After ten years of being Earth-bound I was ready to try flying again. I have never enjoyed flying; giving up control to someone else 10,000 feet above the ground seems like more trust than any reasonable person should have in a stranger. I had decided many years ago that I simply wouldn’t fly again. I had seen too much footage of fiery or charred crash sites and went through the understandable practice of mentally putting myself in their position. Eyewitnesses say such things as, “I can’t imagine what kind of terror they were feeling” as the plane plunges earthward in the final few seconds. I guess that’s my problem, because I can imagine it. Too well. And that’s why I chose not to put myself in the position to ever experience it.
But time has passed and I now have children who I want to be able to see the world and for whom I want to be a good role model. One of my proudest parenting accomplishments is having a daughter who is not afraid of spiders so that when I see one in the house I can call to her to pick it up and take it outside. I decided that in order to overcome my fear of flying, I would need outside help. I had heard of classes that are offered at some airports to teach people what to expect and get them familiar with the surroundings they would encounter. These programs have high success rates. However, I did not live close enough to the airport for this to be practical with the limited amount of time I had each day when my youngest was at her half-day of kindergarten.
So my plan of action came from an ad I saw in a community coupon flyer sent to me in the mail. The ad was for hypnosis and offered to help you make that change you had been dreaming of, whether that involved smoking, weight, gambling, stress, or even improving your golf game. I kept the flyer on my desk for months before I finally had to courage to call in late autumn.
My conversation with the hypnotist, whom we’ll call Lana, was pleasant. She gave me the basic information, such as how long it should take to “fix” me (2 sessions), how long a hypnotherapy session usually lasted (1 ½ hours), and how much it cost ($85 a session). She gave me instructions on how to get there and then asked me a few questions.
“I just want to ask you about a couple of scenarios to make sure you are comfortable with them, because sometimes I use this imagery at the beginning to get my client to relax. Are you okay with walking through forests?”
“Yes,” I quickly replied, wondering how these things could be scary and then immediately being able to conjure up frightening ideas concerning forests, from spiders dangling in your path to startling a mother bear with her cubs.
“How about walking on the beach?”
“Yes,” I answered impulsively, before remembering scenes of the tsunami washing thousands of people to their deaths.
“Riding down an elevator?” Lana asked.
“Okay,” I said, now growing more nervous about revealing any more issues I might have. I didn’t need to explain to her that I often had nightmares about elevators with cables breaking and dangling at heart-stopping angles or the doors sliding open to reveal half of one floor and half of another, and wondering whether you should risk jumping out of this impaired machine before it zipped off to another half-floor and crushed you as it went.
“Riding down an escalator?” she continued.
“Yes,” I replied. Somewhere in there I imagined the question changed from “are you okay with this” to “do you have a fear of this,” so at least I was answering the questions honestly. Didn’t everyone have a vague fear of their pantleg or shoelace getting caught in an escalator and sucking their whole leg into its metal jaws?
“Good,” she replied. “I look forward to meeting you!”
It was then I realized that giving up my fear of flying might transfer that fear too heavily onto other areas of my life, permanently disabling me. Sure, I could fly to Florida this winter, but forget about enjoying the beach or going to the shopping mall while I was there!
The week before my first appointment brought a sense of dread. I was not looking forward to the appointment, and I couldn’t pinpoint whether that was from a general reluctance to be hypnotized or from the thought that I was going to fool my brain into thinking it was okay to fly and then actually get on a plane.
I had reasons to be uncomfortable with the thought of being hypnotized. I had been hypnotized once before. It was in high school, when a hypnotist came to do a show that involved hypnotizing a bunch of teachers and students on the stage and then having them do embarrassing things to get a laugh out of the audience. I remember being able to think rationally during my hypnosis but I was certainly open to his suggestions. As I got older I learned that it was a state not unlike having too much to drink and lowering your inhibitions. When the hypnotist had us all pretend we were driving a car and someone cut us off, we had to roll down the window, stick our hand out, and “really show the other driver how we felt”. I was told later by friends who were in the audience that I was one of only two who actually gave the finger to the pretend driver. But as the performance wore on, I started to regain control of my surroundings and wonder what the hell I was doing making an ass of myself in front of hundreds of people. Unfortunately, this slow dawning did not come soon enough, as I had already danced like a fool in front of the entire school, which was recorded on film and edited into my class’s video yearbook to haunt me for eternity. I remember driving home from the hypnotist’s show to an empty house, where I retreated to my room and cried myself to sleep. Yet here I was, ready to put myself through another hypnosis experience.
On the appointed day, I dropped my daughter off for her afternoon kindergarten class and headed for the hypnotherapy clinic. The clinic shared space with other like-minded businesses, such as an acupuncture/acupressure office. My destination was in the basement of the building, accessed through the side door. I entered and followed the signs into a lobby that was slightly partitioned off from the rest of the basement. I saw no one there, so I sat and waited. There were curtains hung against the walls to make it feel less like a cement-block basement, soft music was playing, and a tabletop fountain tinkled water pleasantly.
As I waited, I read through some of the literature on the table before finding a large binder filled with testimonials. Most of them did not apply to my situation, such as people who had come to improve their memories, quit smoking, and lose weight, among other problems. There was just one testimonial that I came across that dealt with conquering a fear. A woman had been afraid of riding in a car ever since she was in a violent collision. She reported that she was riding home from the therapy session with her husband behind the wheel when they came upon an accident. Her husband remarked to her that he was amazed she was so calm, unlike her usual reaction to simply riding in a car, much less witnessing a small crash. Her testimonial gave me hope.
Soon Lana appeared out of one of the two doors I could see from my spot in the lobby. She introduced herself and asked for payment for the session. I thought that would have been more appropriate for after the services were rendered, but I didn’t want to start off on a bad note. She didn’t tell me how much to write the check for, but I seemed to recall it was $80, so I started filling in the blanks. While I wrote, she told me that the first thing I would do is watch a video that explained about what therapy could do and how it worked. It seemed like a nice way to ease me into the hypnosis rather than plunking me down in a chair and putting me under. I finished my check, ripped it out and handed it to her. She looked at it for a second, and then said, “Oh. It’s supposed to be for eight-five dollars.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, slightly embarrassed. “I couldn’t remember exactly.” I dug in my purse and pulled out my wallet. I didn’t have enough singles or a five, so I offered her a ten dollar bill. “Thanks, I’ll get your change while you’re watching the video,” she replied, and then led me off into another room in a distant corner of the basement.
The room was smaller than a bedroom and a tad larger than a closet. I sat down on the little green couch and she slipped in the VHS tape. She turned the lights off and left me alone while I watched the video. It was about 15 minutes long and was not terribly interesting, but it also left me bored and eager to get on with it, which was better than the apprehension I had been feeling.
When the video was over Lana came back and brought me into the room where we would be having our session. I sat in the recliner and looked around for the device that would be used to lull my brain into a moldable plastic. In the movies it is always a swinging coin and back in high school it had been a red flickering light, but I saw nothing here that fit those descriptions.
Lana spent some time talking about herself and then asked me questions about myself, trying to make me feel more at ease in the unfamiliar surroundings. I was still eager to get on with it, partly because in two hours my kids would be out of school and deposited at the bus stop by my house, and I had to be there to get them.
Finally, after a peaceful conversation among two new acquaintances, it was time to dim the lights a bit more and get into position. She leaned me back in the chair, had me close my eyes, and began her count backward from ten. But suddenly her voice went from the neutral, conversational voice she’d had since she introduced herself, into a stage voice that sounded as if she were about to conjure up dead spirits or cause my body to hover above the chair. It was all I could do to keep from bursting into laughter.
“Ten! Your eyelids are getting heavy,” she cried in a deep, sing-songy voice.
“Nine! Your arms and legs are getting heavy,” she continued.
“Eight! Every time I say a number you feel yourself falling deeper into the chair. Seven! – Oh wait, let me bring you back up for a second.”
And so I opened my eyes and twisted back to look at her, where she had positioned herself over my right shoulder.
“I forgot to tell you that if you have an itch or something like that, go ahead and scratch. Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable.”
“Okay, thanks,” I replied, even though I was already way past my comfort level. I closed my eyes and got back into position.
“Ten! Your eyelids are getting heavy,” she started again.
“Nine! Your arms and legs are getting heavy. Eight! Oh, one more thing,” she said, briefly returning again to her normal voice. “Are you comfortable if I touch your shoulder and arm while you are under?”
I couldn’t possibly be any more uncomfortable than I already was, so why not add getting touched by a stranger during hypnosis? “That’s fine,” I answered and decided that I would do whatever I had to do to get this over with as quickly as possible.
She began her countdown for the third time and made it all the way to one this time. Then she told me that I was going to try to open my eyes but my eyelids would be too heavy and I would be unable to do so. So at her command, I rolled my eyeballs around in their sockets a bit, playing that I was making an effort, but for all practical purposes my eyelids were just glued shut. I certainly did not want to open my eyes and have to go back and start the counting routine over once more.
As Lana tried to get me deeper into the hypnotized stage, she had me count for her and imitate the things she said. It seemed to be a strategy of getting me to open up to her suggestions by first having me follow simple, nonthreatening commands. Throughout the hypnosis session, I imagined different friends and family in the room with me, and how hilarious of a predicament they would find this. I worked like mad not only to keep from laughing, but to not even crack a smile and betray what was really going on inside. Instead of giving up control to the hypnotist, I was wielding more self control than I ever had.
“And now I want you to count backward from 10, repeating it just as I have said it,” Lana intoned and then began her count. “10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
Ah ha! I thought as I listened. Skip six, I told myself.
“10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1.”
“Good,” she told me, sounding very pleased with my progress. “When we are done and you awake, you will continue to count in the same way until I give you the command to correct it.” I thought it would be an interesting test of the hypnosis. I certainly felt coherent and in control and not the least bit hypnotized, but perhaps I was being sucked in without truly realizing it.
After what seemed like an eternity of trying to bring me deeper and DEEPER into hypnosis with her voice that got deeper and DEEPER, she seemed satisfied that we were ready to continue. She began by asking me to relive other experiences I’d had with airplanes. The theory that hypnosis worked on, she had told me before we’d begun, was that our fear of something such as flying was triggered by a traumatic event that we had come to associate with it.
There were certainly a few instances I’d had that I could have offered up to Lana that would have satisfied her probing. I could have blamed 9/11, although I had already quit flying by then. I could have blamed the flight I took to Florida with my boyfriend in college. I was nervous about flying, but once we got up and the captain turned off the seatbelt sign, I relaxed and smiled and turned to look at my boyfriend. He was paler than the clouds outside and was sitting hunched in a ball with his fists clenched. His terror was palpable. I tried not to let it affect me and was successful for most the flight until it came time to land. Thunderstorms lined the coast as we dipped down toward the Fort Lauderdale airport. It was nighttime, and the captain had us turn off the cabin lights, bringing darkness to the plane. As we flew through the clouds, every few seconds a bright flash of light would surround us from out every little porthole window and the plane would shake, then again darkness and calm before another flash and shake. This went on for quite a few minutes in complete silence. We never heard a crack or boom or rumble of thunder, we simply saw the lightning and felt the plane tossing. Everyone on the plane was still, breath held, waiting for what would happen next. I gripped my boyfriend’s hand and we sat there, hunched and pale together, hoping that when we reached the ground it wouldn’t be with a splat. Finally we exited the storm clouds and continued our descent until we reached the runway, with a dry and uneventful landing.
But again, my fear of flying preceded this event. Another bad experience I could have recounted was the time my family spent Christmas in Los Angeles. We were scheduled to come home on New Year’s Eve on a flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis and then a short leg from there to Madison. When we got to LAX, we discovered that our flight had been overbooked and people were being given tickets for a free flight to anywhere in the U.S. if they were willing to take a later flight to Chicago and then on to their final destination. I was immediately worried. In my 13-year-old brain I was comfortable with the idea of taking our scheduled flight and flying home the same way that we flew here, but changing that plan might throw my fate into some situation that it was not meant for. My 17-year-old sister did not want to take the later flight because our current flight would have us home before midnight and she would be able to make a New Year’s party that she had been invited to. We were dead set against taking the new flight, and my mother was determined to get those free tickets. My father seemed to have disappeared in all this. There were copious tears, mine out of fear and my mother’s and sister’s out of frustration. We were all becoming dramatic and overwrought, tired and so far from home. At one point my mother exclaimed, “You girls have ruined everything I’ve ever wanted to do!” and soon after that my sister got up and walked off, disappearing for about 15 minutes. I glanced up through my tears at the other people waiting at the gate, wanting simultaneously to disappear from them and be saved by them. In the end, enough people took the free tickets and flight to Chicago that we were able to board our originally scheduled plane and take off. Ironically enough, when we finally got back to our house after that pain-filled day, there was a note waiting for my sister that the New Year’s Eve party planned for that night had been cancelled.
I shared none of this with Lana. My fear of flying did not begin with any of these other bad experiences, although to be fair, they certainly couldn’t have helped the situation any. Lana made me rehash every airplane flight I could remember. Things were going fine, until she made me relive an experience from when I was about four. I had to embellish some of my flights, because my memory from this time was not very clear. All I really knew was that I flew to Texas when I was young. I also remember getting off the plane to a large band playing, welcoming the governor of Texas back home who had also been on the plane with us. I had no negative memories, but if I wanted to be cured, I would have to help her find the source of my anxiety.
“Tell me how you feel, four-year-old Kelly,” Lana asked me.
“My stomach feels strange,” I replied.
“Am I talking to four-year-old Kelly?” Lana asked. Uh oh. I was doing something wrong. She couldn’t possibly want me to … no. But I had to do it.
“My tummy hurts,” I answered in a baby voice. I was so glad no video tape was being made of this hypnosis.
“And why does your tummy hurt, four-year-old Kelly?” Lana asked.
“Because I’m afwaid of the pwane,” I answered. The real four-year-old Kelly never lisped, but I wanted to be convincing.
“And why are you afraid of the plane, four-year-old Kelly?”
“Because it might cwash. I saw it on the Tee Bee.”
Bingo. Lana soothed four-year-old Kelly and told her that planes were safer than cars, that she would grow up and take many flights and they would all be fine, and that I didn’t need to be afraid of them anymore. She then talked to my present-day self and asked me to picture myself on a flight to somewhere (I picked Greece). I was supposed to picture myself relaxed, reading a book, napping, and then reaching my destination happy and calm. I was thinking that would be great, but when I have to fly with a real four-year-old girl, relaxing, reading, and napping with her next to me was probably out of the question.
At long last, Lana brought me up from the hypnosis.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“I feel great,” I said, and I meant it. I was glad to be done and I was willing to keep faking my way for as long as I had to. Lana was thrilled with my progress. She said she didn’t expect us to get as far as we did and that there wouldn’t be any need for me to come back for a second session. She said I was the perfect type of person for hypnosis because I was very open to suggestion. I felt that was probably the farthest thing from the truth. She then asked me to fill out a testimonial for her binder in the lobby. It seemed a little early for that, as I had just come out of hypnosis, but again I complied in order to get done and get to the bus stop on time. I wrote a little paragraph about how I felt great and couldn’t wait to go to Florida. Finally, Lana released me back into the world and I skipped out of there merrily, glad to have the hypnosis session behind me.
On the drive home, I was reliving the whole experience when I suddenly remembered she still owed me five dollars. Then I remembered the backward counting and when she had me skip the number six and that she had never given me the code to retrieve it. I kept driving along in the quiet, thinking about it, when I suddenly blurted out, “SIX!”
Whew! She may have stolen my five dollars, but she hadn’t stolen my number six.