Woman with toy plane
Photo: Greg Segal
Getting on a plane—even watching a movie about getting on a plane—used to paralyze Katie Arnold-Ratliff. These days? Houston, we have liftoff!
The crying would start two days before takeoff. Without irony, I'd wail to my husband, "But we just visited home 18 months ago!" When he reminded me that my beloved siblings were waiting in San Francisco, I'd nod pitifully and begin my standard preboarding routine: lying awake for two nights and checking 50 times to make sure I had enough Xanax, Ativan, and Vicodin to withstand the flight.

I'd been an exemplary flier from childhood through college. Then, in 2005, on a postgraduation jaunt from Oakland to Los Angeles—a simple one-hour haul—something went terribly wrong. As we began to taxi, I couldn't breathe. Once in the air, all I could do was sob. My hands shook so badly, I spilled ginger ale on a fellow passenger. What is this? I remember thinking. The terror had come from nowhere. For the next four years, I avoided planes whenever possible, even after I moved to New York—3,000 miles away from my family.

For all the headaches and hassle my phobia caused me (rather than fly home to visit, I drove cross-country three times in two years), I never stopped to think about where it came from. Until one afternoon last year, as I shopped for used books in Brooklyn with my friend Stephanie. "You have to read this!" I said, thrusting a ratty hardcover at her. It was a novel by my favorite college professor, Amanda Davis, an exuberant and wisecracking woman I'd adored.

"Oh, I know that name," Steph said. "She died in a plane crash, right? Is that why you don't fly?"

I looked down at the book, dumbfounded. However obvious the connection may seem, I'd never made it.

Amanda had believed in my writing, so I did, too. As we left for spring break in 2003, she was gearing up for her book tour. Her father, an amateur pilot, was going to fly their family to her readings. But when their small aircraft crashed in North Carolina, Amanda and her parents were killed.

It was hard to know how to mourn: How sad are you allowed to be when a professor dies? I tried not to think about it. In fact, I was surprisingly adroit at ignoring the pain—I didn't cry once. And that absence of tears was a kind of lie.

The L.A. trip had rattled me, but it was just the beginning. Notwithstanding all the miles I logged in my car, I was still sometimes forced to fly—and each time was worse than the last. In 2006, alone on a flight home from Seattle, I hyperventilated until I passed out. In 2007 I cried so hard during takeoff that a woman complained I was upsetting her child. In 2008 I took enough pills to erase all memory of the first two days of my four-day vacation.

Everyone said flying more frequently would help. But for me the reverse was true. Every moment in the air I'd think, This is the last moment before you die. I couldn't even watch a movie scene set on a plane without tearing up. And then in 2009, not long after that day in the bookstore, I hit bottom. Having been accepted to a fiction-writing conference in Oregon, I had a panic attack the morning of the flight. Astonished, I heard myself bow out of the event with a shameful lie—one I repeated to my boss, my friends, my family, even my husband.

It was clear that things had to change. I didn't have the resources or time for therapy, but I knew that I needed to deal with what Amanda's death had really meant to me.
Upon inspection—over brunch with friends, late at night with my husband—the psychosis seemed straightforward: The more my life began to resemble Amanda's, the more my phobia had increased. She died in her early 30s; I'm nearly there. She'd worked at a magazine, as I do, and published a novel, as I'm about to. She was happy and successful, and I was starting to be, too. When I stopped to investigate my terror—instead of deeming it unfixable, permanent, beyond my control—I finally saw it for what it was: the suspicion that once your life starts becoming what you hoped it would be, everything gets taken away. Simply articulating this brought unexpected relief.

For good measure, I began packing my carry-on more strategically—with brainteasers. It's physically impossible to focus on the weird sound the engines are making when you're trying to figure out which two-word anagram of dominate might appear on a ticket (the answer: admit one ). I also took a Web seminar for aviophobes, which really helped. You learn to breathe (in through the nose; as you exhale, say "relax"), watch videos of cabin turbulence, and acknowledge that aviation is the only industry in which whole teams of people are working to keep you safe. You're asked to consider that while awful things do happen—planes crash, and people die, and that's just how it is sometimes—this fact can't, and shouldn't, deter you from living. I decided not to let it. In the past eight months I've flown six times without crying. And the absence of tears feels like a kind of truth.

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