Early one evening, over fifteen years ago, I sat in an aisle seat in a small commercial airplane flying from Burbank to San Diego. The propellers hummed lightly just outside the window. In the bright blue and cloudless sky, we hit a patch of clear air turbulence. The plane bumped and shimmied sideways a bit. The movement worried me, which was a first. My palms began to sweat; my heart was pounding.
From this small, innocuous beginning, fear insinuated itself into every bump, shudder, or sway of every flight. From take-off to landing, my brain experienced “danger” and dumped cortisol into my bloodstream, triggering the “fight or flight response.” With nothing to fight and nowhere to flee, every moment became an agony. Hands clutching the armrests, eyes darting around the cabin looking for an escape, my body was tense with anticipation and terror.
To my increasing consternation, I realized that I had a fully developed phobia. Or, more accurately, it had me. Phobias were for other people, I thought. Yet my efforts to cure it consistently failed. Hypnotism? I tried too hard to please the hypnotist and was unable to “go under.” Prayer? Fear swallowed my words. Education? I knew statistics by heart. Shark attacks or choking to death on food ranked far, far higher as a probable cause of death. My fear response was visceral, and visceral beats rational every single time. Expensive online courses with confident promises. Meditation. Therapists with the best of intentions. I became an expert in ineffective phobia treatment.
In desperation, I began to medicate with Xanax, carefully measuring out an increasing number of pills in the palm of my hand two hours before each flight. With a sodden, heavy brain, I could endure a flight—barely. The practice ended one evening at Los Angeles International Airport when, heavily medicated, I stood in the boarding area and thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” I turned from the gate, walked out of the terminal, and tried to drive home. At four-thirty a.m. a police officer knocked on my car window with his flashlight. Had I been drinking, he asked. “No, sir. I was tired and pulled over.” (Technically true.) He looked at me quizzically. “Well, next time, don’t park on the freeway; it’s dangerous.” I had no recollection of pulling onto the shoulder of the heavily trafficked 405 freeway, hitting the hazard lights, or leaning my car seat back.
I was grounded, unable to fly, and began to manage my life—both personally and professionally—around the limitation. It rankled me. One day, in exasperation, I trudged up two flights of stairs to the window-wrapped light-filled office of a new therapist. Sitting on a brown leather couch, wearing tan khaki pants, a blue button-down shirt, and glasses, he looked impossibly young. Affecting an air of ease, I told him of my hard-wired phobia. I recounted the myriad and ineffective efforts to root it out. He jotted notes on a yellow legal pad, listened intently. Then, in a gentle but firm voice, said, “Stop trying to cure it. All your efforts are just feeding the beast. You give it too much power when you fight it, and you make it worse.” I sat still and looked at him quietly for a long moment. He was serene and confident; I was neither of those.
I had two or three additional sessions with the young therapist, largely inconsequential. But his admonition—“don’t feed the beast”—had taken root because, instinctively, I knew he was right. And I knew it applied to more than flying. Fear of flying was one symptom of a deeply rooted, and insidiously creeping, propensity to anticipate the worst in everything. My world was shrinking. Public speaking, new roles at work, leadership at church—I was sidestepping them all. My propensity had become a habit, and the habit was becoming my personality. The tick or eccentricity was becoming identity and, perhaps, ontology.
This became clear to me one Saturday morning as I stood looking out the front window of my home. My boys—eight and ten at the time—were playing with friends in the cul-de-sac. On streets damp with night rain, they ran under the warm summer sun, loose and floppy, at ease in body and mind. Cup of coffee in hand, I watched quietly. I studied them for a long time. I faintly remembered how easily I used to move in the world. It occurred to me, like a jolt, that anxiety is an insistent god. If I continued to bow to anxiety and sought out the comfortable, the mundane, the safe, then it would insinuate itself into every decision and every dream. My world would shrink, and my life would become a sad, pallid thing.
C.S. Lewis reminds us that if we find ourselves on the wrong path, the way forward is to turn around. So early one evening, I boarded a four-hour flight to Detroit from SeaTac International Airport. “Don’t feed the beast,” I muttered to myself. Sitting next to a window, I opened the shade and looked down as the runway rushed past. Engines roaring, we lifted off and bumped around in the dark Seattle clouds. “I am afraid,” I said (out loud) as the ground fell away. For a few very short moments—seconds, really—I sat with the fear, felt it, and made no move to comfort it. There was, perhaps, a whisper of peace, a hint that the beast would skulk away without food. It was something, a mustard seed. Yet phobias are stubborn guests, and when I grew weary of willing stillness, the guest ran loose in the house.
With some exasperation and little confidence, I began to pray again. In the past, as I sat in terror—hands clenched, heart pounding—word prayers had been thin and vaporous, without purchase or hold. Now, as I felt fear like a dark wave coming toward me, I tried a different prayer. I visualized Jesus standing in the aisle, just one row up, enfleshed and solid. He wore a tan, homespun robe with frayed edges. His hair was unkempt. Yet he appeared almost luminescent and looked at me slightly bemused, as if I could take his hand at any time.
As a rule, I do not have religious experiences. But there were moments—critical to my healing—in which the promise of Jesus’s presence was more than a promise. For the first time, I experienced hope.
In this long, arduous process, I learned that the opposite of anxiety is not confidence, but hope. Hope is not merely optimism dressed up in a theological word. Optimism suggests confidence but ends in a void. Hope has form and shape, the promise of solidity and presence. Encountering this hope leaves an imprint, an image that steadies the waves and calms the storms. With hope, I took another flight, and then another with increasing ease. It bled into other areas of my life, areas long haunted by fears. I accepted opportunities to speak at church; I took on new roles at work; I wrote. The beast became less ravenous and I became less inclined to feed it.
There is no Hallmark ending to my story, no swelling music suggesting completion. Fear still plagues my thoughts more often than I care to admit. But my limbs are a little looser. I move more easily in the world, and my horizon has expanded, just a bit. And I’ve learned to move toward hope, toward the kind eyes, the bemused smile, and the hand always open.
Cover image by Jason Leem.