24 July 2012

Is it a healthy sense of caution if you’re constantly envisioning your own death?

I’m on a plane over New Mexico right now (well, not right now right now, when I’m posting this or you’re reading this.  I mean maybe I am.  It’s just a highly unlikely coincidence.)

I’ve been saying to a lot of people lately that I’m not afraid of flying, and I see now that I was so, so very wrong about that.  I thought I was telling the truth.  But sitting on this plane right now, I don’t actually think I’ve gone a whole minute without being fully aware of a pervasive sense that I’m stuck in a poorly ventilated tin can death trap.

Let me give you (future me who’s reading this and trying to convince herself she’s really not afraid of flying) a few examples that I’ve come to realize do not connote a healthy level of fear:

1. As I sent that last-minute text to my husband before I had to turn the phone off on the tarmac, I wondered whether he would think to post my message to my friends on FB when I died so they could know the last sweet sentiment I said to anyone I loved.

2. I’ve repeatedly cycled through all my dozens of plane crash stories, trying to figure out which one best applies to my current flying environment and whether I’d die if any one of a wide variety of malfunction or human-error scenarios occurs.

3. When we lifted off I was looking out the window watching the city get smaller and smaller, and with every miniscule lag in acceleration (typical of even a successful takeoff), I was Zen-preparing myself to watch that ground start to tilt and get bigger again.

4. I was pretty convinced that the drawn-out grinding sound I heard on the ascent was an engine failing.

5. I practically ran back from the bathroom because there was a small jolt of turbulence and I needed to get back to the safety of my seatbelt before a panel ripped off the plane and I got sucked out the hole like that one lady did in that one Cracked article I read that one time.

6. When we landed on my first flight we turned into the airport at an angle, and all I could imagine was the plane barrel-rolling out of control and plummeting into the earth.

7. Whenever we went into a cloud I was ready for the moment another unseen plane collided headlong with ours, and I couldn’t decide just how likely I was to even know what hit me in the fractions of a second it’d take for me to get crushed or exploded to death. (I mean in a head-on collision, our plane and the other plane would each probably be going ~500 mph for an effective speed of ~1000 mph, or 450 m/s, and if our plane was in the neighborhood of 100m long, then at row 25 I’d be dead in about a tenth of a second and it’s arguable whether all of that sensory information could manifest a conscious acknowledgement in that time, although I have a sinking feeling I might get to enjoy a few milliseconds of perfect imminent-death awareness. P.S. that is why you learn algebra, my friends.)

I know that air travel is safe.   I know this.  I know that even if problems occur I’m likely to make it out just peachy.  But none of that matters when you’re dealing with a phobia.  Talking yourself out of a death phobia is pretty useless.

And I still fly.  Regularly, even.  At the beach I still swim out into water that’s probably deep enough to hold great white sharks and I inadvertently do my best injured seal impression trying to stay afloat.  I’m totally willing to drive on the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway even though I’m pretty sure the bridge is going to collapse and I’m going to survive both the impact and the threat of drowning only to be shredded alive by a pack of ravenous alligators.  I sometimes even lean against railings on high balconies, although that just seems foolhardy when I can get the same view just standing near the edge rather than risking death-by-shoddy-railing-craftsmanship.

It’s just I feel nauseous every single time I get on a plane.


  1. I really do think that you are not at all alone on this one in the least. While some people feel it more generally and have the ability to brush it off, others have a hard time shaking it. I can relate a lot. If I get stuck in traffic on a bridge or tunnel, I can't help but think for a second that the structure I'm sitting in/on is going to collapse and quickly hope I'm killed quickly and don't end up trapped, but alive somehow. Hell, even driving today, twice out of the blue, I envisioned someone cutting me off or something failing on the car, forcing me to swerve off the road into a tree or ravine or something. I tend to chalk mine up to my ever present self-doubt that always loves to remind me these things and so many others constantly.

    Ultimately, we just have to live as best we can and deal with our fears as best we can and get help when we can't.

  2. Don't worry - you won't fall! If you're flying over New Mexico, then I can catch you. No worries.

  3. Oh, science lady! I get to be an annoying wonk! You know that the forces don't stack in that way, right? If each plane hit were traveling at ~500mph, the resultant force is ~500mph, not 1000mph; each pushes on the other with identical (in this case nearly identical) force.

    An active imagination, as you have, is a blessing and a curse. I also imagine the worst in all these cases; it's why I don't ride roller coasters--the moving sensation is fine, but I'm just sure Cletus didn't tighten bolt 723 to spec and the cars are going into the ground. No one wants to hear about all the successful flights, so media sources only report the outside the norm cases, which, of course, makes them feel like the norm and feed the crash fantasy.

    It looks like you guys had fun! Wish I could have been there!

  4. I really hate to fly. My chest feels tight reading that. Did you ever watch ally mcbeal? Well, you know how her imagination would dominate the show? That's how my mind works, and the imagination you display seems to be similar.

    But, I too, still fly.