Fear of flying and my skepticism

I am a skeptic. I don’t just believe what’s told to me; I’m the type who wants to see proof. Or I want to hear an expert – who can prove he/she is an expert – tell me what’s true. When I read an article arguing a particular point of view, I check what publication it’s in. I read the qualifications of the author. I look at what sources that author used to back up his/her opinions.airplanesunset

For this reason, I’m an atheist. Until someone proves to me that God exists, I won’t believe. And I don’t buy the argument “But you can’t prove He doesn’t exist.” I don’t have to prove that. If I did, I would also have to believe in alien abductions and ghosts and purple unicorns and fire-breathing dragons and vampires and everything else that hasn’t been proven to be false. None of these exist, and I can say that until someone proves to my satisfaction that they do.

I would love to see real proof that God exists. It would make my life a lot simpler. Hell, I’d like to see proof of aliens, too, à la X-Files: “I want to believe.” But I’m Dana Scully, not Fox Mulder.

I certainly have nothing against people who do believe. I respect them. I think I’m even jealous of their belief, but that isn’t enough to get me to believe.

On the other hand, I do try to keep an open mind. If that proof was presented to me, I like to think I’d accept it. But keeping an open mind doesn’t mean accepting everything as fact. It means allowing that the facts might lead to somewhere unexpected.

I am a skeptic, and I also have an irrational fear of flying. Perhaps my fear is based on a general skepticism that something as big and heavy as a plane could ever get off the ground or stay up in the air. Yet they do get off the ground in their thousands every day. They’re safer than cars. I know all the facts. That’s what makes this fear irrational.

DSCF3710I’ve been treated a few times for my fear of flying over the years, but nothing I did worked for long. Mostly it was talk therapy, which allowed me to pin down just what it was I was afraid of (death, and the minutes before it, knowing I’m going to die), and to pin down when it started (a flight to Colorado when I was little and there was turbulence and my mother was afraid, so I “caught” it from her). But knowing these things didn’t cure it.

One of the treatments I tried was something called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I saw it as a snake oil cure that couldn’t possibly work, but it did help to some extent on the next few flights I took, though the effect soon wore off.

So, ever since, I’ve been coping in various other ways: mostly by listening to recordings of soothing sound effects and/or popping tranquilizers.

My husband and I had dinner with some friends a few weeks ago, one of whom has been trained to administer EMDR. We talked at length about it, and I told him that I’d tried it before but that it hadn’t worked for long. Given that he was a “believer,” I didn’t tell him that I didn’t believe in it. I figured, what the hell, I’ll go ahead and try it again. So we made an appointment.

It’s working. I am noticeably less nervous about flying. I don’t get that horrible pit-of-my-stomach feeling when I think about being in an airplane. Or even when I think about that terrifying flight through a thunderstorm in Zimbabwe in a vintage Fokker Friendship (husband-to-be holding my hand, but also making jokes about plane crashes), or the “mountain wave” over the Rockies that felt like being on a roller coaster, when someone other than me was frightened enough to start screaming.

Now, I can’t be absolutely sure that this works until I get on an airplane again next month, but it feels like there’s a change.

I know this is anecdotal. I know it could be a placebo effect: my friend says it works, I believe him, so it does. But I don’t believe it! I just can’t imagine any rational explanation of how this possibly could work. And yet it does.

I’ve only skimmed the research, but the gist of it seems to be that it’s been demonstrated THAT it works, particularly with post-traumatic issues (in my case, that first flight with my mother), but there doesn’t seem to be more than theories about HOW it works.

And, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem that it could ever really work. All that it involves is the therapist asking me a series of questions about my fear, directing me to visualize the situation that brings on the fear, then getting me to move my eyes rapidly left and right by following his fingers left and right, followed by a brief expression of my feelings at that moment. Visualize – movements – feelings, and repeat until fear reaction disappears. How could that possibly work?

The skeptic in me is entirely unconvinced. This is a deep-seated, lifelong fear. How could a few sessions with a finger being waved back and forth possibly help?

The fearful flyer, on the other hand, is fading away, swooping up gracefully into the sky, smiling as she flutters a farewell handkerchief at me through the oversized windows of the vintage Fokker Friendship.

When I next set foot in a plane, in about a month’s time, one of two things will happen. The skeptic will be forced to hang her head in shame as I demonstrate the efficacy of this snake oil cure, or the fearful flyer will re-emerge, triumphant in her assurance that she was right to be fearful all along.

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