by Laura Didyk
Travel and I do not have the best relationship. I love point A. And I love the experience of point B. I’m just not that fond of the trip from one to the other. A large part of the conflict is rooted in my lifelong susceptibility to motion sickness. On a bad day, I can get nauseous rolling in my chair from my desk to the printer approximately four feet away. On a really, really bad day, scrolling too fast to the bottom of a web page will do it. Also, driving at night in rain or snow. Forget about being a passenger—even in the front seat of a car, I’m a goner. And on an airplane? Well, if I must get on one, I only do so under the influence of motion sickness medicine.
I recently embarked on a trip to Arizona for a friend’s wedding celebration. While the visit itself was nothing short of amazing, getting there was a different story. In addition to my motion sickness problem, I’m also more afraid of dying than ever before. It’s hard to explain. Logic says that since I’ve grown happier in my life in general, more surrendered, less worry-obsessed, that this positive change would seep into everything, help me take difficult situations in stride. But as I’ve come to care more deeply about being alive, I have become proportionately more afraid of death. Now that I’m living a life I love, I do not want to lose it. I want it be long and full and good.
My feelings around flying don’t manifest so much as panic or anxiety, but as deep, unshakable dread—a physical knowing that imminent doom is in my future. I’ve tried thinking about the Law of Attraction. I caution myself: if you think too much about the plane crashing, about being sick, it is going to happen. I try to imagine a positive, safe end result. But because the mind—my mind—is what it is, all I can think about are things that are of no help to me. A friend of mine, who is even more afraid of flying than I am, says that in the midst of in-flight panic he is convinced that his anxiety is what’s keeping the plane in the air. If he were to relax his shoulders, breathe deeply, the plane would plummet—his panic, in other words, has aerodynamic power. He knows it’s ridiculous, but kinesthetically, in the moment, it makes sense to him. It sure makes sense to me.
Before my flight to Phoenix, I stocked my carry-on with Dramamine. I’ve tried everything else: powdered ginger root in capsule form and small handfuls of the same plant in crystallized/candied form (which I cannot eat to this day—however much I ate of it is how much did not stay down). I tried a pressure-point bracelet once—its red, white, and blue stripes made me look extra patriotic, and the next morning—still nauseous from the flight—a bruise the size of a dime appeared on the inside of my wrist from how hard I pressed down on the blue button, supposedly stimulating the anti-motion-sickness pressure point. Now I just take the hard stuff. And even that is not foolproof.
Although the first leg of my trip to Arizona was on an express flight—which is another way of saying: this plane is so small that if you don’t die you are at least going to get very, very sick—it was during the second leg of my trip, the longer flight, on a much bigger plane, when things got really bad. I’d taken an extra dose of medicine as a precaution, so sickness wasn’t my primary concern. “We’ve got some weather up ahead, folks,” the pilot had said. “It’s gonna be rough for the next 20 minutes or so.” His word choice was his way of being straight with us—this was not going to be fun, and he wanted us to know.
The turbulence started small, but within moments we were dipping and rising, falling long enough that I had time to think—about what we’d hit were we to continue to fall, about how the plane was going to take a nosedive or flip onto its back or spin off into space. I closed my eyes and gripped the arms of my chair, started to sweat, first under my arms, then my forehead, then my upper lip. Everything grew clammy. We were shoved from side to side. Luggage compartment lids popped open. Tray tables unfolded from the seat backs and bounced on their hinges. Drawn-out “whoas” and short free-fall shrieks from my fellow passengers were at first followed by laughter, but then it grew quiet. We were all praying, I guessed, each in our own way.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to pretend it wasn’t happening. I prayed for it to stop. I prayed to be somewhere else, anywhere else other than where I was. Finally, I prayed for calm. And something happened: I heard a lilting, melodic voice in my head that wasn’t mine. It belonged to the yoga teacher of a class I’d taken a couple days before. She led me through three-part yogic breathing. I loosened my grip on my armrests, let my shoulders drop, and started breathing in through my nose. I allowed my stomach to fill, then helped my breath move up through my rib cage and into my chest. This process, slowly in and slowly out, was my focus point for the 20 turbulent minutes that followed. It was one of the more bizarre physical experiences I’ve ever had—to be completely relaxed as the plane was knocked around, as it fell and rose, to not flip out under circumstances that warranted flipping out. It felt weird. It felt good.
I realized that, in a lot of circumstances, half of me would prefer to skip the journey and instead travel Star Trek-style to my destination: beam me up into a soft cloud of dancing light particles and reconstruct me once I’ve arrived. I really want a life, for instance, but I don’t always want to do the living, at least not the hard parts. I white-knuckle my way through some things, resist walking into the spiritual turbulence and out with my head up and my eyes open. And emotional queasiness? No, thank you. If I’m dispersed overhead as particles of light, however, I won’t have hands into which the gifts of wisdom can be placed.
After the last major free-fall moment of that raucous flight, something spectacular happened. The plane popped out of the angry gauntlet of clouds, and the turbulence stopped as suddenly as it had started. Through the window I saw that we were surrounded by the most breathtaking display of cloud formations I’ve ever seen.
Some patches looked like luminous cities, others like our plane had carved canyons through the clouds, revealing dark streaks, swirling rivers. Everything was backlit and alive. From the vantage point of this particular point B, I felt like a kid again, dizzied not by motion this time but by splendor, majesty, grandeur. It was hard to believe that those clouds were what we’d gone through, what had made me fear for my life, forced me to exist in the intense and simple now. I saw that their intention wasn’t to cause undue harm or sickness. A combined force of elements and temperature, air and water, pressure and atmosphere, they were there to express, to become. We just happened to fly right into the middle of their becoming. By the time the clouds were behind us, I felt transcendent.
Isn’t this how it works with the most difficult stuff? If I stay the course, trust the pilot, try to relax, and breathe through the rough parts, eventually, and sometimes when I least expect it, I float out into some of the most gorgeous scenery around, terrain that I might have been blind to otherwise. I then get to look back and feel grateful for the tumult. The getting there isn’t always easy but the unexpected, unplanned moments of transcendence I wouldn’t trade for anything.