Ever since our son, Everest, earned his private pilot’s power-plane license a few months ago I’ve been wanting to fly with him. Maybe “wanting” isn’t quite the right word; it’s more like I’ve been wanting to want to fly with him because I wanted to support him and I knew it would be an incredible experience, but I was also terrified at the prospect of being 10,000 feet above the ground in a small Cessna.
I trust his skill completely. It’s everything else that I have a hard time trusting: the plane itself, the other pilots in the sky, and mostly the unnamable risk that comes with being human but is heightened in these situations that are particularly outside our comfort zone. The comfort zone is so… well, comfy! Why would I ever leave it? But I know the answer: I leave it because it’s how we grow in our capacity to love, and it’s when we face these big fears that life becomes fully alive and worth living.
The date was set: November 25th. Earlier in the week he had flown with a friend, and when I looked at the photos my stomach dropped. It’s the sensation I have every time I see photos from his flights: at once in awe of the majesty of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains and the wondrous beauty of this land that can only be experienced from the sky and like I’m going to topple over from vertigo.
Two days before the flight I watched my fear-mind start to take over and try to convince me that was a very bad idea. I had a horrible dream that I won’t share here because it was just too horrible but part of it involved a problem with the passenger’s seatbelt. Keep that mind as it will be important in a minute. I decided to view the dream as a metaphor instead of predictive but it required all of my skills to see it as such. What if I was wrong? What if I hadn’t listened to my “intuition”? Isn’t that always the million-dollar question when it comes to anxiety!?
Friday morning we woke up to glorious weather. “A perfect day to fly,” Everest announced. “Are you excited?” “Um, sure! And scared!” He smiled, knowingly. We had talked about my fear plenty of times and he assured me that he wasn’t planning on doing any crazy maneuvers with me as a passenger. I actually wasn’t feeling too scared that morning. We ate breakfast, gathered our things, and headed out.
Then the second fear-obstacle appeared: a black squirrel ran in front of our car as we were driving down our road. I’ve only seen a black squirrel a couple of times in the sixteen years we’ve lived in this house, and my fear-mind immediately grabbed hold: It’s an omen! A portent of death! Listen to the warning! I named it aloud, Everest laughed, and we continued on our way to Boulder Airport.
On the way there, I thought about my clients and course members who look for “signs” to prove or disprove their anxiety. I’m not a fan of signs in this context as anxiety will always lean toward confirmation bias: focusing on the “signs” that prove our worst fear. But there I was, bamboozled by anxiety’s sneaky tactics, even if only for a moment.
We arrived to the airport and Everest set to work on the pre-flight check. He barely noticed me as he was immersed in the zone of preparation. I texted my husband, “How does he know how to do all of this?” My husband texted back: “Hundreds and hundreds of hours of training. His entire life.” It was like watching a violin maestro or a tennis champ: he was sailing through the procedures skillfully and effortlessly. When I commented it on it later, sharing with him how I impressed I was by his confidence, he said, “I know these planes inside and out now.”
“Okay, get in and I’ll show you how to use the door and the seatbelt,” Everest said.
I mastered the door (or I thought I had; Everest had to reach across me to double-check it), but the seatbelt wasn’t working properly. My nightmare from two night’s ago! We made it work but it was still twisted. Anxious mind wanted to have field day but I promptly placed it in the backseat by reminding myself that Everest would never put us at risk.
And then we took off. At first I only felt excitement as the plane rumbled down the runway, then lifted into the air. This is like a roller-coaster ride, I thought. Fun!
But as we ascended higher and higher and the ground grew further and further away, I started to feel truly scared. This is not a roller-coaster at all. I’m thousands of feet in the air in an old airplane with only a thin door between me and the sky. Is it possible to fall out of this thing? Not likely, but that’s how it felt. I’m well-versed in the beginning signs of a panic attack and I could feel one coming on: shortness of breath, tight chest, light-headed.
Luckily, I’m also well-versed in working through a panic attack, and even though I knew I could ask Everest to turn around, I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to share this ride with him and the only way was to ride through the fear. So that’s what I did. I said to myself, “This is scary, and that’s okay. The feeling of panic will pass; it always does. Breathe and focus on your son. Focus on the mountains. You’re in good hands. Even though you don’t feel safe right now, you’re actually very safe. And pray.”
The panic passed on through, just as it always does, but the fear was still there. The adages “the only way out is through” and “what we resist persists” are particularly true for panic, but they also apply to anxiety and fear; we must learn how to surrender to the wave of whatever is moving through until is dissipates. The more we fight it, the stronger it gets.
I noticed that I was clenching my legs, as if this small act of resistance would prevent something bad from happening.
I noticed that I wasn’t breathing deeply, as if holding my breath would keep the plane afloat.
I watched fear, named it, made conscious efforts to unclench and breathe more deeply. Slowly, the fear started to fade.
And then… something beautiful emerged. Everest said, “We’re heading back now,” and as he turned the plane, the snow-capped Rockies came into direct view, filling the front windshield with their sunlit glory. It took my breath away, and in that moment of awe and wonder, the fear dissipated completely. I turned to look at my grown son, now 18-years old, piloting an airplane with skill and confidence, fulfilling his lifelong dream of flight, and the pride that filled my heart chased away any last filaments of fear. On the twenty-minute flight back to Boulder, fear made a minor appearance, but nothing like it did on the way out. I had walked through fear’s forest once again, and found exhilaration on the other side.
To see what he sees…
To experience what he loves…
To witness the hundreds of hours of flight training in action…
The only way I could do this was to face the fear, moment by moment surrendering to its teachings, trusting that there is always love on the side.
For those of you who struggle with relationship anxiety, or any kind of anxiety, the same principles apply: we notice and name the fear, bring compassion to it, then make choices based on our values. If you want your life to remain safe, small and comfortable, you make the choice to allow fear to remain in the driver’s seat.
But if you’re ready for your life to grow – whether with a loving partner or in a work situation, a travel opportunity, or even in smaller ways like attending a social event (there’s really nothing small when it comes to working with the anxious mind) – we must harness our strength and say yes and no to fear at the same time: YES to taking action and NO to allowing fear to call the shots. YES to working with what’s embedded inside the fears and NO to indulging the fear/intrusive thought itself.
None of this is easy. And there isn’t a “right” or “evolved” way to face fear. We tackle the situations that we’re motivated to tackle, the ones that are just outside our comfort zone that it’s feasible to work with but not too far that we cause a trauma response.
When we do choose to face fear, there is only ultimately only one way through: to surrender. To recognize the limits of our control (no amount of clenching my legs was going to prevent something bad from happening), and surrender to life’s unfolding. Focusing on love and grace help. Prayer helps. Allowing awe and wonder to fill our souls helps. And facing the fear itself helps to reduce it. As I’ve written many times, action reduces fear (I wrote about it here in one of my early blog posts that includes a photo of Everest taking a risk at 7 years old!). That night, I felt lighter, as if a few layers of fear – both mine and inherited – had been released into the Colorado sky. There was more room for breath, for joy, and, as always, for love.
Note: If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety, I’m currently running my annual Gratitude Week sale where you can save $50 on my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course by entering GRATITUDE2022 in the coupon box at checkout.