“I always take off my collar before I get on a plane, ” our pastor informed the congregation last Sunday. “Because otherwise it seems to really upset people to see that a Roman Catholic priest is having a panic attack at 30,000 feet.”
Father Marc Powell is known for his thoughtful, carefully planned and beautifully written homilies, but last Sunday as a sort of belated Christmas gift, he shared a story of personal weakness that had the congregation in sympathetic stitches. He told how on a past flight, he’d suffered such a severe panic attack that the flight attendant tried and discarded all of the conventional remedies; the airsick bag, the refreshing drink of water, finally even one teeny tiny airline bottle of bourbon. Nothing worked. He became so shaken and ill that finally, the attendant was moved to offer, “I know there’s a priest on this flight. I’ll try to find him and see if he can help you.”
Since Father Marc was the only priest on the flight, this solution was not as helpful as it might have been. He wasn’t wearing his collar.
Father Marc’s story caused me to remember the days when I was afraid to fly. Like many phobias, mine grew gradually. My first flight on my honeymoon, back in the days of real silver and linen and smoking in the main cabin from Spokane to New York, went off without a hitch, so to speak. But a decade later coming home from three years in Taiwan, our family landed in Manilla after grueling hours flying into a typhoon with winds that struck the plane with shuddering blows. Everybody on board was queasy and frankly scared.
The storm brought all of the emergency rescue equipment onto the runway and the worst in some of us. I had the queen of all panic attacks there in the driving rain and vowed never to fly again. But of course trains don’t cross the ocean, so I began to create my own in-flight strategies like automatically clutching the thigh of my seatmate on takeoff, whether I knew him or not. Sometimes I warned them it was coming. Sometimes I just let them notice. That didn’t work out, so then I became one of those unsung heroes who keep the plane in the air by holding it up with a white knuckled grip on the arm rests during the entire flight.
According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, about 20 percent of Americans will struggle with a phobia this year — “an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger.” Sure, that’s easy for them to say.
On Christmas Eve our family sat around and talked about what we are afraid of. Spiders, mostly, a couple of lizard-phobias, fear of heights, claustrophobia. Refreshingly ordinary, really and high on the list of common fears. Public speaking is still No.1 and fear of flying barely makes the list at No. 9.
But never mind, we’ve got plenty of things to worry about. The Washington Post reported back in 2014 that Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to have a fear of clowns. I figure that number’s got to be higher today.
Flying was a worrisome and panic-building ordeal for me until my Navy son who was training to be a carrier provided the technique that helped me to enjoy flying again. After a very happy visit at Annapolis, he flew back to the Northwest with me and something, maybe the way I would hunch my shoulders and try to get under the seat, made him suspect that I wasn’t comfortable in the air. Every sign of turbulence or turn or heaven help us descent, made me shudder. He patiently explained each event, “OK, Mom, you’re going to feel that we’re descending a little, and then we’ll level off.” Notice how he used civilian speak. He concluded each explanation with “Mom, it’s doing just what it was designed to do.”
Father Marc reminded us that in troubled times, we can reach out to each other to share strength and faith. I’ve never been afraid to fly again. It’s good to have someone to hold your hand when you have to fly into the darkness or into the new year — but it helps to have someone to share the journey.
Join Dorothy Wilhelm for the launch event of her new book, “True Tales of Puget Sound,” from 11a.m.-4 p.m. on Jan. 20 at Fort Nisqually in Point Defiance Park. She will be signing new books and offering short story-times for both children and adults.