Sadly, the very first thing that sprang to mind when I found out I was going to Australia wasn’t “HOLY cow I get to see a live koala for the first time ever!” or “I am going to see the Sydney Opera House in PERSON!”
It was “Oh no. How am I going to handle the flight?”
I’m a strong person. I’m brave. I will take on any challenge. I also have a fear of flying that is deep-seated and is something I’ve lived with for a long time.
As a self-employed artist always wondering what’s coming next around the corner, being in a plane is just one rung too high on my already too-tall ladder of things I can’t control. I’m also a terrible car passenger, as Sean will gladly rant about if you bring it up. But planes are worse.
With their eensy, silly wheels and dumb tube shapes and squeaky plastic interiors, airplanes do not seem as though they should roll as fast a car on the ground, much less fly – even a spanking new model fresh off the Boeing assembly line with all the bells and whistles feels like a rickety third world bus hurtling through the air to me. If a chicken flew out of the overhead compartment and landed on my lap while the stewardess was showing me how to buckle a seatbelt, I don’t think I would even blink.
On top of my real-world discomfort with airplanes when I am conscious, they also regularly invade my dreams as an anxiety driven metaphor when there is any sort of worry or transition taking place in my life.
[REDACTED] – (I originally included a paragraph describing my recurring airplane dream here, but then thought better of it because I don’t want to plant bad dream seeds in other people’s mind-gardens. I ended up publishing it as a separate blog post if you want to read it!)
If you don’t read the dream just know that it’s the same every time, it’s horrible, and I’ve had this dream literally hundreds of times that I can remember over the last decade. You’d think that being the same sequence over and over it would have lost at least a little of the capacity to terrify me, but inevitably part of the dream is that I always think to myself as it’s happening, “this is not that anxiety dream, this is the real thing!” – and I believe it.
Logic and reason don’t help. I’ve spoken with enough pilots and understand enough about physics to KNOW that the chances of my dream sequence happening in real life are less than zero. It’s just not physically possible in this dimension. Unfortunately, logic and reasoning don’t matter one whit to my subconscious mind, and it has seized upon this dream as the perfect Oscar winning drama to inform me about my own anxiety (as if I didn’t already know about it). It revels in cueing it up over, and over, and over, night after night. “You’re worried about your next move in your career? Let’s do the airplane dream! Money is tight this month? Let’s do the airplane dream! Kid has the flu? Let’s do the airplane dream!” and so on. My subconscious would be a terrible film festival curator.
When I first met Sean eight or so years ago, it had gotten so bad I had to heavily medicate myself when I got on an airplane or else I’d be a sweaty, thumping hearted mess the entire flight and struggle with panic attacks for days afterward. A sturdy, experienced traveler who flies almost every weekend to his comedy gigs, he has made it a mission to help me work on this issue over the years. With his support I’ve improved dramatically, to the point where I can even fall asleep sometimes on a plane now and wake up like a normal person rather than startling halfway out of my seat, convinced that I’m dropping out of the sky. Pretty proud of the strides I’ve made! (Thanks, honeypie!)
Progress is wonderful, but it didn’t stop my lungs from jumping up and out of my mouth when I thought about a four-legged, 24-hour airplane journey from Texas clear to the other side of the world. The “good” thing about my particular strain of anxiety is that it doesn’t stop me from doing things. Even when it’s at its worst I push on through, though I totally get why people would choose not to sometimes. Anxiety is a ripper.
Panic attacks be damned! There was no way I was going to let my overactive adrenal gland get in the way of this trip. Even a real-life threat like a deer attempting to murder me couldn’t stop me from going! (Incidentally, the deer crash didn’t feel like such a big deal because I was in the driver’s seat. I even slept well that night. Go figure.)
I did have the dream a few nights before we left, and woke up the day after with that all too familiar post-nightmare feeling of being wrung out, exhausted and scared. I worried that I would have it again while on the long flight from LA to Aukland, where I would have to sleep or else risk being a zombie for the first half of our time in Australia. Of course worrying is what brings on the dream in the first place, so I was not feeling confident. I prepared to gut it out, hoping I’d be rested enough when we reached Melbourne that I could settle in and enjoy the experience.
Our first two legs were domestic flights transporting us from Austin to Los Angeles, where Air New Zealand would then carry us the rest of the way to Australia. My hard work and informal therapy with Sean paid off and those were easy. We were so pumped up about leaving on our trip and spending time together that we were giggling practically the entire way to LA.
When we transferred to the international terminal at LAX I felt my heart rate increase, but then I caught a glimpse of our airplane over the security fence outside. I had never really looked at the Air New Zealand branding before, but when I saw the tail of the plane I was so impressed that I had to stop and take a photo.
What a logo they have! It’s perfect. Balanced, lovely, implying flight and movement while simultaneously paying homage to aboriginal design. Thoughtful, well designed corporate branding seems to be a rare animal these days and usually is an indication of a company that has their shit together, so this was a good sign.
When we reached our gate we were greeted by an airline representative who had her hair just so and was wearing a perfectly tailored outfit cleverly decorated with variations of the logo I’d seen on the tail of the plane. She flashed us a GENUINE SMILE and was so welcoming, I actually started to get excited and curious about seeing the inside of this plane.
The gate was orderly and friendly, and when we started to board I started to get REALLY excited. This didn’t feel like the plane in my dream at all, and that weirdly calming and reassuring logo was everywhere I looked without feeling too overdone.
Our seats were ergonomically designed to accommodate a variety of lounging and sleeping positions, and there was a little bag awaiting each passenger with a cute sleeping mask, little sockies, a toothbrush and toothpaste, lotion, lip balm – all the comfort essentials you might want to bring to a sleepover party. When we got settled the stewardess brought us hot towels with a tong. As I lifted it to my face, I felt like I was wiping away the last remnants of the fear that had been dogging me for weeks. I smiled broadly at the stewardess when she came back to collect it, as she bantered with Sean.
Leaving the runway is normally the worst part of flying for me, but I barely noticed when we took off – in fact I can’t even remember if the towel thing happened before or after, that’s how easy it was. What I do remember is watching the safety video, and laughing out loud. Why doesn’t every airline show a video with Betty White joking about oxygen masks? Absolutely brilliant. We flew on a total of five Air New Zealand planes during our trip and I watched every second of their safety videos, they were that funny.
The flight was like a vacation in itself. You get your own TV with movies, games and shows galore, there are plugs and outlets for your electronics, the seats are super comfy, the pillows and blankets are cozy and soft, the attendants are friendly and clearly happy to be there, the bathrooms play awesome music and have funny murals on the wall. And the food. The food! Oh my God the food.
Sean and I, on our attendant’s recommendation – “It’s a great show, but dark!” – watched three episodes of “Top of the Lake,” a 6-episode New Zealand television series directed by Jane Campion and starring Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss (you may know her as Peggy Olson in Mad Men). Did you know Jane Campion was from New Zealand? I didn’t!
“Top of the Lake“ was one of the most original programs I’ve seen in a long time. It was a really cool mystery/drama and an interesting exploration of New Zealand small town culture. I highly recommend it.
After snuggling together (did I mention that Air New Zealand encourages snuggling?) and watching the show for a couple of hours, we were ready to go to bed. I pulled up my sockies and pushed my feet into the bean bag they give you for just that purpose, donned my sleeping mask, curled up in my little space seat and buried my head into my soft pillow. I slept better on that plane than I had for weeks, and didn’t wake up until I heard the beautiful voice of our attendant exclaiming, ” Good Morning! Here is a nice hot towel! Would you like tea or coffee? We’ll be having breakfast shortly!” and there we were, approaching Aukland, and I felt refreshed and alive, ready for adventure. It was shocking, really, how short the flight seemed after weeks of people commenting “wow, that’s a long flight!” upon hearing about my upcoming trip.
Maybe this all sounds overly dramatic to all those people I see (and envy) on airplanes for whom flying is a mundane. That’s fine if you feel that way about this post, it probably means you’re not an anxious person and that’s a good thing. But for me, after struggling for so long with anxiety and that stupid goddamned airplane dream, traveling from Los Angeles to Aukland, New Zealand was the best flying experience I have ever had and it was a legitimate personal victory.
Even after coming home to all my regular life worries and daily challenges, I haven’t had my airplane dream since before I left town weeks ago. It will probably creep back eventually, but this trip was unexpectedly a HUGE leap forward in helping me overcome what has been a real pain in the mental ass. Yet another gift I received from this adventure to Australia!
Thank you Air New Zealand. You should open a therapy office and just do what you do on the plane for people. You could charge like $300 an hour and save a ton on jet fuel. One suggestion: make sure you put up wallpaper covered with your logo.