Sometimes the stories we’ve learned shape our behavior in ways we can’t even grasp. You can think you’ve exorcised beliefs that reigned over your upbringing—“Man, I sure don’t go for that wacky shit anymore!”—only to discover those beliefs have holed up inside your body like some WWII Japanese soldier living in the jungle who didn’t know his side surrendered decades ago. To mix my similes, it’s like squeezing a balloon—your conscious mind can reason the air out of one end of a belief, but there it is again, bulging out of your nervous system or subconscious.
…what kinds of destructive beliefs are we carrying around in our minds and bodies that we can’t even identify?
Somehow stories and experience become matter and sink in; if they’re damaging or traumatic stories, they might not even have to be your own. Research published in 2013 in the journal Nature Neuroscience suggests that traumas can even be carried through generations, epigenetically. (Of course, mice were tortured and killed in the related experiments, but that’s another post.) Supposedly, the good memories don’t get handed down, just the trauma; various molecules from our interaction with our environments could change how DNA is read, and could be heritable. If that’s the case, imagine the physio-psychic inheritance of someone in America who had, say, Black, Lakota, and European Jewish grandparents.
I learned about one of the myths in my own meat after finally resolving—by about 90 percent—my fear of flying. I doubt the fear was from a previous generation; there was enough junk from my own life to do the trick. I’d tried all kinds of methods to quell it, and all but this one failed or wore off. An old story was keeping that fear alive and kicking—and how that story connected with aviation was almost as weird as, well, aviation.
The Not-So-Friendly Skies
My family didn’t have the money for travel, so I didn’t fly in a plane until I was 19. But the airplane nightmares started when I was a little kid. These dreams didn’t feature fiery crashes, failed parachutes, being shoved out the door while duck taped in a burlap bag—nothing like that. In my nightmares, I was forced into a plane, which proceeded with what I now know to be a normal flight. The torture in all this came from merely being in a plane while it was flying.
When I did start flying, the experience was like my nightmares, except it was harder to wake up. Days before a flight, I walked around feeling lead in my solar plexus. I would repeatedly conjure that breach of takeoff when suddenly the wheels lift up and you’re at the mercy of nothing but air. On travel day, my drive to the airport was a goodbye. The gate agent was the last person on the ground who would see me alive. The other passengers—so many looking forward to a trip, oblivious to what was really going to happen. I’d look at their shoes, wondering which ones would appear strewn near the wreckage in the news tape. Take-off and landing were terrifying, no matter how smooth, and I could never doze, even on a red-eye, because the engines might fail if I weren’t paying attention. And it wasn’t over once it was over. The night after a flight, I’d often jolt awake in a cold sweat and listen for engines, thinking I was still on the plane.
Jack Daniels Was My Copilot
Fortunately, the drinking age back then was 18. Jack Daniels was my copilot, and if I had to meet up with him in an airport bar at seven in the morning, so be it. Soon I started packing my own little liquor bottles. I’d duck into the ladies’ room right after security and chug the first Jack for takeoff. (I’d learned to twist open the caps before leaving for the airport: to BYOB on an airplane is illegal, and that crackle of a twisting metal seal alerts flight attendants like chumming sharks on a nature show). In the course of a smooth cross-country flight I’d down two more Jacks in the bathroom: one for maintenance, one before our final descent. The fourth bottle stayed in my seat pocket, back-up for turbulence. I drank more during a round-trip flight than I did in a year on the ground–not good when you factor in jet lag, dehydration, and the standing mission to find a liquor store. Eventually I got my doctor to prescribe some Lorazepam.
Tranquilizers dulled the edges of the fear, but the core was still there. I started listening to “brain entrainment” tapes for flying. I underwent hypnosis with two different hypnotherapists. I tried a suggestion in an article for people like me—during turbulence, I breathed deeply and bounced in my seat. Given the looks I got from fellow passengers, I guess not that many people like me had read that article. I took two fearful flyer classes, one at LaGuardia Airport in New York, another at a tiny airport in Iowa. Both involved listening to pilots and mechanics talk about how safe flying was, sitting on a grounded plane while breathing and telling our muscles to relax, and taking a graduation flight. (You realize while flying over Iowa that you could land just about anywhere, which lowers the stakes.) Didn’t make a dent.
This is Your Body Talking
I don’t remember how I heard about the woman who finally guided me to repair. Margaret was a chiropractor with an office in a tiny Iowa town. Yeah, “sparkling blue eyes” is a cliché, but she had them. Middle-aged, fit, funny. She called this part of her work “educational kinesiology.” During the session, we talked about my fear and any ideas I might have about its source. Then she’d ask me questions based on that conversation and do muscle testing to see if we were heading in the right direction. (If you’ve never done muscle testing, it assumes that your body knows the truth even when your conscious mind is pulling a fast one. Stick an arm straight out to the side, ask a question, and if it’s false, the tester can easily push your arm down. The same arm, under the same pressure, stays solid if it’s true. It’s supposedly a subtle thing to learn, and harder to do on yourself.)
While talking with Margaret, I noted that the childhood airplane nightmares went back to when I was around seven years old. OK, what happened then? Those were the years of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs. All of a sudden we had Cuban refugee kids in our class; we didn’t know Spanish, they didn’t know English, but you could tell they were scared. For those of us kids who could understand the news, it was too easy to overhear news reports about the threat of World War III. For several years, any large plane I saw flying overhead was, to me, a potential Russian bomber. (It didn’t help that Sister Adalgisa told us the Russians were going to bomb us because they were godless atheists who hated Catholic children and we had to be ready to die for our faith.) Sometimes I’d vomit from fear. Nope, that wasn’t it, said the muscle test.
OK, maybe it was because my Uncle Alois lifted me over his head once and I was so frightened I cried. Wrong again. I’m afraid of heights—is that why? No.
We went on like this for two hours, with Margaret taking notes and with me drinking a lot of water. Was I a downed pilot in a previous life? Maybe a kamikaze? My arm said no. Well..hmmm…around first grade the nuns in Catholic school started preparing us for our first confession and communion, since the Church considered age seven to be the “age of reason.” Did it have something to do with that? My arm stayed solid.
I went on, telling Margaret how at seven we were instructed that we were capable of committing sins and going to hell for them. (yeah, you could go to confession, but you have to make sure it meets sincerity standards in order to be a valid confession, and even then you still get time in Purgatory. And what if you die before you get there?) Thanks to The Baltimore Catechism, which we had to memorize verbatim, our brainpans could serve up heaping stacks of questions and answers on the fine points of these sins and their eternal consequences. Even as a little kid, I was convinced I was guilty of something major.
We Have Lift-Off!
Now Margaret and I were getting somewhere, according to my arm.
Finally we locked on. What does it take to fly into the air? Margaret asked.
Finally we locked on. What does it take to fly into the air? Margaret asked. Purity of soul, I answered. Something I had never believed I had. My arm stayed rigid. It didn’t matter that I’d rejected that religion’s obsessive mores decades before; they were lodged in my body like a parasite, and they said I wasn’t pure enough to fly.
Margaret and I laughed out loud at our find. She said, “You can always tell the Catholics, even if they don’t tell you outright.” Through this kinesiology process, she said, you can identify “dysfunctional junk learning” that your body has picked up, especially in harmful environments. (Which pretty much describes the Catholic school curriculum back then.)
The rest took just a few minutes. Margaret had me repeat phrases about safety and acceptance while she tapped on several meridians to balance me. She asked my body a few more questions about how I could soak in this new belief—I was supposed to wear a ring on a particular finger for several weeks, which I did. (If this sounds wacky, bear in mind that flying virgins and their houses were keeping me from enjoying travel.)
I left her office hopeful that it would work, which was also how I had left the hypnotists and the fearful flying classes. I couldn’t imagine how recalling these stories and tapping on my body could alter feelings and physical responses that were so long-standing and paralyzing. I had a flight coming up in a few weeks, and I’d promised Margaret I’d let her know what happened.
Before, during, and after that first flight post-Margaret, I didn’t feel so much pacified or in control of myself—I felt rewired. I noted that difference but expected it to fade, as the mitigating effects of the other methods had. But it didn’t.
Fifteen years and a lot of impurity later, I’m comfortable before a flight, and don’t spend days agonizing over travel. I still don’t like turbulence; I might order a glass of wine or take a med if the flight stays rough. But I actually enjoy the feeling of take-off and of looking out the window. I can sleep on a plane and I can sleep at my destination without jolting awake and listening for jet engines. The normalcy of which seems as weird to me as believing in flying virgins.
And that raises the question–what kinds of destructive beliefs are we carrying around in our minds and bodies that we can’t even identify? How do they make us act, or keep us from acting?