Flying Free and Clear: the Realities of Conquering Flying in Recovery

“My father taught me not to fear anything. Having said that, much of my addiction to alcohol and drugs was tied to fear: fear of flying, fear of talking to women, etc. I conquered those fears long ago.” – Derek Sanderson.

Last call for boarding is echoing through the intercom. A thin layer of sweat rises to the surface of your skin while the heat of your body uncomfortably takes over. Your heart rate starts increasing and the pounding in your chest travels to your ear drums. Doubt and fear have now set-in with a slight visible tremble. The airport bar is nearby- close enough to reach in less than 60 seconds. There’s an open seat and the bartender doesn’t look that busy. Liquid courage is inches away from casting a temporary pseudo-calm over your body. How do we stop it?

The fear of flying is cunningly terrifying. How many times have we been told that the safest method of travel is flying? We have countlessly counseled ourselves in the rational facts surrounding the security of being in the air. We know that the chances of being in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million, but does it bring us solace? Not really. Instead, logic is out the window and the anxiety builds up as it gets closer and closer to boarding time. We realize that we have two choices- to succumb to that tempting open seat at the bar or to board the plane with a brave sober-face. In the past, we wouldn’t hesitate to grab for that open seat.

I used to ritually drink until I could barely walk in a straight line through the gates. It’s only 10am and I know that I’ll be passed out as soon as I get to my destination or sooner. But I have to drink to get on that plane. The lack of control, the turbulence, the ungodly sights of nothingness below our feet- it’s too much to process. First thing I do is look for that smiley stewardess that will bring me a glass of chardonnay. I explain to her  (of course) that I need something to calm me down before take off. She gets it. She doesn’t realize that I am barely able to concentrate on her facial features from all the Long Islands I consumed over the last hour or so.

This is how I used to fly- until the alcohol no longer held down my anxiety. By the time I was 27, my anxiety was too high to get on the flight regardless of how many Long Islands I slammed down. I would leave the airport and call my parents crying, begging them not to make me go and promising to refund their money for the non-refundable ticket. I missed out on countless fun opportunities due to my fear of flying.

What was I really afraid of? See I can’t say that it was the fear of crashing because I had already done that. At the age of 13, I became one of the lucky ones that walked away from a plane crash unscathed. Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, I saw the entire misfortune first-hand. I was in a small plane headed for the US border from Mexico with my mother when the pilot miscalculated the landing. We nose-dived into the dirt runway and skidded along hitting everything in our pathway. Luckily, no one was badly injured and we all walked away shaken but alive.

This incident did not affect my former joy for flying. When I was younger, I found comfort in flying. It was a form of relaxation that turned into a crippling fear by the time I was 21. Coincidentally, this was about the same age I started abusing alcohol. The more I drank, the more fears I started to develop. Over the years, the fears became devastatingly painful and debilitating.

About three months into my sobriety I noticed that my anxiety naturally lightened. I wasn’t ready, however, to test the limitations of my new found adventurism. Instead I researched how to fly in recovery. At six months I decided to not just jump- but leap! I booked a trip to travel across Europe forcing me to fly multiple times in a short amount of time. There were sometimes where I found it more difficult- like when I knew the flight attendant from my drinking days and she offered me a free full bottle of wine. I kindly declined but the thought of the chardonnay lingered on my mind for the remaining four hours of that flight. After 10 successful flights I gathered some ideas and tips and I found 8 things in particular that helped me in keeping the consumption temptation low while traveling:

  1. Be organized. Check in online before heading to the airport. Check the status of your flight. Have your ID ready and your luggage tagged when you arrive. Making sure that you are prepared will help ensure that your stress level is at a minimum- lowering the urge to drink.
  2. Meditate. Set your alarm 15 minutes early to calm your nerves. Play a tape or do some comfortable yoga poses before leaving for the airport. This way you arrive with a clear mind.
  3. Do not arrive too early to the airport. Give yourself adequate time to get to your gate without rushing but not enough time to consider hitting the airport bar before boarding.
  4. Page “Friends of Bill W.” Fellow AA members will listen for anyone who feels the need to have a quite check-in or serenity prayer before a flight. This is a good way to clear your head before take-off.
  5. Have your recovery token out. Carry something to remind you of our home-group whether its a 30-day chip or a “welcome” key chain. Have it visible on the plane, this way the flight attendant will see it and will be less likely offer you alcohol on the plane.
  6. Bring a book or laptop. It’s important that you arrive in time for your flight so chances are you will still have time to spare. Read a book or check emails to distract you from the airport distilleries.
  7. Call your sponsor. While you are waiting for your flight, give your sponsor a call and let them know your itinerary including the time you land. Check-in once you get to your destination. This will help keep you accountable.
  8. Bring a soda or water on the plane with you. If you have anxiety about flying, make sure you bring a beverage and snack on-board. Sometimes it takes up to an hour to be served by staff. Having something with you will help calm your nerves. This way you won’t be as edgy by the time the attendant comes around.

Addiction is so heavily tied in with our fears and a lot is lifted by our sobriety alone. In saying that though, it still takes work being sober in these situations. Fears can still linger in the back of your mind and it’s good to have these tips by your side in case that bartender seems extra friendly. Travel, whether solo or with friends or family, is so rewarding and no one should miss out due to their fears of flying or their previous addictions. Be set free and safe travels!

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