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How meditation fixed my fear of flying

by Kelton Wright

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“Could you make sure I get on this flight?”

This was common practice for me in 2010. If I had to fly, I would take some clonazepam before the flight. My hands would shake as I brought the pill to my mouth, and then I would find my target before it kicked in. I would scout out a woman my age or older, looking for others eyeing my same departure gate, and tell her my situation: I was terrified of flying, and I couldn’t get on the plane without taking drugs, and those drugs sometimes made me fall asleep. Could you please make sure I get on the plane?

By 2014, I stopped booking tickets altogether. The very idea of flying was too overwhelming. Even considering a flight elevated my heart rate. Conversations about it sent me into panic. But when a writer I respected and admired announced she was leading a retreat in six months, I started to put my pennies away to book the flight. I couldn’t miss this. I was going to figure out how to get back in the sky.

The retreat was held on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. It would focus on writing, but would also offer a yoga element. Another woman attending the same event arranged to meet me at the Los Angeles airport on her layover from Portland. I said my hellos, and then I took a full clonazepam—more than I had ever taken before—with a shot of whiskey and fear before we boarded the plane to Guatemala City. I blacked out the next eleven hours.

I don’t remember the flight. I don’t remember landing. I don’t remember getting off the plane, going through customs, getting onto the bus, being driven four hours to Panajachel, or getting on the boat toward my final destination. I just remember the boat docking and feeling the stomach-dropping sensation of not knowing the time or the day.

This was not great because one: I was missing some incredible things—views of the earth below, conversations with strangers, five uninterrupted hours to read and just exist; but also two, it was dangerous. I don’t need to be anywhere blacked out and alone with slow motor skills. I was able to get back in the sky, now I just needed to do it sober.

At 5:45 a.m. the next day, we were asked to attend a meditation session before our writing exercises would start. Until that morning, meditation was just something my dad did that I thought was a made-up way to get us to leave him alone. But I had just cried myself to sleep with stress in a room of scorpions and strangers, so I was willing to try it.

In those forty-five minutes, I felt glimmers of my old darlings: hope and clarity. They were just momentary breezes in a balmy existence, but I’d gotten a whiff. I was going to become a meditator. On day four, the conversation around meditation turned more practical: when you’re not going from tea drinking to Mayan fire portals all day, how do you do it? Our yoga teacher suggested Headspace, and I downloaded it over the front desk WiFi.

Three days later, it was back on the boat, back on the bus, back to the airport, back in the sky—and I was going to get on that goddamned plane without taking anything. While going through customs, the agent took out my bottle of unmarked (and unprescribed) clonazepam and shook it at me. Without common words, I gripped both hands over my heart, expressing the fear they helped with, and the fear I was feeling when confronted with the idea of flying without them. He smiled, tucking them back into my bag, and I only tensed further recognizing what a worthy adversary my fear could be.

At the gate, I opened Headspace for the first time. I registered for a free account, and I played the first meditation. And then I played that same meditation over and over and over for the next six hours until I got to L.A. and sat down on the airport carpet, crying with relief that I’d made it.

Those six hours held plenty of tears on the brink of panic, but they were alcohol- and drug-free. Medication is extremely important and necessary for many people, but it was my goal to function without it. As a kid and a teenager, the sky was my New York: where anything could happen, where opportunity was just a moment away, where life could change in the most beautiful and unpredictable ways. I wanted that back. I couldn’t understand how life-changing had veered so dramatically into life-ending. Meditation was my new salve.

From there, I began a practice. When someone mentioned a trip, I would go to the bathroom to listen to even three minutes of a meditation, just to regulate my breathing. I would go to travel sites to look at potential flights just to trigger my anxiety and then meditate through it. I meditated before booking flights to Idaho, to New York, to Oregon, Texas, and Tenerife. And eventually, I meditated in all of those airports and during all of those flights. I was panic free and zen as hell, 35,000 feet above ground.

But meditation didn’t change my anxiety; it changed my experience of time and, eventually, my relationship with myself.

First, let’s talk about time. Through all those flights, I still felt anxious. I still thought about having a heart attack over the Atlantic Ocean and there being no one on board who could help me. I still thought about what would happen if I lost my mind in the sky and tried to open the plane door. I still had thoughts that are frankly a bit too disturbing to make part of my Permanent Internet Record. But when I had these thoughts years prior, I could not separate them from the physical reaction. Was I concerned I would have a heart attack because I couldn’t slow down my heartbeat, or was my heart beating so hard simply because I was thinking about having a heart attack? The spiral of thought/reaction was so tightly twirled that I couldn’t tell them apart, let alone which came first. I had chicken and egged my thoughts and reactions into an inextricable cement. But with meditation, I was able to see a thought and then see my reaction to it. That flash of time, that sliver of existence between the two had been so slippery and narrow for me, I’d never been able to rest in it. Meditation made that time spongy. It made it sticky. It made it easier to linger in that moment and to insert logic, statistics, and kindness into it. Meditation gave me the time to actually choose my reaction.

As for my experience with myself, I—for awhile there—was starting to think I was crazy. My thoughts weren’t just anxious and stressful, they were disturbing. One of the things I learned while meditating with Headspace, is that your brain is going to do whatever it takes to get your attention, and sometimes that means conjuring up some pretty dark images. So while I used to think these thoughts were deranged, Headspace allowed me to see what they really were: creative. Now, instead of recoiling in shame whenever I have a thought that scares me, I treat it like my brain is playing a prank on me, and I think, “nice one. That was pretty out there.”

I can book flights no problem. I can have a glass of wine in the sky just for enjoyment, not for relief. And when my brain imagines the plane crashing, I make sure to add on the image of me surviving, rescuing everyone, and writing a screenplay about it. I get to choose my reactions, and I get to have a relationship with myself that allows for humility and generosity. I don’t love to fly yet, but at least now I can remember doing it—and that’s been pretty great.


Artwork by KYLE BECK

Kelton Wright

Kelton Wright is the Managing Editor of the Orange Dot, as well as the author of "Anonymous Asked: Life Lessons from the Internet’s Big Sister". She can be seen riding her bike more often than not.

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