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Maryanne Reed: Defeating fear of flying means finding the cause

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Several years ago, I developed a fear of flying, and I'm not talking about a mild case of the jitters. I'm paralyzed with abject terror from the moment the plane takes off, while cruising at 35,000 feet, and especially during landing.

Every time we hit even the slightest bit of turbulence, I am dead certain the plane is going to lose control, fall out of the sky and plummet to the ground, and of course there will be "no survivors."

Since I have to fly for work, and I love to travel for fun, I've tried a bunch of different tactics to fight my fear.

I've read self-help books, with titles like, "Flying Without Fear." These books point out how safe flying is - that there is a one-in-a-gazillion chance your plane will crash, and your ride to the airport is far more dangerous.

But being nearly phobic about this, I am drawn to the horrifying exceptions, haunted by terms like "windshear" and "microburst," or worse yet, "pilot error."

Other coping techniques I've tried include meditation, deep breathing, and self-medicating with those cute $7 dollar bottles of booze.

But only through soul-searching and self-analysis have I been able to get to the root of my fear. I realized that my fear of flying started around the time my dad was dying of cancer. I felt totally out of control during that entire terrible ordeal, helpless to help him through his surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and painful final months. And when he died, I was "orphaned" at age 45, having lost my mother to cancer several years earlier.

Suddenly, I was flying solo without the safety net of my parent's unconditional love. Un-tethered and free-floating, I no longer stood on familiar ground. That lack of control was reinforced every time I stepped on to a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 319.

First, I've learned I can't control everything. No matter how hard I work or how much I plan, some events - getting cancer, getting fired, losing a loved one, even "microbursts" - are beyond my control.

In the end, I can't fly the plane.

That means I have to have faith, whether it's faith in a higher power, faith in my friends and family, or faith in myself.  If I hold on to what sustains me, I can cope with just about anything, and I will land safely.

Most importantly, I've learned to enjoy the ride. I've flown above the most stunning landscapes, too afraid to look out my window at the scenery below. But being fearful of the unknown and bad things that could happen is no way to live.  As a middle-aged adult, I've discovered that life is a journey full of full of highs and lows, smooth sailing and a good amount of "chop."

I've learned not to let my fear of falling, or failing, keep me from experiencing new things, taking chances, and pushing beyond my comfort zone.  And I've learned to face the unknown with joy in my heart, a sense of adventure, and only occasionally, a pony bottle of bourbon.

Maryanne Reed is dean of the West Virginia University School of Journalism. This piece was reprinted with permission of the Morgantown Dominion Post.

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