November, 2011

I am awake because our train is stopped in a snowstorm in the middle of Nowhere, Iowa. Minutes earlier, I snoozed as the sleeper car gently swayed side to side, wheels clacking against the steel tracks. My 10mg Ambien tablet has done its job in getting me to sleep, but now I am suddenly, unquestionably awake and aware of an eerie silence.

I sit up and look out the window of my cramped Amtrak Roomette. I wipe the condensation off my window and stare out into the night. Snow. Everywhere. It’s clear we aren’t budging tonight.

Then, it starts. I can’t breathe. My chest is constricted, my heart rate through the roof. It’s my old friend, panic, come to pull up a chair and stay awhile.

I clutch at my bottle of Xanax, my thumb wearing a semicircular worry pattern into the ink on the label. It’s becoming increasingly clear I have found that magically miserable state known as Rock Bottom. I glance at the dosage instructions that encourage me to take one pill as needed for panic attacks. But I am too scared to even take the pill that’s supposed to help me cope. Once I swallow it, I’ll break into a cold sweat, my chest will tighten, my heart will race even more and I will feel certain I am dying. Or choking. Or both.

My lifelong case of Generalized Anxiety Disorder has brought me to this moment, trapped on a snowbound train. I gasp for air, trying to remember the breathing exercises I read in one of a slew of self-help books stacked on my bedside table.

I try deep breaths, but this makes me lightheaded. And what’s this? Is my right arm tingling? That’s a top heart attack symptom. I’m going to die in a room not much bigger than a coffin.

As I said, welcome to Rock Bottom, USA. Population: me.

A Really, Really Bad Idea

As with all really bad ideas, taking a train across the United States to attend my sister’s wedding sounded like the perfect solution at the time. Never mind that the real reason had more to do with avoiding airplanes than taking a wacky, Wes Anderson-style train journey.

I have experienced enough stomach-knotting, palpitation-inducing, “oh, my god, I’ve got Lupus with a side of brain cancer” anxiety for two lifetimes. Some of this anxiety revolves around air travel. Having moved nearly 3,000 miles from home in the mid-1900s, air travel has become an unavoidable necessity if I want to see my family or go anywhere interesting. Somehow, I’ve managed to avoid it for years. “Work obligations” always have found a way of keeping me off 737s.

In the meantime, relatives have grown up, married, had children and died. I’ve missed it all because I will no longer step foot on an airplane. I can’t even drive to the airport to pick up visitors without getting hardcore knots in my stomach.

Until recently, my vacations have been tightly planned around places where we can drive as a family. A short fifty minute hop on an airplane to Disneyland becomes a ten hour road journey, all designed to accommodate my fears. How my wife and two sons stick with me through these years is a mystery to me, but a credit to them.

When my sister announces she is getting married in late 2011, I vow to be there. But now, stuck in the snow and only halfway there, this cold, grey train has become the figurative personification of my disorder.

As the night wears on, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion, my breathing slows, my heart settles into a steady beat and I fall into a fitful doze. To my surprise, I wake up very much alive. The snow clears and the California Zephyr slowly resumes its trajectory through the Great Plains toward the cradle of the Deep South. “Graceland,” I tell myself. “I’m going to Graceland.”

Finding Unlikely Inspiration

The next morning as we pass an endless stream of grain silos, I flip open my laptop to watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator.” It’s a movie I’ve been saving for just the right moment because in many ways, Hughes is a kindred spirit. His phobias are born of early, traumatic experiences, as I believe some of mine are. In other ways, he repels me. Surely, urinating in Mason jars and hanging onto them as keepsakes is a bridge too far, even for the total mess I consider myself to be.

As I watch DiCaprio’s performance (underrated), I am captivated by the aviation scenes – even the ones where Hughes crashes in dramatic fashion. Here is the distorted wreckage of a perfectly good airplane – my biggest fear laid bare. And I’m OK with it.

Over the next few months, I am inexplicably obsessed with aviation. I read several Howard Hughes biographies, and one of Robin Olds, a legendary fighter pilot. I read Pat Conroy’s brilliant “The Great Santini,” as well as everything I can about the B-24 on which my grandfather served as a tail gunner in World War II.

I engage my father, a former pilot, in conversations about a subject I once avoided. I am simultaneously horrified and mesmerized by aviation. I don’t flinch when a documentary about the horrific Air France 447 disaster airs. Instead, I watch in rapt attention, fascinated by the mechanics of flight.

Over the years, I have tried everything to cope with my anxiety, which goes far beyond fear of airplanes. My anxiety is equally strong in a crowded theater, restaurants, rock concerts; you name it. Ask me what can go wrong – with anything – and I’ll tell you in vivid detail.

Remedies? I’ve tried them all. Antidepressants, heavy-duty beta blockers, Valerian root and chamomile tea. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Buddhist ceremonies. I met the Dalai Lama in 2010 hoping some spark of his inner tranquility would rub off when we shook hands. Zazen, transcendental meditation? Check and check.

These things help, and I practice many of them regularly, but they do not fix the problem. For that, I will have to do something unpleasant.

The Cave You Fear to Enter

It’s not until a few months into my weird aviation kick that I stumble across a quote from my hero, the philosopher Joseph Campbell, that everything solidifies.

“Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center.”

Campbell’s quote hits me like a philosophical ton of bricks. I have certainly stumbled and I’ve landed in a vast ocean of anxiety. Now I am faced with whether to keep struggling against its riptides or to simply learn to swim within its currents.

And then, I make a decision.

August, 2012

I am staring point blank at the center of my cave of fear. Made of composite glass and carbon fiber reinforced plastic, its name is Katana.

The Diamond DA20 Katana aircraft is little longer than a car, with cramped seating for two very thin people. It looks a little bit like a large white insect, as my instructor, Jack, pushes the plane from his hangar onto the tarmac. I check my headset and aviator glasses, nervously asking Jack questions every time I hear a sound I don’t recognize. Soon, the prop whirs to life and Jack is beside me, giving me the look that says, “Last chance.” Last chance, indeed.

We taxi to the runway in Stead, Nev., a dusty stretch of hard-packed high desert earth surrounded by scrubby, brown hills. The time for nerves has passed.

“Relax,” Jack tells me as he shows me how to operate the rudder pedals, which crudely control the airplane’s movements on the ground. I steer us to an eastbound heading on the runway.

“OK,” he says in the reassuring voice all pilots instinctively affect.

Jack says something about the trim tabs, but I don’t process it. My mind is blank. For the first time in my life, I’m feeling bona fide fear. Not the sort of overblown fear my mind has manufactured for years. This fear is breathtaking and exhilarating at the same time. I’m surprised to find it has a clarifying quality to it, bringing only the essential into laser focus.

Seconds later, we tear down the runway, at first at an ambling speed, then at a vigorous one. The plane responds to my movement of the tandem stick that Jack also controls.

As we ascend into the sky, a smile creeps up on my lips. This. Is. Fun.

Soon, we are dealing with the workaday functions of flying a plane: reporting to the control tower, adjusting flaps and paying attention to a dozen instruments. We fly over the Truckee River and I catch a glimpse of Lake Tahoe. The Katana jerks, bumps and drops from time to time before settling into a smoother patch of air. I drop and settle with it.

The hour-long lesson is over too quickly. Landing feels like the end of a long illness when the fever finally passes and you finally get through a full night’s sleep without cold sweats.

On the drive home, I think back over twenty years of panic. Until now, my days have been filled with fears of the ordinary. Then, it finally hits me: for the first time in my life,

I looked fear in the face and I hadn’t blinked. @realjamesball (Click to Tweet!)


In the years since my lesson, I have flown as a passenger to London, Dublin, Mexico and all points in between, even earning mid-level frequent flyer statuses with several airlines. I even found myself on a train again as we took the Chunnel from London to Paris in July 2013. There was no panicking this time around.

Still, I haven’t done it without my own brand of coping rituals: touching the plane’s fuselage with my right hand before boarding, eating the same type of mint candy on every takeoff, listening to a bootleg copy of the April 3, 1990, Grateful Dead concert at the Omni. I’ve even transported the still full, expired bottle of Xanax on several trips as some sort of psychological talisman, but I’ve never had to crack it open. A few deep, measured breaths usually do the trick.

I still live with anxiety and depression every day. It always is waiting for me to make a misstep.

It’s there when I wake up breathless in the middle of the night realizing that, at forty-two, I haven’t realized all my life goals. It’s there when I get an invitation to a party and start looking for ways to bow out. It’s there when I’m asked to give a presentation or lead a meeting at work. It’s even there when I’m having a very, very good day.

But, for now, I have some control. Now when I make plans, I always save room for a single visitor: fear. I like to keep this particular enemy close because one of these days when I catch it trying to reawaken, I’m going to take it for another ride up in the tiniest, clunkiest little airplane I can find. And this time, we’re doing loops.

James Ball is a creative copywriter for a digital marketing agency and a former newspaper editor who lives in Northern Nevada with his wife and two sons. You can follow him on Twitter at @realjamesball.