Flying through life with my phobias - By Bob Paslay

OK I admit it. I have every phobia in the world. One of those is flying, and on Saturday I climb aboard a Delta flight to New Orleans. The thing about phobias is that you sit in your safe office and reflect on how stupid they are. The mind laughs at them. The stomach dreads them and the rest of your body bleaches white at the thought of a phobia-producing event coming.

I used to not mind flying. I drank coffee, looked out the window and generally marveled at how smoothly something so heavy got off the ground. I am not sure when flying entered my growing list of phobias. I flew back from a New Year's eve trip to New Orleans a few years ago (are you getting the message that I really like the Big Easy?)

It was an overcast dark kind of late afternoon. The pilot came on and told us to keep our seat belts buckled the whole flight because they had just flown down from Atlanta and there was a lot of turbulence. A couple of minutes later, he came back on and said he was suspending in-flight service and asking the flight attendants to stay in their seats. Hmm, I thought. This is not going to be pretty. And so we embarked, me with my eyes squeezed tightly shut, holding onto the arm rest, seat belt so tightly pulled it was becoming part of me.

And my worst fears were confirmed. We shook, we rattled, we fought every mile of the trip back. Even when we got back to Atlanta you couldn't see anything but clouds and then we descended and I didn't see any Atlanta, just clouds, layers and layers of them. And when I had about given up hope some of Atlanta came into focus.

So you might think that having escaped that ordeal I would have concluded that the people who design planes take this turbulence into account and that the pilots just see it as part of the process and don't give it a second thought. But phobias don't work that way. My mind did confirm that. But it isn't your mind that is the major contributor to phobias. Or maybe it is in some subliminal way.

Anyway, as I climb aboard Saturday, I'm determined to be quiet and not act like the character from "Twilight Zone" who sees something on the wing and has to be restrained. The trip from Atlanta once you get leveled off is 59 minutes. Since New Orleans is central time and an hour earlier than we are, you get there before you leave.

I guess my first memories of being petrified of the simple things was when my father used to walk my brother and me home from his office after work after we had camped out there afterschool. There was a grid-iron bridge over a railroad track and it was like walking suspended in air. The first time my stomach fell to my feet. The second time, I ran four blocks around the bridge to avoid walking over it. As I remember, my father and brother told me it was silly because the bridge was secure and not about to fall. They missed the point of phobias. Now many decades later I have trained myself to walk over bridges in midtown Atlanta by closing the eye closest to the edge and staring down at the sidewalk with my other eye, all the time counting to keep my mind off the fear. It works but only tenuously.

Phobias break down into two categories n those in which you can't affect the outcome. Flying fits into this one. The pilot doesn't know I am scared. It doesn't affect his flying or the mechanics of the big bird.

Then there are those like driving over grid-iron bridges. The fear could be so strong it overcomes you and affects your driving. Years ago, not knowing about the Savannah Bridge I drove towards it. By the time I saw it, it was too late to turn back. A three-foot median prevented me from doing a U-turn. My foot laid like limp spinach on the gas pedal. My hands over the steering wheel had cups of sweat in them. When I finally made it over the bridge, I pulled over to the side, soaked in sweat and my heart pounding like sledgehammer. That, I think, is the closest I have been to having a phobia take me out. Now I try to plan better.

I know there are programs in which they say they will get to the bottom of the fear and free you from these situations. I am skeptical. I have tried the confronting my fear and after confronting it, nothing changes.

It's funny that some things like death don't bother me. It should the older I get, but it doesn't. It seems to be the small things that are at the center of my phobias.

The trick is to live with them and not let them stop you from doing what you want to do. That is why, despite a churning stomach, I will be jetting to New Orleans. The shrimps and red beans and rice are screaming so loud I can't hear myself screaming.

Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor for the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at bpaslay@news-daily.com or at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257.