I made a whirlwind interstate trip this week, and it reminded me of this article I wrote a couple of years ago about the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. How are the two connected? Read on…
I’m afraid of flying. Not in the way that I’m afraid of spiders, or needles – which provoke a minor twanging of the nerves – but sickeningly, panic attack-inducingly afraid. The mere thought of swooping upwards in a multi-tonne pressurised metal tube is enough to get my heart thumping and stomach churning; in severe turbulence it’s all I can do to hang onto my sanity and my dignity. Anxiety is a psychological issue with all-too-real physical symptoms: sweaty palms, racing heart, upset stomach, vomiting and uncontrollable shaking are all sensations I’ve experienced at some point before, during or after flying. Indeed, it’s not unusual for people to mistake panic attacks for heart attacks. And – something that people lucky enough never to have been on this rollercoaster can’t understand – I can’t switch it off. I realise it’s irrational and all in my head, and I’ve learned strategies to manage it to a certain extent, but I don’t know if it will ever go away. All I know is that no one would choose to feel like this.
Unfortunately, I also love to travel. Many times – usually while sitting in gut-churning apprehension in airports – I’ve wished I was the kind of person who is content to just spend the rest of their life in their hometown, but I’m not. Study, work and general curiosity have taken me to many far-flung parts of Australia and the world, and unfortunately one of the things these places have in common is that you inevitably have to fly to get there.
Consequently, I would willingly do just about anything to be rid of my phobia, and I’ve certainly never thought of it as a blessing. And yet it’s led me to meet people I otherwise would never have encountered, proving that there’s a silver lining to every dark, turbulent cumulonimbus cloud.
I’m naturally an introvert and, as such, I dislike small talk. On planes, however, I’m looking for distraction, so, if the person next to me is willing to engage, I’ll quite happily chat for hours (though if they’re not, I’m also perfectly happy to respect their personal space and suffer in silence). And the people I’ve met, almost without exception, have been fascinating.
There was the woman from Cairns who told me how she found a python stuck in her chook shed one morning; it had eaten a chicken and been too fat to exit through the hole it entered by. Then there was the Slovakian Orthodox-turned-Pentecostal preacher who was on his way home from India, where he’d started an orphanage. The retired dentist and amateur pilot who had flown with his mate in a Britain-to-Australia air race just because he thought it’d be fun, and who managed to make even someone like me see the beauty in flying. The former deep-sea fisherman – now working with the Department of Fisheries to develop turtle-proof nets – who talked about life on a Tasman Sea trawler. The ex-New Zealand Army officer who described how to eat your way round the South Island, including apparently the best fish and chips you’ll find anywhere. The woman who, like me, was trying to find a road-map for her faith journey, leading to an hour-long discussion of theology. And, perhaps most poignantly, the lady who was going home to give evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, who told me how she’d learned to keep smiling despite her suffering.
I’ll probably always hate flying, but I’m learning to control the fear so it doesn’t control me. If there was a way I could be rid of my anxiety tomorrow I’d take it without a second thought. But in making me vulnerable, my phobia has also given me an openness to other people’s stories I might never have had, and that’s something I hope I’ll never lose.