, and probably suffered from some slight dehydration.

Once the nausea passed, my family and I went to breakfast that first morning on Maui and I ate as though I hadn’t eaten in months. Biting into a stack of fluffy pancakes topped with warm mango chutney, I swore that nothing ever tasted better. The smiling faces of my two children, back-dropped by palm trees and cornflower blue skies, made me feel that I’d done the best thing for all of us by facing down my fear.

Our week in Hawaii was fun, relaxing, and memorable in every way. My husband even took the kids parasailing.  Having done that in college, I enjoyed watching them from the beach.

On our flights back to North Carolina, I made sure to drink plenty of water and take less medicine. We arrived home, tanned, rested, and we reminisced about our wonderful time. Since that vacation, my husband’s frequent flyer miles have allowed us to travel on separate occasions to Portugal, Italy, and London. More frequent exposure to air travel has allowed me to fly on lower doses of medicine each time.

Confronting a phobia is never easy, and I am glad that I have been able to wrestle mine into submission if not total remission. I take it one trip at a time, one flight at a time, and always travel wearing an old pair of sneakers—just in case they’re serving Fiesta Chicken on board.


Sharon Kurtzman lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children, and two dogs. Her novel, Cosmo’s Deli, was published as an e-book by Boson Books and her short fiction and essays have appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer as well as in literary journals in print and online.

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