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Flying Without Visibility: Coping When You Can’t See the Path Ahead

November 10, 2020 – 5 min read

By Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., Former AFSP Vice President of Mission Engagement

Doreen Marshall, Ph.D. Vice President of Mission Engagement

It’s been a challenging time, and now that we are in the midst of winter, with less sunlight, many of us are still contending with a feeling of uncertainty in the year 2021. Many of us still feel overwhelmed, knowing that while we may have built some new resiliency strategies over the past year, the months ahead may require more from us, for a longer period of time. We may feel sad, frustrated or scared by this.

My own journey has been much the same. While I am grateful when I see signs of hope and resilience around me -- the kindness of strangers, the loving support of friends—I have to admit that I am tired of having to look for signs to reassure and steady myself. I have personally experienced great losses this year, and my winter involved holidays without several people whom I love, and our usual traditions.  And even with this, I know from my worst experiences that difficult moments pass, even when we can’t see a clear path ahead.

During uncertain times, I often have to remind myself that I have lived through difficult things. Occasionally, I have even emerged from those experiences, though battle-weary, with new self-understanding and skills. Throughout my life, therapy has often been a necessary tool for me. It has helped me understand that I am often at my best when I don’t know what the future holds, and that while I prefer to know how things will turn out, I am pretty good at improvisation when life is uncertain. I have surprised myself with my ability to adapt and remain flexible about what will happen, rather than dwelling on the possibility of a negative outcome, which does nothing to reassure my anxious mind.

When times are uncertain – or even scary – like they are for many of us now, I am reminded  of how, even when I am afraid, I can still do things that feel difficult, especially if I engage the resources around me to help keep my fear in check. In part, this also helps me to manage the ambiguity of uncertain times, especially those where I have limited control beyond my own actions.

I am reminded of this when I think about working through my fear of flying. This has gotten much better for me over the years, courtesy of my having to travel frequently, and some terrific cognitive-behavioral therapy. My fear was always particularly intense anytime I glanced out the plane’s window, especially if there was a storm on the horizon. I would do anything I could to avoid having a window seat, because looking out, especially if it was dark and I couldn’t see far ahead, triggered all sorts of doom-related scenarios that at the time felt certain to me. Eventually, I realized that most of the scenarios that played out in my mind were far worse than anything that actually happened or was likely to happen.

When you receive treatment for fear of flying, they confront you with facts about flying as a way of challenging your anxious beliefs. One of the things I learned was that when commercial pilots fly into storms or have poor visibility, they are trained to rely on their plane’s instruments to land the plane safely. They don’t need to be able to “see” when there is poor visibility, because their training and their tools keep them on course and safe.  

More than once, “flying without visibility” has proven to be a metaphor for my life. Not being able to see what lies ahead doesn’t mean I won’t have the tools – or can’t gain the tools – to successfully navigate.

While none of us know exactly what lies ahead right now, we can take some comfort in knowing we have gained some tools over the past few months that have helped us. Focus on what you can control. Do what helps you feel a sense of safety. Spend time outside, even if you’re avoiding crowds. Engage in mindfulness activities, such as deep breathing, meditating or focused relaxation. (You can learn more on   Reach out if you need more support.   

Many of us have experienced loss of one kind or another this past year, and we have coped with the unimaginable, and endured. The one thing I know for sure about grief is that it changes, both in intensity and quality. Don’t resist the change: it doesn’t mean you are forgetting your loved one, as much as acclimating to a new relationship – one with memories and connections that will be alive as long as you are. You may also find that you are not alone when sharing your feelings of loss, and may learn to find new ways (and perhaps new people) with whom to share your grief. In grief support, we collectively bear witness to each other’s struggles, and say, “I’m here. We are in this together. Let’s keep going.”

As you continue on into this year, please know that help and support are available for you when you need it. Reach out to a mental health provider (telehealth is available), call a helpline, and stay connected to those around you, especially when it feels hard.

Here are some resources you may find helpful:

Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Free and confidential support for people in distress, 24/7.

Crisis Text LineText TALK to 741741

Disaster Distress Helpline1-800-985-5990
Immediate crisis counseling related to disasters, 24/7.

Finding a mental health professional

Mental health resources for underrepresented communities

The Trevor Project
TrevorLifeline: Available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386
TrevorText: Text TREVOR to 1-202-304-1200
TrevorChat: Via

Trans Lifeline1-877-565-8860
Support for transgender people, by transgender people

The National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network

The LGBT National Hotline1-888-843-4564
Peer support and local resources for all ages

The Loveland Foundation
Financial support for therapy for Black women and girls

Inclusive Therapists
Connects all people, especially those of marginalized populations, with cultural licensed online therapist

Melanin and Mental Health
Connects individuals with culturally competent clinicians committed to serving the needs of Black & Latinx/Hispanic communities

Therapy for Black Men
A directory to help men of color in their search for a therapist