I write this
sitting in the kitchen sink at 35,000 feet. I won’t be able to post it up here, but we’re four and a half hours into a flight that’s barely halfway over so there’s plenty of time to write. So by the time you read this, it will already be done and dusted.
I’m supposed to be watching The BFG but I’m struggling a little with both staying awake and fully appreciating it. I actually love some of the cinematic changes from the book – a livened up exchange with a visiting Fleshlumpeater (was it that one?) is beautifully done; the setting is simply stunning. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to find fault with Mark Rylance in anything, but the modernisation of Sophie is as hard as a snozzcumber to swallow. I mean, she’s officious and self-righteous in the book, too (Dahl was nothing if honest about the foibles of even his own family) but this feels a little like Hermione gone horrid. The corrections to the BFG’s language seem snarky and cruel rather than thoughtlessly self-assured. But we’re only 35 minutes in. I might have judged the little tyke too harshly. Watching a film on a plane is never giving it its best shot, and I’ve already rewatched – and thoroughly enjoyed, again – Captain America: Civil War. So maybe I’m feeling generally combative.
Plane journeys are pretty dull after all – even if the destination is a thoroughly exciting one. But I relish the boredom. The boredom is fantastic. The boredom is my favourite thing. Because the boredom means the crippling anxiety is over.
It’s not technically accurate to say I have a fear of flying. What I have is a fear of take-off. Approximately 2.5 minutes into the flight, I chill the hell out and then it’s plain (ahem) sailing all the way. And no, before you ask, it doesn’t come back for landing. Landing is normal. Landing is natural. Landing is what we’re meant to do. I do get horrible ear pain, but eh. We’re heading down. We’re where we’re supposed to be. There’s nothing weird about an incomprehensibly massive, heavy metal object coming to rest on the ground. Firing it up from the ground, well… this might be the only time you’ll hear me quoting Frankie Boyle, but he did make me laugh on just one occasion when he said there wasn’t anywhere on Earth he liked enough to be fired at it in a tube at 700pmh.
Luckily, there is such a place for me; many places, in fact. It’s what keeps me getting on flights because if there’s one thing I can accept less than take off it’s never visiting exciting places. Perhaps if I had endless time and money I’d go everywhere by train – my most beloved mode of transport – and sea (far less beloved due to my propensity to feel grossly nauseated, but I do love watching the waves. But I am, at this moment, heading to my happiest of happy places, Walt Disney World, and I couldn’t do it any other way that is remotely reasonable.
But the anxiety, the fear – it’s really, really, really real. It starts a few weeks out with the occasional wobble, and the last two days are a painfully blurry countdown of hours until take off, minutes until that moment when the engines go from a dull purr to a roaring throttle, when the pace suddenly picks up and the slowly trundling beast that haltingly bumbled back from the gate becomes a raging lion in full gallop after a gazelle.
(Sophie is now in a rusted car, being thrown down a hill by what appear to be gargantuan Nac Mac Feegle. I love Spielberg, but I might have to give this one up as Not For Me. Still, when it comes to films I’m no quitter, and I recognise that I am, after all, writing a blog post at the same time…)
Anyway. The anxiety.
It’s so unpleasant.
For 48 hours now I’ve had a persistent constriction in my chest. I get quite panicky about heart stuff; a lifelong poor relationship with food, aversion of any exercise that isn’t a bracing stroll and witnessing a close family member suffer a heart attack in their 40s when I was a child… well, I worry about my heart health. Obviously worry is super good for heart health, and so then I start to get anxiety about what the anxiety is doing to me. As vicious circles go, this is the Wandsworth one-way system. Now that the tightness has eased, I’m free to feel a pain in my chest that is caused by the muscles in my neck – bunched up in tension by day and bad sleep by night – slowly trying to work out if they’re okay to relax or not (after all, there is a return flight).
These days, I’m honest about my fears with most of the people I know. The thing is, I don’t want it to mean I don’t get asked to travel; I recently missed out on a flight with work because I was sick, and none of the relief I felt at being spared take off was worth the annoyance I felt at being out of the loop. I will absolutely accept the flights and get on the flights and live through the tremulous wibble in my own head because I desperately want to beat this.
I am a supporter of – believer in? – hypnotherapy, having used it for birth, and I keep meaning to book some sessions in to deal with this. I wonder if some other forms of therapy could also be helpful – CBT for the thought spirals, perhaps. I mean, I need to address why I am so scared, from the fear of dying to the fear of knowing I’m dying, to the existential dread stuff about what comes after. One of my best friends has pointed out that it’s not unnatural to be perturbed about the very, well, unnaturalness of take off. The thing is, I don’t worry once everything is stable; I’ve flown through two (separate) hurricanes and been in a plane that had an emergency unscheduled stop due to a failed engine (one of two) which, once repaired, I had to get back into to fly home. Turbulence doesn’t overly bother me, even though one of my parents suffered lifelong injury after falling and being trapped in a loo when a plane they were in hit an unexpected pocket of it in a cloud, or however it is that works. How is it such a very small part of every journey can cause such disproportionate horror?
But there is one person who has no idea that I feel the slightest frisson. I never, ever mention my fears within my daughter’s earshot. While we’re trundling down the runway I’m reading (the same line fourteen times if necessary), or my eyes are shut in peaceful sleep (prayer) or I’m giving my daughter a gentle snuggle (holding on for dear life). I don’t medicate – if the odd glass of bubbly doesn’t count, and not every time – except with eating too much rubbish. After suffering through endless weeks of viruses followed by worry about the flight I have eaten in the past three weeks all the sugar I haven’t eaten in the last two years (I am actually savouring the thought of a hard reset in the New Year; realistically pancakes and waffles and ice cream – oh my! – will just be too tempting in the Sunshine State). My friend Erin gets anxiety from eating sugar; I’m not sure my attempt to treat mine with it is the wisest move I’ve ever made. But food has always been love in my house. Pretending so that my daughter is spared my agonies is the least I can do.
I travelled fearlessly as a child myself, and this continued until I was in my late teens. God willing she’ll be like her dad, gazing eagerly out of the window and savouring the speed even now he’s in his 40s, without a frisson of fear. I remember once actually reading so intently I didn’t notice the plane had risen off the ground; I just looked out and saw clouds. I must have been about 19 then, because I was reading – or trying to read – James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was my gift for winning the English Prize at school during my A Levels. I chose it out of a sense of duty and pretentiousness and after that all-encompassing attempt to work out what the hell was going on I abandoned it and leant it to my friend Beatie whom I think still has it. She’s always been madly smart and has written a fantastic book you should all read, called Petite Mort. It’s very good, and the scary part is I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as she’s going to get, say, three novels from now. There’s Angela Carter-level talent just beginning to show. You’ll see.
(I think Sophie has just risked accidental suicide. Hmm. I properly love the rendering of the Nac Mac Giants, though.)
I think blog posts are supposed to have a story to them. This is meant to be like my word of the year piece – a neatly constructed slice of life with something at the end. A moral, a resolution, a conclusion. But I’ve been reading a lot of Shirley Jackson this past week – note: do not read Shirley Jackson to calm your spirit, that is just stupid – and I’ve been hugely enjoying the way her creepy, plotlessly unsettling stories seem to just suddenly end, with either nothing changed or everything moved slightly to the left, inexplicably. The fact is, I was scared, and now I’m not. I’ll be scared again and then I won’t be. And I’ll carry on in the cycle – and carry on hiding it from my favourite person in the world – because… well, because.
So that’s that, then.