As it is for many, writing has always been cathartic for me. It has long been my refuge in times of sadness, upset or doubt. (Since turning to blogging, I've tried to expand the horizon a bit. No one much wants to read about others' sadness or doubts. Certainly not exclusively.) And so, the writing of this is inevitable for me. Even while the prospect of doing so has been dogging me now for a week. In part, because I worry about the upset it may cause others. In part, because I worry it may seem either hysterical or self-indulgent. Or both. But it dawned on me tonight that I'm not writing this for you. I'm actually writing this for me. So, forgive me if it is too personal, uncomfortable, upsetting or indulgent. It is something I need to do.
Fair warning, though: please consider not reading further if you either a) have a significant fear of flying; or b) if I and/or my daughter hold a place in your heart that makes somewhat morbid thoughts related to either of us overly upsetting.
Those who know me well know that I'm not a good flyer. Never have been a great one. However, about three years ago, I became a very bad one. For reasons that still are unclear to me, I suddenly and rather unexpectedly experienced what I assume was a panic attack while flying home from Austin with my sister, Julie, after visiting my sister, Karen. It was on the short leg of the flight, from Austin to Dallas. There was nothing particularly upsetting about the flight. I just suddenly found myself frozen with fear, unable to speak, and holding onto my armrests for dear life, while my heart raced willy-nilly. After we landed in Dallas, I wasn't certain I'd be able to get back on the plane to complete the flight home, but ultimately, I did. And we arrived home without further incident.
However, after that, I felt it probably best for me to consider some sort of anti-anxiety medication for future flights. I don't like acknowledging that, but, to me, it was either that, or figure out how not to fly anymore. And so, I've limped along since, in mildly sedated fashion, and flown, oh, five or six times, without much incident. While I recognize it's superstitious, I always make sure to fly with the jade pendant my ex once bought for me while we were in Hawaii for good luck. He's an aircraft mechanic and helicopter pilot, and he's a good man, so, I guess I always figured it couldn't hurt.
Recently, I flew to DC, and expressed some of my anxiety to my Twitter friends pre-flight. One dear, sweet friend related to me that she always envisioned the plane being carried in God's hands. The image stayed with me, and comforted me, both going and coming back.
Last Monday, Julie, my niece Elizabeth, Riley and I flew to Austin to visit Karen for the girls' Spring Break. Karen called that morning to give me a heads up that there might be some storms rolling through the Dallas and Austin areas late Monday afternoon. Hopefully, we'd be ahead of them. I e-mailed a friend and expressed my unease. I checked the radar a few times. It didn't look great, but the flights remained on time. Until we got to the airport, and there was a slight delay with St. Louis to Dallas leg. About half an hour, but it was going to make it close to catch our connector. Wasn't all that worried, though. Figured we could just catch the next Dallas to Austin hop if need be.
This was Riley's first trip on an airplane and she was quite excited about it. We made it through security without a hitch, boarded and got under way shortly after 4:00 p.m. I sent out my usual request for prayers for a safe flight on Twitter and maybe on Facebook, too. I don't often like to ask for prayers for myself, but flying is one of those times I'll make an exception. At some point, the Captain came on and advised we might encounter a few bumps on the way into Dallas as there were heavy winds and storm conditions. I showed Julie and the girls the pendant and told them it was my good luck charm. Shortly before we began the descent, the Captain reiterated his warning and advised the flight attendants would be belting in, too. Riley had to use the restroom real quick, so she trotted back to do so, which was right about the time we encountered the first turbulence. I looked back to check on her and saw the flight attendant knocking on the door - she poked her head out and assured us she was fine, and soon returned to her seat.
That's when things got really bad. There isn't a bad enough word for how bad. For the next five to ten minutes, we descended through my own version of hell. The plane dipped and hopped and lurched and swayed. I've encountered turbulence before but this was well beyond what I'd ever experienced. Or even imagined in my darkest fears. My glasses flew off at one point. Julie, thankfully, was able to pick them up off the floor. She reached over once or twice to pat my leg. She knew how terrified I was. Trouble was, I didn't want Riley to see it. I didn't want her to be scared. God love her, she didn't know any different, so she giggled and joked about the roller coaster. Elizabeth sat between us, and she's flown several times before. She knew this wasn't normal, and wasn't good. About half way down, she quietly reached over and took my hand. A couple of times, I managed to get out the words, "It's okay. We're going to be okay." But I didn't believe it. I thought the worst of worst thoughts. I thought we were going to be very far from okay.
Just when I thought I couldn't take anymore, the Captain came on and said, "Folks, we've got 45 knot winds (he may have said cross-winds, I'm not really sure) here. We're going to go back up and try and come around again at a slightly different angle, see if we can't get down. If not, we'll divert to Austin, and re-fuel there." All I could think was, "What in the hell do you mean we're going to try again?! WHY???!!! NOOOOO!!!!" By this point, I was shaking violently. I looked down at my legs and, for a moment, didn't understand that they belonged to me. They were literally bouncing off the floor, like teeth chattering. I tried to stop them so Riley wouldn't see. In my head, I was pleading with God to keep us safe. To carry us in his hands to safety.
We went back up. Bumping back up through the air pockets and wind. We circled around, and then headed back down again. I didn't think it possible, but the second descent was even worse. I don't pretend to understand aircraft physics or capacities. But I don't think 737's are really supposed to do the things this plane did. I kept thinking I wished there was a way to send a message to my loved ones. To let them know I was sorry and I loved them and I'd miss them. This is really hard and scary to say, and I'm sorry for it, but I really did think we were going to die. Worst of all, I thought, "I put my daughter on this plane. I did this to her." I can tell you without any question, that was the singular most horrifying thought I have ever had.
As we neared the ground, the plane continued to dip and lurch and swing side to side. I could see the green grass outside our window, and I felt certain we were going to cartwheel onto the runway. I don't know how close we actually got because I closed my eyes at the end, and just then, the pilot gunned the engine and pulled our nose back up. And we bumped back up again. The Captain came back on and advised we'd be diverting to Austin.
There was a slight sense of relief -- maybe...maybe we'd make it after all. But we were still being bounced around pretty severely. While the flight attendants made their way back through the cabin, disposing of some of the unfortunate passengers' airsickness bags, I reached into my purse and grabbed my phone. I pulled up Twitter and typed this: "Just so y'all know. The prayers were & are needed. I hope I'll be sending this once we're safe on the ground. In a word: awful. Love y'all." My thought was that if things got ugly again, I'd switch off Airplane Mode and send it. Suddenly, that seemed really important to me -- to let my friends and loved ones know and remember that I love them. I kicked myself for not saying it clearly before we left.
As we bounced toward Austin, my sister wondered aloud if they'd actually let us de-plane in Austin. I looked at her and said, "Oh...they WILL let us off the plane." When she looked uncertain, I added, "No - they WILL. Trust me." In my mind, the thought continued, "If I have to fake a <censored> heart attack, or go Alec Baldwin on them, they WILL let us off this plane." Thankfully, nothing nearly so drastic was required. Though the remainder of the ride was rough, we did touch down in Austin, and they told us those who had it as our final destination would be allowed off the plane.
As soon as we were down, I flipped on the phone and sent the tweet. I followed it up with one I can't repeat here. Then I texted my ex to let him know we were on the ground in Austin and Riley was okay. Karen called to check on our status, and I tersely told her I'd call her back. I don't think my follow-up text to her is repeatable here, either. Interestingly, Julie and I kept receiving text and voice mail updates regarding our intended connecting flight from Dallas to Austin -- the flight that was originally slated to depart Dallas at 5:55 p.m. didn't actually leave until the following morning at 4:30 a.m. Tells you a little bit about the weather conditions.
The time spent in Austin was wonderful, and I'll be adding a much lighter entry chronicling it (pics included) as soon as possible. I did my best not to dwell on the flight back. I didn't sleep well Friday night, and the anxiety returned full force. I'm sure my sisters noticed I wasn't exactly Susie Sunshine Saturday morning, either. Basically, I retreated inside my head and tried to tune thoughts of flying later that day out. I temporarily toyed with the idea of renting a car and just driving back, but that's a 13 hour drive and a huge additional expense. And I didn't want to transfer my phobia to Riley, which taking such extreme measures would likely do. I checked the weather and it looked good all the way through. Sunshine and low winds. I told myself I could do it. Friends told me I could do it. I am thankful for their prayers and encouragement.
The flight home was relatively uneventful. Still a little bumpy descending into Dallas. I looked at my sister and rolled my eyes, with a "Not again," look. But it was what I'd characterize as "moderate" turbulence. We landed and took off again. I didn't flip out. And we landed safely in St. Louis. God carried us home safely, and I am thankful for that, as well.
I've relayed this story to probably ten or twelve people now. Several times, I've found myself overwhelmed by the emotion of reliving it. Writing this did it to me, too. But I think I needed to do it. I also think it's probably going to be awhile before I really feel all the way okay. Feeling those feelings and thinking those thoughts, it does change you. It does leave a mark. I'm not going to paint this as some grand life-altering experience. I don't know that it is. I just know that it has reaffirmed my appreciation for the life God has given me, for my daughter, for my family and for my friends. And I think, from now on, before I fly -- if I fly -- I'll make a point to tell them that I love them.