How a Seventh-Century Irish Princess Got Me Back On a Plane

To overcome my fear of air travel, I turned to Saint Dymphna

A woman's hands holding a picture of a saint.
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

This past spring, I did something I thought I might never do again: I got on an airplane. The last decade had been filled with a dread of flying so intense that even watching a character in a movie board a plane made me feel queasy. I knew my fear of crashing was unreasonable, but I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

It was a 2009 flight to Paris that made me swear off airplanes altogether. My husband and I were on our honeymoon, and I was buoyed by the intense romance of it all. But, as I dissolved one tablet of benzodiazepines and then another under my tongue, my fear ballooned. Every little jolt seemed like the precursor to a crash; I kept scanning the flight attendants’ faces, sure I could decipher expressions of panic. I sobbed until the drugs finally kicked in, somewhere over the Atlantic. At the end of our week in Paris, I took the maximum dose of pills and forced myself to get on the plane home. I wept with relief when we landed in Montreal.

I spent the next few years using creative workarounds to avoid flying. My limitations often frustrated me; I missed family weddings, important conferences, and other events that I couldn’t reach by train or car.

Seeing photos of friends jetting off on adventures gave me pangs of envy. I wanted so badly to be the kind of person who could casually fly somewhere new, but the more time elapsed since my last flight, the larger my fear loomed. I wasn’t even sure what I was afraid of anymore—it wasn’t crashing, exactly, or death, although those were the twin seeds out of which my anxiety had grown. It was more the thought of being back in that full-body terror, trapped hour after excruciating hour until the plane landed. Fear of fear itself—maybe of myself, of my unpredictable reactions—was its own particular hell. I made peace with the fact that I didn’t fly.

Then, at the beginning of May, I began working on a project about Saint Dymphna, a seventh-century Irish princess. After the death of Dymphna’s mother, her widowed father became obsessed with marrying her. Dymphna, still a teenager, fled to present-day Belgium. Her father pursued her to the town of Geel and beheaded her. According to one version of the legend, several people who had witnessed her death were miraculously cured of their mental-health problems. Over time, Dymphna became known as the patron saint of mental illness. Her shrine is now a popular site for pilgrimages, and Geel has gained international recognition for its radical mental-health programs.

Dymphna’s story touches on so many of my interests: women’s history, medieval saints, psychiatry. For years, especially after my own struggles with Canada’s fractured mental-health system, I’ve been obsessed with her life and legacy. When a magazine offered to pay for a trip to Geel to write about Dymphna, I was ecstatic. But even as I booked my tickets, I felt panicky about boarding the plane.

As my departure date drew nearer, I started thinking that, if anyone could cure my anxiety, it was Dymphna. Although I framed it as a joke, I bought into it on some level. Years of trying to reason my way through my phobia hadn’t worked. I was willing to try the supernatural.

I tucked a Saint Dymphna prayer card into my wallet and read it so often that, soon, I could recite it from memory. Praying, I discovered, is a bit like meditation: eventually, you fall into a rhythm. Once I was in my seat, I closed my eyes and began repeating the prayer; as we took off, I opened them and watched the landscape dwindle beneath us. I felt fine.

The first place I went in Geel was Dymphna’s church, where I lit a candle in thanks. I spent the rest of my time there in a euphoric haze. Four days later, I boarded my flight home without a problem.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still afraid. But taking that flight to Belgium was like opening a locked door inside myself and discovering a whole suite of rooms that lay beyond; even now that the door has swung shut, I still know the rooms exist. Did I do it? Did Dymphna do it? The best answer I can come up with is that rational beliefs can’t overcome irrational fear. Sometimes, to get through the worst, we need the help of some higher power: a god, a love, a sweeping narrative. But at the centre of that higher power is always a bigger version of our own selves.

Anne Thériault
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer who has contributed to the Guardian, Chatelaine, and Longreads.