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How I Tackled My Panic Disorder by Conquering My Fear of Flying

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Post-traumatic stress disorder with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. That’s the full diagnosis. Unlike a broken arm, which heals with time, my illness became a lifestyle with a hierarchy of fears. At the top: Flying.

Beyond all of my lifelong commitment to recovery, it was love that ultimately got me on a plane. It was my wife Sally. She had ridden out the worst and now I wanted her to share the joy. I would later understand working with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that, in my family, I had found my higher purpose to tackle the hardest things.

I had 23 years to plan my return to the air. Alaska Air has a constant loop of turboprop planes flying between Portland and Seattle. After not flying for so long, some might think it incomprehensible that my first flight would be on a 36-seat turboprop plane. That’s the thing about my flying, it was always about letting go of control. It was about them closing that damn door.

Through security, heart pounding, I had filled my little backpack with mixed nuts, power bars, a ham sandwich, a magazine, my panic therapy workbook, my medication and a tiny Buddha statue. Always…always the killer for me is the anticipatory anxiety, the demons my busy mind summons to chase me away from any forward motion. In the waiting area, I paced and made one trip after another to the restroom to sit in the stall and practice my meditation. Most importantly, to remind myself that I had already decided this would be the day.

For my entire adult life, I had lived in fear of ‘The Call,” that inescapable emergency with my family that meant I had to get on a plane. I had already disappointed them so many times. I’d missed weddings, births, deaths. I needed to fly on my terms. I needed not to flinch every time the phone rang and I saw it was a call from my folks.

My plan then was, and still is, to be the last one on the plane. The shorter amount of time I had to sit staring at the open door, the better.
We walked hand in hand out into the cold air and up the portable ramp. Our seats were in the front. Yeah, I had picked ones close to the door. The plane was tiny and not completely full. I pulled my little traveling Buddha from my pocket and held it in my left hand. I busied my mind looking into the open cockpit door, out the window at the propellers, fiddling with the air vents — both of which I aimed at my face.

“You can do this,” Sally said for the last of many times that morning.

And then the door was closed and the engines fired up. I was OK — not thrilled, but OK. I never had the urge to bolt for the door. I was ready.

The plane taxied out. First in the line up now, then up…up. I was flying again.

The little plane banked and buffeted to altitude. I was kind of glad. It was the full experience of flight, not the mitigated, smooth sameness of a larger jet. I gave Sally a hug and put the Buddha in my shirt pocket. Only 30 minutes in the air. I looked at the volcanoes of the Cascade Range out the window. Then we were down.

At Seattle’s airport, SeaTac, I felt strangely normal, like this was something I did all the time. Sally’s smile was a direct pipeline to joy. We held each other, then roamed about. Not much to see. Ha, our return flight would be delayed.

Good, I thought. Experience it all.

On the flight home, I was a commuter dude and enjoyed the free IPA beer in a can, a thousand monkeys off my back. Back on the ground, in the car, I broke down, exhausted and happy, tears of joy and freedom. Having said nothing of this attempt to fly to my family, lest I risk disappointing them again, I called my folks to share the big news.

Before we left SeaTac, I bought the tackiest souvenir I could find: A space needle snow globe. I gave it to my ACT therapist. She kept it in an honored place in her office. Only now, it is joined with a collection of other tacky airport globes and gifts. I started a thing. I like that. My people, the panic people, we know how to celebrate the big ones.

This is an excerpt from Jim’s Blackwood’s memoir, “Am I Cured Yet? My Wonderful Life with Panic Disorder and PTSD” — Available on Amazon.

Follow this journey at Jim’s personal website.

Originally published: December 11, 2019
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