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How the Pandemic Impacted the Way I Approach My Phobias

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I put my bottle of pills on the tray table in front of me to convince my seemingly incapable hands to steady and open the damn benzodiazapine.

Ah, beans.

I pushed too hard and the bottle fell over right as I got it open.

“How many is that today?” says my spouse, with great concern.

Two. Because I haven’t put any more in my mouth yet. Because they all spilled.

The flight attendant comes by for drink service after we level off and I ask for a vodka tonic.

The pills aren’t working. We just got up to altitude and it’s going to be three hours until we land and the pills are not working. Maybe I can force them to work by passing out.

I’m OK. Its OK. I try to distract myself. Oh no. Nope, not OK. Still shaking visibly, about to throw up, oh God, I think I’m talking louder than I realized.

Another vodka tonic please.

I think to myself, “Clearly, we are going to crash, because I had a great vacation. And, as we all know, the payment for me having a good time has to be catastrophic.” I start crying and am still shaking. The flight attendant looks worried the next time she walks by.

Oh my God, I’m going to get flagged for this by the TSA, aren’t I?

And that was my fourth time on a plane, and the last time I was on a plane — in 2017. I still take the benzodiazepine as needed. And an antidepressant daily. But I quit drinking last year (definitely for the best). I’ve been in intensive therapy and done a lot of self-repairing work in the last 18 months for unrelated issues.

Today, I’d like to talk about how I’m hoping to use the work I’ve done to give myself a better flying experience despite facing dual phobias. I am preparing for a plane ride to go on a much-needed excursion soon. During the pandemic. When the general public has all lost their damn minds and cannot for the life of them, or others, recall what safe and respectful behavior looks like.

Before therapy and medication began, I had terrible agoraphobia, which has waned a bit from treatment despite the world’s population collectively losing it. My aviophobia hasn’t gotten better. Flying is my top phobia. It combines my anxiety about being out of control with my extreme fear of heights.

I also have an irrational fear of the 21st year. The closest name I can find for it is eikosihenaphobia, fear of 21. No, I am not afraid of 21 year olds, or of writing the number, or seeing it. When I was in third grade, I had repetitive dreams about dying and the number 21. At one point, we did one of those, “What will life be like when you’re an adult?” assignments in class and I wrote I’d be dead by 21. In case you are curious, I did not get an A for this, and was made to redo it. It’s silly, it’s irrational, but it’s a phobia: 21.

I turned 21 and I thought, “Alright, well, I’d better make sure things are wrapped up and I’m on decent terms with everyone I care about.” My 21st year came and went, and I survived the year. As 2020 came to a close and many found themselves met with apprehensive hope for 2021 (yikes), I realized I was either going to die this year based on my own phobia, or I was about to have another uphill battle year with my anxiety disorder. So far, just the uphill battle, which is how I like it, given the alternative choice in this scenario.

Here we are, in the year 2021 — nothing good to report in the news. (There was a list here, but I think we are all aware of how awful the news is lately, so I’ve omitted it.) I think 2021 sounds like a good time to go on vacation, on an airplane. Here’s why.

I have been building this toolbox of coping mechanisms for my anxiety disorder in therapy and I haven’t been able to use them that much due to the pandemic. But really, what opportunities did I lose because of the pandemic? What opportunities would I have lost anyway, because of fear, that I can blame on the pandemic? I wasn’t living my best life before the pandemic, either. I was agoraphobic, in severe panic distress most of the time, and not going out simply because of anxiety and the changing state of the world. The pandemic has given me an ability and window to see humanity panic as I do, and to realize we are all handing things incredibly poorly.

Hey, I’m not alone.

I have lost time. My precious time. Not to the pandemic, but to my own anxieties and my perceived need to stay in a well-behaved box.

“I can’t possibly spend the money for that once-in-a-lifetime experience, my credit card is already so high. I’ll never pay off my credit card if I go on a trip.”

“I can’t leave the kids with a family member, something would go wrong and I would not be here.”

Both of those things could potentially be true, but one thing that is certain is time is ticking away, for all of us, and all of us need a moment of peace right now. Everyone certainly deserves a break. I’m not talking about throwing my hands up in the air and saying, “Welp, we are all going to die someday anyway, might as well max out this credit card and go sky diving without a parachute.”

Calculated risks. Things I want to do, versus risk factors versus ability. Flow charts help. As someone who not only has these phobias, but also generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, and waxing/waning agoraphobia, I have tried some coping mechanisms. Things that have helped me live a better life, or even have a better day, have gone in my handy-dandy panic toolbox.

My newest tool in my toolbox I’ve been working on for anxiety is leaning in.

I am accepting everything is absolutely out of my control, but I want to go on that trip anyway. I’ve made a list of everything that can go wrong, and ways I could potentially avert each event, as well as a relative likelihood each event would ever happen.

So, I’m leaning in. Just in case that tool breaks or doesn’t work for the whole trip, I am also using planned distractions. Some people like coloring books or reading. I will be creating a Spotify playlist and bringing noise-cancelling headphones, a camera, and a pen with a writing utensil for comfort. I’m carefully curating a list of songs that will get me daydreaming about the trip I’m going to enjoy instead of focusing on the method of transport getting me there.

Another tool for mitigating anxieties before a major planned event that is likely going to be triggering is researching the facts and statistics about the actual danger level of the activity. Additionally, knowing the layout of the airport, plane, and general understanding of what to expect at the airport and my destination helps prepare me and cuts potential anxiety by a lot. I look at it as pre-paying my panic time. Instead of having an attack, I am studying for my trip like I’m going to be graded on it. This can be triggering at first, but exposure in a safe environment with people you trust and/or emergency medications on standby make it a lot easier. Often, the statistical probability of the worst happening is lower than you think. Look up the numbers when it feels safe and right to do so; you may be surprised.

Irrationality cannot always be rationalized. If I ever thought I was alone in irrational thoughts, the past two years have shown me that was a lie. A freedom from feeling terrified in daily living is something I’ve been working on for about three years. While so many find themselves beginning their (very justified) journey with managing fear of a changing world and pandemic, I’m finally able to take steps toward a few days of fearlessness. I’m grateful I started the process of therapy long ago so I could be at this point today.

I’m not alone in this struggle, and neither are you. I have anxiety disorders that I’ve received three years of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications to manage. It has only been in the last few months I’ve been able to let go sometimes. I’m not going to grow as a person, I’m not going to do the things I want to do with my short time in this form, if I cannot let go. Therapy has given me these tools I hold in my shaky hands, knowing how unprecedented daily life has become.

I am going on this trip, because at the end of the biggest flow chart, no matter what I do, I can’t avert death nor control what happens. Today, I control what actions I take better than I have in years thanks to therapy and medications. And I’m looking forward to the high probability that everything on a trip I want to take actually goes fine.

Getty image by martin-dm

Originally published: January 16, 2022
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