‘I didn’t want to become alcohol-dependent to board a flight’: Violinist reveals how a world tour with a rock group forced her to face an acute fear of flying
- Musician Fiona Brice reveals a tour with Placebo became a terrifying prospect
- The itinerary was, not surprisingly, packed with flights – around the world
- The problem? Fiona had a fear of flying that left her ‘catatonic with anxiety’
- Here she reveals how she became scared of flying – and then unscared
- READ MORE: I’m a BA captain – and these facts will help cure your fear of flying
It seems many people struggle with flying, so I’m sharing my experiences here: how I became scared, and how I became unscared. It might make you laugh. It might help someone. It’s worth writing.
I didn’t fly much as a kid. It was the early 80s. I think a family holiday to Spain was my first experience of air travel.
My sister and I ate juicy black cherries from a paper bag throughout the flight. (I have no idea where Mum got those from. You don’t see fresh fruit stalls at Luton these days.)
We also went on a ‘once in a lifetime’ fly-drive trip around Florida when I was 13, sulky, premenstrual and too old for Disney World. I loved the Epcot Centre, though, and the immense breakfast buffets at the Marriott, cantaloupe melon and pancakes with crispy bacon, ice machines, swimming in a warm ocean… wild delights never before encountered in the Midlands.
The next time I flew was with Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra on an orchestral exchange trip to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. This was a big deal. Our Canadian friends had visited us the summer before and now it was our turn to travel. Now I was 17, I was travelling with all of my best friends and playing music, before I had any idea that this would one day become my job.
‘It seems many people struggle with flying,’ writes Fiona Brice (above), ‘so I’m sharing my experiences here: how I became scared, and how I became unscared’
The Canadian trip was amazing, performing concerts, exploring downtown Hamilton, visiting the CN Tower in Toronto, seeing the BlueJays play, gasping in awe at Niagara Falls. But things started to go wrong when we arrived at Toronto Pearson International for our return flight.
Some workers were on strike, affecting the security process. There were delays and cancellations. The airport felt chaotic, unaccommodating towards a large group of tired British teenagers laden with orchestral instruments.
Our teachers were not much used to international travel disruption and when they were told that our flight was overbooked, they had to split our group.
Two sisters happened to have Canadian passports, and it was decided they would travel on a separate flight to London. No teacher accompanied them.
The rest of us had to wait at the gate.
We were held for ages before boarding. I was one of the last people to get on the plane, feeling anxious and teary. While writing this I checked in with my still-best-friend Ben as I couldn’t recall all the details. He texted: ‘I have a very strong memory of worrying you weren’t going to make it onto the flight, and then seeing you making your way down the aisle clutching your violin crying.’
READ MORE: Inside the British Airways course for nervous flyers
One woman has avoided flying for more than 20 years. Another has a panic attack whenever she gets on a plane. Several people say they have to drink alcohol to get through a flight.
Right now, they’re sitting in a packed hotel auditorium in front of British Airways pilot Steve Allright, hoping that he – along with a psychologist – will help them overcome their extreme flying phobias for good.
I’m witnessing their progress as I join them on British Airways’ Flying with Confidence course, an intensive day-long programme designed to help people conquer their fear of flying…
To read more click here.
We couldn’t sit together because of the overbooking, and I was on my own with a couple of strangers. I remember take-off feeling a bit… quiet. Then a loud noise, and a tense atmosphere in the cabin. Finally, the pilot spoke over the PA system. ‘Well folks, you may have heard a loud bang there, and the frequent flyers among you will probably be aware that we just blew an engine on take-off. We’re going to have to circle for a while to dump fuel, then we will be returning to Toronto. Please keep your seatbelts fastened at this time.’
There was a hiatus, then a lot of stressed, whispered discussion. The flight attendant nearest to me was still strapped into her jump seat. I asked her what was happening and she reassured me, saying: ‘These things happen all the time. It’s fine. Actually, this plane is totally capable of flying on one engine.’ She sounded almost bored. I turned in my seat, searching for my friends. Do these things happen all the time? I hadn’t flown enough to know. Faces popped up over seat-backs, everyone had scared looks and wide eyes.
We accepted our new reality, circling over the North Atlantic for an indefinite period, not now going home. The woman next to me talked me through a wallet of photos from a recent trip she had taken to Alaska. I had no idea what I was looking at and my brain felt a bit numb, but I tried to respond politely. When we eventually made our final descent there were fire trucks and emergency services alongside the runway, but we touched down safely and wearily made our way back to departures to wait for a new plane.
I don’t recall how long we had to wait for the second plane and I don’t really remember the second flight. Did I sit with friends? No idea. Was it turbulent? I couldn’t say. Maybe I watched films in a daze. Perhaps I was in shock.
I remember our coach finally pulling up outside the Music School in Northampton and seeing many worried-looking parents there to collect us. A teacher must have found a way to inform them of the delay. The sisters who travelled separately had, of course, made it home before us. I didn’t fly for a while after that, but I didn’t have nightmares about it either. It became a mad thing that happened to us on the way back from an orchestra trip. A shared anecdote, a good story. A lucky escape.
A couple of years later, before heading off to London to start university, my then-boyfriend and I decided to book a holiday to Fuerteventura. I was happy about things, excited about our trip, but as I lay in the bath one morning, I remember a dark feeling sneaking over me. I couldn’t imagine us arriving safely. I felt something was bound to go wrong. And darker than that, I felt that it would indeed go wrong because I didn’t deserve to be so happy. Inevitably the plane would crash.
Actually, the worst thing that happened to me on that trip was explosive diarrhoea from some dodgy chicken. That and realising that my boyfriend was a bit of a nerd. I don’t remember the flights, but he had travelled far more than me and would no doubt have assured me it was all fine.
‘Every time I had to fly it felt like I was engaging in an extreme sport against my will,’ admits Fiona
In 1994 I moved to London to start university and discovered that life was great. New freedom and new friends in a buzzing, invigorating city. I started playing in bands. After university those bands got bigger and started to tour in Europe, driving around in badly maintained splitter vans, staying in budget hotels. It was all good. Performing with Dream City Film Club, Tram and then Jack in France, Belgium, Germany… amazing times, learning my trade, building my stage experience.
Then flights got cheap. EasyJet was in its infancy and now it was affordable to fly for one-off gigs in Spain or Italy. I was doing session and TV promo work by this point too, so there was more and more travel. Always the bleary early morning flights, always hungover on the way home, possibly also the way there. I started to feel real anxiety in airports. My (mostly male) colleagues’ solution was always to take me straight to the bar. I’d have a drink or two but I’d still be very fearful on the flight. Friends started to realise that I was ‘that one who was scared of flying’. I didn’t feel good about any of it, I just dealt with it the best I could.
Every time I had to fly it felt like I was engaging in an extreme sport against my will. Making my way down the aisle clutching my violin crying, as Ben put it, was now common. On one BA flight I was in such a state of panic that I got up out of my seat and started off towards the cabin door as the plane taxied to the runway. A flight attendant tried to calm me down, moving me into the quiet, half-empty business cabin just for take-off, and talking me through everything that was happening. I was acutely embarrassed and very grateful for her help.
Things finally came to a head on a trip to Spain with singer-songwriter Anthony Reynolds. I spent several days before the gig curled up in bed, catatonic with anxiety about the forthcoming flight. I managed to get a doctor’s appointment. He prescribed diazepam and told me to take one tablet before going to bed, and another when I woke up, but because it was a cheap dawn flight that dosage was far, far too strong and it completely messed me up.
I was violently sick in the toilets at Stansted. I have a vague memory of buying Mojo magazine and staring at it for the entire flight. I don’t remember arriving, or checking in to my hotel room.
I woke up on a hotel bed fully clothed with a lanyard around my neck (admittedly not the first or last time this has happened, although usually more fun has been had).
‘Things finally came to a head on a trip to Spain with singer-songwriter Anthony Reynolds,’ writes Fiona (above). ‘spent several days before the gig curled up in bed, catatonic with anxiety about the forthcoming flight’
I only really regained consciousness during soundcheck. I could barely function. I managed to perform and we flew home again early the next morning but I felt rough for several days.
This clearly wasn’t the answer. I gave the rest of the pills to Anthony and went back to the wine approach.
A glass or two at the airport, a glass on the flight. It became my routine. It helped me to board, but I was still experiencing serious stress and anxiety throughout the journey.
It was impossible to relax. Every mechanical noise seemed amplified, laden with doom. My breathing was shallow, my body was tense. No matter what I tried to do to distract myself, I couldn’t shake it. I was always in the grip of terror until we landed.
I wasn’t earning much back then and I rarely flew for holidays. It was always for work, and it was an effort trying to hide my fear in front of new colleagues or unsympathetic tour managers who didn’t need a ‘hysterical violinist’ in their party.
I hid everything as much as possible, for years. I knew nothing about mindfulness, or breathing exercises, or phobias in general. But when I got the call to join Placebo on a world tour, my genuine first thought was ‘how am I going to survive all of the flights?’
I had to take action.
When Fiona saw the itinerary for her world tour with Placebo (a section of it is pictured above) – she knew she had to take action to cure her fear of flying
This was a dream gig and I wanted to actually enjoy it. I didn’t want to become one of those people who identify themselves by their phobia, where it becomes part of their personality, giving them permission to not do anything and not go anywhere.
I also didn’t want to become a nervous wreck, or completely alcohol-dependent. I sought help from a hypnotherapist in Kentish Town [in London] who specialised in treating phobias. I did a few sessions with her.
I never felt I was ‘fully under’ and wasn’t sure whether anything was working or not, but in talking to her I did identify that my main issue with flying was not the fear of being in the plane, or a fear of heights. Nor was it the fear that it would randomly drop out of the sky.
My fear was based around the fact that I was not in control of the situation. I’m aware that not everyone experiences fear of flying for the same reason, but this was definitely the core of it for me. And let’s face it, I wasn’t in control. I’m not a pilot. I wasn’t even booking the flights myself. I wasn’t choosing the travel time, or the seat, or even the destination.
I just wanted to be a touring musician and flying was an essential part of my job.
Fiona writes: ‘I just wanted to be a touring musician – and flying was an essential part of my job’
Alongside other practical techniques like EFT tapping, the hypnotherapist suggested that every time I stepped from the airbridge into the cabin I should repeat to myself ‘I choose to go’.
This became my silent mantra for the next few months of flying. I still had a glass of wine, and still felt apprehensive on boarding, but I was beginning to understand my feelings a little bit better.
I wanted to travel. I wanted to perform. I read books on phobias, and learnt a few basics about ‘how planes work’.
I talked to my colleagues and remember lead singer Brian Molko telling me he also experienced anxiety when flying.
He said: ‘I hate flying, but I love arriving.’ This has stayed with me, alongside my own mantra.
Talking to experienced fliers really helped. A few crew members said that they were mostly fine with flying but that they occasionally experienced periods of anxiety, which often had more to do with other things going on in their lives than the flight itself.
The personal things they were flying away from, or towards.
As it turned out, touring the world was a baptism of fire for my phobia. It simply couldn’t handle the pace. We were flying so much it actually started to feel… normal.
I created new habits, which included listening to a meditation practice just prior to take-off (always the same meditation), and I carried a roll-on essential oil to rub on my wrists, which sounds like a daft thing, but the comforting scent reminded me to breathe deeply and relax. Repeat behaviours do have an impact over time. The fear silently started to subside.
And now, over a decade of world touring later, countless transatlantic crossings, many nine-seater private jet flights (luxurious when it’s smooth, definitely scary when it’s turbulent), jaded old Russian passenger planes, even the odd helicopter or two (admittedly I struggle with those a bit!) I can now say that I am pretty comfortable with flying. I have experienced flights during dramatic thunderstorms, sudden drops through clear air turbulence, a couple of aborted landings and plenty of delays and cancellations, but I don’t even need a glass of wine or a meditation podcast to board a plane anymore.
I do still carry a roll-on essential oil, but I think I just like the smell now. Yes, I do occasionally experience a little bit of anxiety, which I think is totally understandable when entering a giant metal tube, but it’s a ‘normal’ level of apprehension, and nothing compared to the terror I once felt.
I realise that a rock ‘n’ roll world tour is an extreme solution to combatting a fear, and is sadly not available on the NHS, but I have learnt that fear can be diminished if you tackle it, and understanding the root cause of that fear can take away a lot of its power.
Hypnotherapy might not work for everyone, but something will work.
Looking back now, I’m sure that that Canada flight had a deep psychological impact and planted a seed of trauma, which manifested as morbid feelings associated with flight.
‘If I had succumbed to my phobia, I am sure it would eventually have cost me my career,’ says Fiona
Returning now to that dark thought that I didn’t deserve happiness, that adventure had to come at a cost, I recognise that I was also about to leave home for the first time. A time of big change. Perhaps it was not surprising that I was experiencing fear, and that fear was associated with a lack of control of the future, flying into the unknown.
If I had succumbed to my phobia, I am sure it would eventually have cost me my career.
I’m extremely grateful that I no longer feel this way because I love my work, I absolutely love to tour, and I would have missed out on so many life-nourishing experiences.
All those eye-opening firsts, those wonderful nights in far-flung places, from those first black cherries to my first performance with Placebo in Cambodia, to learning yoga in Thailand, up to my most recent holiday in Lisbon, I would have missed it all.
It is a privilege and an inspiration to travel and especially to perform music on stages across the world, to experience other cultures, climates and cuisines. I will always choose to go.
For more from Fiona visit fionabrice.com and her Linktree site. This article is an edited version of a story first published on Fiona’s Substack page.
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