I don’t love to fly. Never have. Not sure if I ever will. Although I’m not ruling it out.
I have always been impressed by people who can live well with their perceived weak spots. After all, I spend my professional and much of my personal life helping others do just that: Work as hard as you can to do the best that you can, and then, learn to live comfortably with who you are, weaknesses and all.
Until recently, I was quite content with that in my own life. I never cared much that I didn’t like to fly. Oh don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a problem for me, I just didn’t care much. I flew, but I didn't like it. I never wanted to fly bad enough to do what I had to do to make it easier for me.
Until my husband was turning 60.
After 30 years of marriage, I confess that I remain madly in love with my husband. Two years ago someone brought up the idea of a trip to Ireland for his milestone birthday (surely it wasn’t me who brought it up!) He had been around the world and had always dreamed of going to Ireland. Maybe because it’s luscious and magical. Maybe because of Van Morrison.
For almost two years, I rarely thought about the trip because I knew if I did, anxiety would pour out of my body. I also couldn’t think about it without feeling incredibly guilty about being a master therapist who could not help herself in this way. So I didn’t think about it.
Until my husband made the plane reservations.
Then it was real. There was no turning back. He didn’t change his mind. Surely, I shouldn’t take my daughter up on her offer to go instead of me, although that was an option I actually considered for about 4 full minutes of serious, self-indulgent thought. Now, I was trapped. Shut in by a phobia of unknown origin, which, when I was honest with myself, stretched far beyond the flying itself. I just didn’t want to go. If someone could have tele-transported me over there, totally bypassing the transcontinental flight, I still would not have wanted to go. I didn’t want to go that far. I have never wished to see faraway places that entice most breathing souls. I didn’t want to think about all the god awful things that could happen while I was there or while I was away from my loved ones. And just to be clear, for those who are not intimately familiar with what fear of flying feels like, I used to liken it to what it must have felt like when my beloved ancestors were forced beyond belief to walk into a burning oven. While that image might seem dramatic, categorically overstated, and certainly in bad taste, it’s truly the image that assaulted me more than once when moving toward an airplane, or an airport, for that matter. This was not a fear that the plane would fall out of the sky or that I would die. It was simply a fear of feeling that bad.
Shallow, rapid breath. Tight chest. Claustrophobia. Panicked thoughts. Can’t breathe. Can’t feel my legs, unable to walk. System shutdown. All rational thinking gone. Bowels protesting in full force. Tunnel vision. Can’t hear. Cannot carry on conversation. Self is lost. Images of atrocities fill the weary worried landscape of my brain. All ability to clear my head and make sense out of how I am feeling is now paralyzed.
Why would I willingly subject myself to that?
My love for my husband took center stage right about the time he told me he had spoken to a travel agent who was setting up our itinerary. Ugh. We are really going.
This is when I knew I needed to get to work.
The first catalyst was serendipitous. Being a big believer in the power of the Universe and the unexpected but destined paths that frequently lure me in, I stayed in bed one dreary Saturday morning watching a delightfully silly, time-wasting movie, called Leap Year. With no prior knowledge of the movie, it caught my attention when I heard them talking about being in Ireland. So I sat up and watched intently. It’s beautiful, I told myself. Look how green. How expansive. How breathtaking.
I found myself doing what I always tell my clients to do. You don’t have to believe it. Not yet. You just have to say it. Tease your brain. Teach your brain.
So I dove in: It’s beautiful. It is really beautiful.
It’s like building a new muscle, I say to clients. Clearly, you won’t see your efforts make a noticible difference when you first start using it. You have to keep moving it, stretching it, pumping it back and forth and back and forth. Then, changes will take place.
So I kept watching and kept thinking, it’s so beautiful. Look at the rocks, the hills, the narrow winding roads. I saw unpretentious people in jeans and work shirts, laughing and hugging, telling stories. All the while, I knew it was a movie, and yet, I watched it as if it were a script for my next step forward. I took snapshots of the terrain as I needed the images to be put into my brain to replace the distorted ones. So I stared at the characters in the film, impressed by their unassuming nature. I listened to the lovely intonation that resonated in my ears as I took this all in, my brain feverishly taking it all in.
It was at that time, I realized that Ireland was the perfect place for us to go. It was so us. I knew I wasn’t the sit-at-the-beach kind of girl and as I’ve said, I am not really interested in remote destinations, not due to anxiety, but rather, because of my personality. I really just don’t care.
Maybe I was just talking myself into it, but Ireland was beginning to feel like the right fit for us. Two aging hippies, still wearing the same jeans we wore in college, who would be content sitting on a stone wall in the cold rain surrounded by cows. So I started looking at pictures online, and listening to the Irish accent and best of all, watching videos of people driving on the wrong side of the road. My husband's excitement helped me stay on task and though anxiety was ever-present, I worked hard to distract myself and stay focused on my mission. When the anxiety got too much, and I worried it could sabotage my best efforts, I inserted my favorite feel-good line I use with postpartum women, “It’s okay. It’s okay. It will be okay.”
To my surprise and delight, these early attempts to ease my nervousness helped a bit. A huge shout out for cognitive affirmations.
My perseverance and commitment to the project at hand, helped too. Never before had I been so determined to change something about myself. The truth is, I like who I am and am confident regarding my strengths as well as my areas of vulnerability.
But this was different.
Part of it felt like I had no choice. But most of it felt like I had more choice than ever. I’m not exactly sure of the intricacies behind my desire to work on this, but I know for certain I did it for my husband. One could argue that this isn’t the ideal motivating factor and that I should have wanted to do it for ME and my own well-being, mental health, personal growth and so forth. But the truth of the matter is that I did it for him. One hundred percent. This is why I have always said he makes me a better person.
For the next few months, I went on an anxiety-reducing shopping frenzy. I downloaded fear of flying lessons. I listened to endless mindfulness gurus telling me what to think and how to think it. Or, how not to think; how to just be. I read books on facing your fears and listened to audio tapes in my car on how to stay in the present moment. All the while, I hoped and on some level, believed, that some of this would sink in, regardless of my skeptical nature. I just kept moving forward in the face of my own personal opposition which is something I rarely do. Typically, I surrender to my imposing resistance because I trust my intuition. I have acutely fine-tuned instincts. I sense things others do not sense. I feel, smell, see and hear things that others do not. Some of the time I am misguided, but much of the time, my body and my mind are in a constant state of intense awareness. I’m certain it’s what makes me good at what I do. I am equally as certain it the core of my anxiety.
Two months before our trip, I was taking a walk around my neighborhood. At that point, I was already feeling better. I was beginning to think the tapes, the voices, the words, the promises of relief were helping a tiny bit. Not much, but enough to keep my momentum going.
As I rounded the final cul-de-sac, I began talking aloud to myself. It is a technique I stumbled across that day but have since been convinced that the brain takes hold of our out loud voice more efficiently than our inner voice, which is often critical or fragile. Regardless of the technique, however, I have never been good at harnessing my best therapist skills on my own behalf.
Okay, Karen, you need to do this. It will be okay. (deep breaths, in and out, in and out). Do you remember the last time you felt this way? Do you remember the last time you felt like you were trapped and might die? Do you remember when you were giving birth to your daughter and you were lying on the table, arms restrained, oxygen mask and IVs connected every which way, belly slit open, guts exposed, surrounded by faceless white coats and your dear husband? Do you remember when the spinal you were given was too high and you felt like you weren’t breathing?
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
The young, attentive anesthesiologist responded quickly to my alarm. Checking monitors, turning dials, inspecting plastic lines that went from the machines back to me. Everything was good. You are breathing, he told me.
No, I can’t breathe. I’m not breathing.
Anyone who has had a spinal anesthetic that was “too high” knows that it can affect your chest muscles and create the sensation that you are not breathing. The doctor responded to my relentless pleas. Checked and re-checked to make certain I was breathing. I remember him taking my face in his hands and bending down so that his upside down face was eye-to-eye with mine. You are breathing, he repeated calmly. I know it feels like you are not breathing but you are breathing. If you can tell me you are breathing, you are breathing.
Then I cannot tell you. Because I am not breathing.
It was then – somewhere between my panic and the surreal disconnect from my own body – that something happened. What was left of my observing self came forward and whispered to me, There is nothing you can do. You are strapped down, you are scared, you may or may not be breathing, but there is nothing you can do. You cannot run. You cannot get up. You cannot change this. You can only submit. Surrender. Let go.
Letting go has never been easy for me.
At that moment in time, so often described by others as divine intervention, with an ease of heart that I can still feel today, I let go. I gave up. Perhaps out of sheer desperation but still, in a moment of great strength, I gave up my hold of the fear. Instantaneously, I heard the amazing cry of my daughter’s first breath in sync with my own breath, in and out, never as far away as I had imagined.
As I rounded the corner to home from my walk, I put closure on my private session with myself:
Karen. The last time you felt like you couldn’t breathe and were going to die – you got a baby. This time, you feel like you can’t breathe and you’re going to die – you’re going to have the trip of a lifetime.
Breath in. Breath out. A chill ran through my body. Tears fell.
And, just like that… it was gone.
Like magic, again, 26 years later, I felt my body let it go. I actually felt my body let it go. I have no idea what that means. But now, when I guide others, I know exactly how it works and how it feels. From that moment on, I felt no anxiety, no apprehension, no worries about the trip beyond what to pack. The flights were incredible, and Ireland? Well, that’s really hard to put into words. Perfection comes closest to it.
The greatest lesson for me was that the love I have for my marriage is profoundly powerful and my ability to practice what I preach had forever been underutilized.
Sometimes, it feels like it is not worth the effort, but sometimes, it most definitely, is.
copyright 2013 Karen Kleiman