How I Overcame My Fear Of Flying

For a long time, flying was the thing I was most scared of.

I'm scared of so many things.

But for a long time, flying was the thing I was most scared of.

It hasn't always been this way.

I remember when I was a little girl, hopping on a plane was a dream coming true  —  the equivalent of riding Aladdin's carpet or the Jetsons' spaceship. I used to count the days until school break so my family and I could go on trips abroad. My mother would dress me in my most expensive outfit, including white sheer tights and patent shoes, following the Brazilian tradition of looking good to impress others (and to avoid more biased questions when going through immigration.)


They were glorious days when I used to fly on a logo-less charter plane from Fortaleza to Florida. At that time, there wasn't any official airline who would fly to foreign countries from my hometown, so travel agencies would hire generic planes and fill them with tourists willing to risk their lives so they could take a picture with Mickey Mouse. As a naive 5-year-old, I couldn't see any danger in this at all. The fact that the plane once stopped at Suriname for cheap fuel did not cause me any stress or divert my attention from my suitcase full of Barbie dolls bought at Walmart for half the price of Brazilian toy stores.

Vikitora / Shutterstock

Even when I was a teenager, I really enjoyed flying. When I moved to a city that was a 3-hour journey by plane from home, I was always happy to be in the clouds. It was like being close to God. Plus, at the time, airplane meals were way more exciting than the poor-quality pretzels or cereal bars you get nowadays.

It took one flight to ruin it all: the TP 35 from Lisbon to Fortaleza.

About an hour after taking off, before the in-flight meal was even served, the nightmare began. It felt like the plane had suddenly free fallen for a couple of thousand feet and then it came to a halt. The pilot announced it was time to fasten the seat belts. A bit too late for that. The crew couldn't hide their worry and flight attendants started walking through the aisles nervously, stamping their feet steadily and contributing to the plane's bumpiness. A few minutes later, another drop. The plane started to shake, drop and stop continuously.

This went on for the next 6 hours.

I once read in a science magazine that our bodies become extra alert when we're in a state of emergency. Life proved this right when I was able to move my hair out of the way a second before the passenger next to me started vomiting.

The crew made an announcement asking if there was any doctor on board. And hearing that call, mixed with the sound of loud Ave Marias being prayed in a Portuguese accent, was a clear sign that I was not going to live past that flight.

I reached for my mini iPod and picked something that would make for an appropriate soundtrack to my death.

The combination of hunger, stress and the smell of puke made me feel nauseous and dizzy. There was a swimming pool of sweat between my breasts. And as my blood pressure dropped and all the noise around became muffled, I passed out.

When I came to, the plane had landed at its final destination and people were clapping, like if they were celebrating being back from the moon.

That flight was the starting point of years and years of panic attacks.

I'd start to get nervous two days before getting on a plane. My head would start filling with intrusive thoughts  —  the plane exploding like that scene from Narcos when one of Pablo Escobar's guys detonates a laptop bomb on an Avianca flight, or the oxygen masks coming down and my hands struggling to reach mine, or the plane crashing into a mountain and my body looking like the leaked photos of the corpses from Mamonas Assassinas, a famous Brazilian band that ended tragically when their small plane crashed into Cantareira Mountains in 1996.

It took me a while to admit I had a real problem. Until then, I'd go to my mother's medicine cupboard and steal all the Xanax or any other pill that I could find.

I'd only get into a plane after downing one or two tranquilizers, sometimes mixed with gin or vodka.

Once I had to fly to LA with my team to work on a film shoot. As soon as I met everyone at the airport, I took a Xanax and drank three gin and tonics. My producer gave me a few $100 notes so I had petty cash to take a cab from the airport and buy food. I was already so wasted that I clumsily placed the money into my pocket. On the plane, I sat next to my team, unable to have a logical conversation about the film we were about to make. I stood up and went to the bathroom. As I was peeing, I heard a turbulence announcement and freaked out. I felt faint and let the hundred dollar notes fall into the toilet. Through blurry vision, I saw the automatic flush being activated and watched the notes disappear down the hole.

This fear was taking over my life, and I even stopped traveling as much because I was too scared. It didn't help that airline companies had started to carry people like battery chicken. I ruled out any bachelorette party, summer vacation or work trip that required me to fly Ryanair or some Eastern European airline brand with a dubious color logo.

I became a paranoid expert in aeronautical engineering. I could tell the correspondent aircraft to all the routes flown by main carriers. (I'd always go for Boeings rather than Airbuses, they're more robust.)

I learned how long a plane could stay in the air without fuel, which planes could continue to fly with only one engine, which turbines survived a bird strike in mid-air at ten thousand feet. I learned that you have more chance of surviving if you sat at the back of the plane, so whenever I saw arrogant people in first class, I felt a twinge of pleasure to know that in an event of a crash they'd be the first to die.

I tried everything to overcome that anxiety: therapy, hypnosis, sound healing — I even tried believing in God again. Nothing worked.

(And that bullshit factoid about car accidents killing more people than airplane crashes — that doesn't help either.)

Until one day, as I was stuck in the shittiest airport on earth (LAX, of course) waiting for my delayed flight to São Paulo, and I was browsing through the few bookstores that exist in that space, I opened the page of some horrendous covered book. And I read something like this:

"You know… to be scared of dying, that's very selfish. What makes you feel so special? There are thousands and thousands of people dying at this exact moment. People dying in Syria, at hospitals with cancer, women dying from birth in African countries. And why do you put all your attention in the possibility of YOU dying right now if you're not even in danger? Also, what makes you think that you don't deserve to go? That you should stay, above all the other people on earth?"

That small paragraph was the mind-altering substance I needed to change. From that moment, I never had to drink or take anything before flying.

Now, every time I board a plane, I realize that more than being scared of flying, I'm shit scared of being a self-centered bitch.

This story originally appeared on Stephania Silveira Hines' Medium page. Stephania Silveira Hines is a Brazilian writer based in Los Angeles. She's a content film creative director and has been working as an advertising copywriter for more than 10 years. In her free time, she writes a blog about her life experiences living and working between LA, London, Paris, and São Paulo. 

Cover image via Shutterstock


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