"no more fat strap"

fear of flying

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I like to travel by airplane. It's more than just the speed, I actually like flying. I like looking down, like feeling the aerodynamics of flight, like landing and taking off. It's all cool. I have enjoyed flying since I was a young boy, we travelled a lot by air when I was young. My parents would dispute that assertion because there is a parental legend about a flight during which I screamed my head off in terror. I remember the flight, I had been watching cartoons the morning we left in which the airplanes were flying upside-down. I kept looking at the ceiling of the cabin and calculating how hard I would hit my head when we flipped over, but such are the fantasies of youth.

As my weight crept up in my late twenties and thirties flying became much more of a mixed experience. Airplane seats were uncomfortable, but so were theatre and stadium seats, that wasn't so much the problem as flying required that I make a complete stranger very uncomfortable when I sat next to them. Making someone else uncomfortable makes me *very* uncomfortable.

As my weight got really high, that discomfort was eclipsed by physical discomfort and injury. Flying more than a couple of hours would result in large bruises on the outside of my thighs from the armrests. If I had to fly twice in a couple of days it became so painful that I would pre-medicate myself before a flight, taking a narcotic pain reliever just to be able to bear up under the pain.

Then, there's the emotional pain. When I was walking down the aisle to get to my seat, people would look at me in horror wondering if I was going to sit next to them. Sighs of relief were sometimes audible as I walked by to the seats behind. I began intentionally booking seats at the back of the plane, and intentionally planning vacations to fly in the middle of the day in the middle of the week to maximize my chance of being on a less-than-full flight.

I began refusing middle seats. On a number of occasions I paid the $150 change fee and booked a last-minute hotel room when I could not get an aisle seat on on my return flight. I would willingly part with $250-$300 dollars, make people mad at work, and change all of my plans to avoid the middle seat.

Again, this is not because the middle seat is any more physically uncomfortable than the aisle seat, it was because I would be making *two* strangers uncomfortable during the flight. I just couldn't face that. I have not flown in a middle seat my entire adult life. I just couldn't face sitting for hours with unhappy people next to me. I went to great lengths to avoid that fate, and I would have walked off a plane during boarding rather than sit in the middle seat. Again, I drew this line not for my own physical comfort, but for my emotional comfort. I did not want to "impose" my fatness on others.

I became expert at the subtle request for a seat-belt extension. If you want to know, the time to ask is after the pre-flight safety demonstrations by the flight attendants, they have the extension in their hands, they don't need it any longer, and they are happy to drop it into your hands as they walk down the aisle to their jump-seats in the back. Usually, all I have to do is extend a palm indicating that I wanted it. One glance at me informed them well enough what it was that I wanted.

Still, even with my smooth-as-silk methods for getting the seat-belt extension it was embarrassing to have to ask for it and it hurt having to use it. The extra buckle would pinch my abdomen on one side, and it was a reminder that I don't fit in this world. Using it also disqualified me from sitting in the exit row of commercial aircraft (with all the extra leg-room in that row, which I surely needed).

Don't even ask about the tray table. It remained in the upright and locked position at all times. I could only use a tray table when there was an open seat next to me. Many, many times I refused in-flight food and beverage service because I lacked a place to put anything down. Sometimes some kind soul who had the misfortune of sitting next to me would offer to share their tray table, but I just couldn't do it, preferring to let them think I really didn't want anything to eat or drink. That was mortifyingly embarrassing.

This photograph is of me. It is famous on the Internet, having been used multiple times by blogs and media organizations, often with the headline "Too Fat to Fly?" This was taken on a flight on American Airlines, leaving SFO in San Francisco, and it was taken during the last part of the boarding process, presumably by a flight attendant with her cell phone. There was a flight attendant on this flight who was so very rude and cold to me that I remember her to this day, it would surprise me if she wasn't the culprit. It was taken in July of 2006, I weighed about 425 pounds at the time, coincidentally 100 pounds more than I weigh at this writing.

I was sitting on the armrest of the aisle seat, waiting to find out if I could move to the row behind me, which was open. The seats in that row behind me were assigned to three passengers who were on a connecting flight, which was arriving late, and no one was sure if they were going to make it on time for this flight. I was asked to wait to move until a decision was made whether or not to leave the gate without these late connecting passengers.

I was sitting on the armrest to ease the discomfort of the gentleman in the middle seat. He was very nice, but a little portly, so we were pretty smashed up against one another if I sat down. The plane was also warm, it was a hot day and the AC was not quite up to the task at the gate.

The suggestion by all the media organizations and blogs who used this photo was that I was some 8 foot tall 700 pound behemoth who apparently just was completely oblivious to the fact that I am too fat to fly, consequences be damned. The hatred expressed was truly astonishing. It's instructive that so little attention is paid to the details of the photo. It doesn't take much study to realize I am not sitting in the seat, for example, but that's neither here nor there. Rational discussion is not the point of all that.

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My surgeon is a man of modest physical stature, clearly without an obesity problem of his own. I have to hand it to him, though, he has gone to great lengths to understand the challenges his patients face, as well as understanding the challenges he faces as their surgeon. There's no better evidence of that than the video embedded to the left here, a promotional educational piece he created and posted to YouTube, which inspired this essay.

I don't know how he knows what a horror it is to fly as an obese person. It is certainly not a product of *his* personal experience. Few people in my life, even those who love me dearly and care for my comfort, really see how I struggle with things like this. It is truly touching that he understands this, and if I were pre-surgical and looking for a surgeon, this video would be a very persuasive argument that he might be the right surgeon for me.

Seeing this video made my notice how much the experience of flying has improved in my own life as the result of my loss of about 80 pounds at this writing. I enjoy flying now, the trepidation and dread has completely disappeared.

I no longer fear the middle seat, now I simply loathe it about as much as anyone else does. I can sit there without touching the passengers to the right and left. I don't want a middle seat, but I won't be spending any money or changing plans in order to avoid it any longer. It will just be a minor bummer if I end up in one.

I no longer need a seat-belt extension. I can buckle the seat-belt easily, and I even have to pull it tighter from it's maximum length now so that it fits snugly around the waist. No more embarrassing requests for the "fat strap."

I can sit in the exit row. I did just that on a flight from Texas to New York recently. It was fantastic. This is one of the many, many joys of not being freakishly obese anymore. Now I'm just obese. It's so much better to just be obese! How many more of life's little joys will I notice in the upcoming months?

I've lost my fear of flying! Now for the zipless....

next - six months