Strapping on my helmet, I clicked the parasail harness around my waist, double checked the safety harnesses, adjusted my goggles and, standing on the back of the boat, gave the thumbs up to the captain.
He sped off, and within seconds, I was thrown up into the air under the canopy of the sail, enjoying the amazing view of the sea in Mumbai, India. I loved the feeling of flying, even if it was only 50 to 100 metres.
I was 10 years old and wanted to enjoy my holiday as much as I could because the next day I would be returning to Dubai.
After a brilliant vacation, we boarded the flight back to the UAE. I was relaxed, sitting next to my dad, Minoroosh Patel, and mum, Karishma. Everything was going fine until the cabin crew served our meals. For some reason, the smell of the food made me feel sick and before I could even grab a sick bag, I threw up all over myself.
It was extremely embarrassing for me because passengers all around began staring. To make matters worse, as soon as I cleaned myself up, I started feeling sick again.
“Just rest and you’ll feel better,’’ my father said, and I tried but the feeling of nausea didn’t go away. I hated every moment of the rest of the flight. I was anxious, scared and very embarrassed because I was convinced all the passengers were talking about my sickness.
Along with the embarrassment was the stench. It seemed to cling to everything – my clothes, the seat, even the blanket the kind cabin crew offered me – stayed in my mind all through the flight.
Back in the UAE, I soon forgot about it though and became busy with my school and studies until it was time for our next vacation.
The moment we began packing for our next trip to India, I became extremely anxious, nervous and scared. Although it sounded silly, I told my mother I could not go.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “You’ll be fine. We’re there with you.’’ But as the day of our departure grew closer, I began to feel very scared, even developing a fever.
It took a lot of coaxing and cajoling by my parents to get me on the flight where again I was sick as soon as I smelled the airline food that was being served. The scene repeated itself when it was time to return to the UAE and I vowed never to fly again.
“Hopefully Rohan’s fear of flying will get better as he grows up,’’ I heard my mother tell my father when we arrived back. But my condition only grew worse. In fact a year later, I became so petrified of flying when my dad mentioned our vacation plans, that my family had to cancel the trip.
I dreaded flights and although I enjoyed seeing new places, I was too scared by the idea of travelling by plane. We did not fly for the next three years.
But in May last year, my dad, a businessman, made a surprise announcement. “We are going to the US for a month on holiday,’’ he said, excited. “We’ll be flying to New York.’’ My mother, who works in an ad agency, was thrilled but the moment I heard the word ‘flying’, a sense of unease washed over me.
Seeing my face, she hugged me. “Don’t worry, it’s been so many years since you’ve travelled and your fear of flying will be gone by now,’’ she said.
Thoughts of my last flight when I was sick and afraid all through the journey began to cloud my mind. Much as I wanted to visit the US, I did not want to go by air. “Do we have to fly?” I asked. “Can’t we go by ship?”
“Oh, no,” my dad said. “Don’t worry, you’ll enjoy the trip and there’s nothing to be scared of.”
But as the day of departure neared, I began to feel extremely uncomfortable. The same feeling of anxiety and nervousness began to overwhelm me.
I was scared but could not put my finger on the reason. It was not that I was afraid of enclosed places or scared that the plane would crash… there was just something about flying that troubled me, but I wasn’t sure what it was really.
Then two days before we were to leave, I fell ill and started throwing up for no apparent reason. I was weak, began sweating and couldn’t bear to eat anything. I also began to experience bouts of dizziness with fear.
Although I told my parents about my feelings, they were sure that once I was in the aircraft I would be fine. On the day of our departure, my condition worsened and when we reached the airport lounge I started to feel extremely panicky, finally collapsing and passing out. It was a terrible feeling: I began to feel weak and my legs turned to jelly, my palms were clammy and I felt a cold fear enveloping me before everything went black.
When I came to, I found myself in the airport lounge with my family looking down at me, worried.
“Do you think we should go to a doctor?” my father asked. My mother bent down to hug me. “Are you OK, darling?” she said, anxious.
“I’m… very, very scared to get on the plane,” I confessed. .
“You don’t have to worry,” my father tried consoling me. “Thousands of people fly every day and nothing happens to them.”
My mother offered words of encouragement: “You are so adventurous, you love parasailing. Flying is safer than parasailing. Don’t worry nothing will happen,’’ she said.
But when our flight was announced, nervousness overcame me once again and I began trembling and almost broke down.
Finally, my father decided to carry me into the aircraft because I was frozen with fear.
Inside the aircraft, I was a wreck. I was trembling and terrified from the moment I fastened my seat belt.
I wanted to leave the aircraft because I was sure I’d embarrass myself once again by throwing up.
My dad, who was next to me, tried to comfort me by joking and talking about the places we would be visiting. But I could not think of anything because I was just too scared.
Seeing me look so pale and uncomfortable, a member of the cabin crew offered me a blanket, but I was terrified to touch it. For some reason, I thought it smelt odd and I began to vomit again.
“Would you like to listen to some music? It might help you calm down,’’ my father suggested, handing me a set of headphones. But again, I was petrified to even touch them. The sight of it triggered nausea in me.
The 12 hours I spent on that flight was one of the worst times of my life and I kept hoping the journey would end soon. But the moment the flight landed and I got off the plane, I was fine. All the way through the airport, I chatted to my family, and couldn’t wait to see the sights of New York.
However, the panic and anxiety set in when it was time to return to the UAE. This time it was even more severe – I was trembling, terrified, when it was time to board the flight.
Coupled with all of this was the embarrassment of breaking down in front of all the other passengers at the departure lounge.
My parents were at a loss because they couldn’t figure out why I was so scared of flying and what made me become such an emotional wreck when it was time to travel.
To compound their worries, I couldn’t give them any logical explanation for my irrational fear.
Back in Dubai, it soon became apparent that I would never be able to go on a family holiday again if it meant flying.
One of the worst things about my irrational fear was that I couldn’t enjoy the various opportunities that my school offered.
“Hey Rohan, you must join us on our trip to Africa,’’ one of my friends said when the school announced an excursion. “It’ll be fun.”
But I refused. I couldn’t bear for anyone to see me being sick and panicky on the flight. I was sure they would be shocked by my behaviour and I was too ashamed to tell anyone the truth.
They knew me as Rohan, the guy who was up for trying anything, and I didn’t want them to know the secret me that was out of control.
“No, I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it,” I said. “My family is planning a trip elsewhere and I have to go with them.’’
Then one day in late June last year, my mother was flicking through an old issue of Friday when she saw an article about how a hypnotherapist in Dubai had helped a young boy named Hamid who was obese lose weight.
She showed me the feature and suggested I read it. “I think hypnotherapy might be able to cure your fear of flying,’’ she said. I was very sceptical. I felt that because there was no logical reason for my fear, my condition had no cure.
“I don’t think anybody can hypnotise me,’’ I told my mum. “I’m too sceptical.’’She smiled.
“There’s no harm in giving it a try, Rohan,’’ she said. “I’ll make an appointment with Russell Hemmings, the hypnotherapist.’’
Not wanting to disappoint her, I agreed to go along. But I was sure it wouldn’t work and that I’d be stuck with this fear of flying.
My dad and I met Russell in July last year at Russell’s clinic in Dubai.
From the very first meeting, Russell put me at ease and helped me understand what was happening.
It seemed ridiculous that while I could cheerfully strap myself into a parachute and become airborne, I was terrified of being on a plane.
The minute I started telling Russell about my experiences, he knew exactly what I was talking about.
He did not judge me in any way and began the therapy by first calming me down and telling me that it was not unusual to have such fears.
That was a huge help – to know that there are many others who could be having symptoms similar to mine.
He hypnotised me in the very first session and through a therapy called socratic questioning – asking a series of probing questions – was able to identify the root cause of the problem. I told him about all the times I flew right back to the time I threw up while on a flight from Mumbai back to the UAE.
Russell then asked me questions about that particular flying episode.
Finally, after the session, he called my parents into the room and briefed them about my condition.
“Rohan’s condition began on that flight when he got the smell of food and threw up all over himself,’’ Russell said. “It made him feel extremely embarrassed and led to a condition called emetophobia – a fear of getting sick in a confined area.
“He does not have a fear of flying as you all believed. That incident on the plane left him extremely embarrassed – so much so that the moment he sees or hears anything related to flying, he becomes anxious and afraid that he might end up embarrassing himself by throwing up in public again.
“So his mind tries to avoid getting into such situations and triggers emotions including fear, to make him stay away from such situations.
“Some people have very strong visual systems – things they have seen can trigger old memories.
“Some have strong auditory systems – where the mind brings back memories associated with particular sounds when they experience the same sound again.
“Some have a strong tactile system as in things like maybe a teddy bear or a particular dress that they hold or touch can bring back memories.
“In Rohan’s case, he has a strong dominant olfactory system. Scents or smells can trigger memories, which can be either good or bad depending on the situation he experienced the scents in,’’ explained Russell.
Apparently, in my case, the smell of an airport, aircraft and the in-flight food were bringing back memories of that horrifying time when I threw up while flying.
“The brain sometimes makes powerful connections as a method of protecting the body,” Russell explained to me and my parents. “In your mind, it was the smell of food that made you sick, and the impulse to run away or avoid such situations kicked in every time you experienced the smell.”
And realising that I would experience the smell of food in the aircraft, my brain was apparently triggering feelings of fear and anxiety from the moment I started preparing for a trip.
Once Russell pinned down the root cause, he was able to achieve something even more remarkable using hypnotherapy techniques.
He told me that in order to cure me, he would have to break the connection between the smell of the food and the sickness.
During one session, he asked me what my favourite smell is. “I have an aftershave and I love its scent,’’ I told him.
“Bring that along when you come for your next session,’’ Russell said.
After first making me smell the aftershave for some time, he hypnotised me and made me regress – where in my mind I go back to a particular period in life – to the time just before I entered the aircraft when I had the bad flying episode. Then, employing a method called replacement therapy, he hypnotically ‘swapped’ the smell of vomit in my mind with the odour of the nice-smelling aftershave.
“Henceforth, whenever you step on a plane, the smell of your favourite aftershave will be what you’ll get,” he told me, later.
Being hypnotised by Russell was a wonderful feeling and not how I imagined at all.
It’s not scary one bit, it’s a really pleasant feeling of total relaxation. You are always fully aware of everything that is happening. It’s just like being in a wonderful daydream and you end up feeling refreshed and positive.
After just the second session, I was more open to the idea of getting on a plane.
In the final two sessions of a programme of four, alongside the hypnotherapy, Russell taught me a range of strategies and techniques to help me cope with fear if I experienced it at any time.
One of the things he taught me was a breathing technique where you take a deep breath slowly, hold the breath for eight counts and then release it slowly. He told me to do this whenever I was experiencing a panic or fear.
That, among other stress-relieving techniques, helped me bring my fear totally under my control.
The ultimate test of the programme was if I could fly without fear.
In October last year, straight after the therapy session, my family and I left for the airport to go to India and I had no worries or concerns.
Even at the airport I was fine. However, when I stepped on the plane I could sense some of those old feelings coming to the surface again.
Straight away, I began putting into practice some of the exercises Russell had taught me and I quickly managed to regain some control over the situation.
The strangest thing was while I was aboard the flight, whenever the food was served, all I could smell was my aftershave, which was so pleasant and soothing.
It was astonishing. While Russell had said that was what would happen, for me to experience it was completely mind-blowing.
I even managed to eat a meal on the plane for the very first time after five years of terror.
Since then, I’ve flown several times to India with my family. While I am overjoyed, my family is completely relieved at my transformation.
One of my dreams is to travel and see as much of the world as possible, and when I began to have these panic attacks before flying, I almost gave up on realising my dream. But now I can. And it’s unbelievable. I am still amazed by how hypnotherapy changed my life.
Student Rohan Patel, 15, Dubai, UAE.