The Airplane Phobia

Actually it wasn’t a phobia about planes or flying, it was about noise.  Here in Franconia there is a small airport and in the summer they give glider rides.  The plane that tows the glider makes a louder, longer, more obnoxious noise than a small plane by itself.

I became sensitive to the sound in the summer of 1984.  It made me feel scared and angry and nauseous.  I remember screaming and banging my head on the floor.  I began reacting even to the word airport.  I was only able to relax on rainy days.  I felt sick most of the time and had finally been diagnosed with systemic yeast.  This was in the days when doctors were still claiming it wasn’t a disease (it can be caused by over-use of antibiotics) and the only available substitute for bread was rice cakes.

Finally I began leaving the area on days when the planes were flying.  I would take my food — I couldn’t eat wheat, dairy, sugar or yeast — and my journal and something to read, and go to the house of a friend who lived out of the area.  The whole thing was a horrible experience.  I hated having to run away. I was angry at the people who thought the planes were fun, and at myself for being so sensitive.  I tried earplugs and ear protectors designed for people running heavy machinery.  I could still hear enough of the noise to react.  I began wearing a Walkman with earphones.  The only music that worked was something called Music for 18 Musicians.  The sound was continuous and had a vibratory quality so it could absorb the noise of machinery.  If I tried to listen to music with breaks in it, invariably there would be a plane during the 4 seconds of silence.

I tried many things to heal it, NLP, a very expensive program to retrain my hearing, chiropractors, psychic healers, nothing worked.  People who didn’t understand would say things like “Why don’t you go down to the airport and see that they’re just ordinary people?” Just the word “airport” would freak me out.  I remember one day, standing in the house, I heard something that sounded like a chainsaw, and my heart went into adrenaline through the roof, and then I saw it was just a fly buzzing on a window.  I was horrified to see how sensitive to noise I was.  I suffered from this thing for 13 years.

Finally in 1996, I realized I was dealing with severe depression.  I tried Paxil, which was a horrendous experience.  In the summer I discovered that one effect of the airplane noise was to plunge me into deep depression.

Looking back at it, I can see better how it became so horrendous.  Hypersensitivity to sound is a symptom of PTSD, but I still had no idea that I had been traumatized.  One thing about an obnoxious and very loud sound, you can’t look away as you can from an ugly sight.  Your only recourse is to go far enough away.  Finding it impossible to live in your own house, in your own town, is depressing in itself.  I felt hopeless and helpless. The planes were triggering flashbacks to a helpless, terrified infant.

Healing from the phobia happened literally overnight.  I had started taking Imipramine (Anti-depressant medication) in February and after a few months was beginning to feel  better.  I had started therapy with Dr. Cynthia Rankin in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  She was a specialist in mood disorders.  I had been seeing her for several months.  It was May and the planes were starting up.  On Friday I had a session with Dr. Rankin.  I asked her if it was OK to “white-knuckle it” through the noise.  She said “Of course.”  Then she said she had observed a pattern in my behavior.  I would start a project that had several steps.  I would do the first two steps just fine, but if I ran into trouble on the third I would conclude that I “couldn’t do it.” I would fail to see that I had already managed to do part of it successfully, in fact I would even define those first steps as failures.  This was enormously interesting to me.  I knew something about training dogs and that the principles worked for human beings also.  I figured I could retrain myself about the planes.  I would write down each one survived with white knuckles as a success, and see how many I could survive before I had to leave the house.  Saturday was rainy, and I went to the first level Reiki training.  I had the oddest feeling afterward that my immune system had “switched on.” I could almost feel a protective field around me.  Sunday was sunny and I sat down with paper and pen, waiting for the planes to start.  Each time one went over I would say “that’s one survived” and make a little airplane symbol on the page.  By the end of the day, I had survived 13 planes, and I knew the phobia was over.  Dr. Rankin had given me my power back for which I am eternally grateful.  I still hated the sound, but I no longer freaked out, and gradually the sound began to fade into the background.  Every now and then I notice a plane towing a glider and think “God! I suffered from that for 13 years, and now I don’t even notice them.”

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