Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 5, 2008
I drank some wine, took my pills, boarded the plane and woke up on a gurney!
I am writing to you because I have been through what feels like a very traumatic experience and I need to find a way to put it behind me. Recently, I was on a flight from my local airport to another destination for work purposes. The flight was to be three hours in duration. As is my normal pre-flight ritual, I took two Klonopin (strong tranquilizer also known as Clonazepam) of a low dosage prescribed for anxiety around flying, and I had two glasses of white wine at the airport bar. Aside from drinking before a flight, I drink rarely. This is my ritual every time I fly and I never veer from it. I also take a daily anti-anxiety medication to help address this same flying issue. Lastly, I take Topamax, an anti-seizure medication.
Historically, I have been unable to fly due to an intense phobia. This debilitating phobia presented around the time I was 24 and was intensified by the close proximity — three blocks away and 30 stories up — from which I witnessed the 9/11 tragedy. Prior to that I had no issue flying and enjoyed travel immensely. A year ago, I took a job with a minimal travel requirement. As a longtime non-flier, I have always gotten where I needed to go by other means, so that was no problem, but my new boss insisted on air travel after I accepted the job and started the role. She even threatened to fire me if I didn’t plan to travel by air. Not to be beaten, I consulted the appropriate professionals, and began regular treatment by medication.
With that history in place, allow me to revisit the date of my most recent travel. I performed my pre-flight ritual, went through security and boarded the flight. I must have fallen asleep immediately in my seat and the next thing I knew, I was in a wheelchair outside the plane with police officers who were handcuffing me. I demanded to know what happened and was hysterical. I slipped my left hand through the handcuff on two occasions. I asked to be released several times, and was permitted to phone my husband, who said he could barely understand me due to my crying. He asked the police to wait for him to arrive, but I was then transported to a local area hospital. I am informed that I kicked hospital security as they tried to move me to a bed. I was then tied down in four-point restraints, with one arm pinned above me. I know that I screamed to be let go. I was never arrested.
My husband and parents arrived shortly thereafter. I was not charged or arrested and was immediately released from the hospital. My family is full of well-connected attorneys, and though my body is bruised, particularly my ankles and wrists from the restraints, legal action is not an option — according to some very astute resources we have consulted.
I fought for the emotional strength to get back on an airplane. I performed my pre-flight ritual no differently than I would have otherwise. The airline had every right to remove me if they believed I wasn’t fit to fly, and I do not disagree. The trouble started after I was removed from the plane, handcuffed and physically thrown down on gurneys and then tied up in four-point restraints. My problem is that I now have this horrible feeling about myself. Am I a crazy person, or was I just treated like one? How do I make peace with flying again? Not suing anyone is fine by me as it means the whole thing will be over faster. But I need help putting this trauma behind me. I’m a pretty stoic person, and that allows me to deal with a lot of the pain and frustration that I feel at work. I need that stoic person back ASAP.
No Longer Afraid of Flying
Dear No Longer Afraid,
I hope you will forgive me if I just talk freely about what I feel, for I sometimes feel before I think, and my feeling leads me to thinking before I know what it is that is being thought.
So what bothers me is how your boss coerced you into flying and you went along with it in order not to be “beaten.” I don’t like that.
I don’t like this whole business of your agreeing to fly because you did not want to be beaten by your boss. What you call stoicism sounds to me like acquiescence in your own mistreatment.
I mean, you have been through hell, and I sympathize. It’s not your fault. You were victimized and traumatized. But I think, at the same time, crazy as it sounds, your unconscious was trying to protect you by sabotaging your flight.
But let’s back up. You took a job with the understanding that you would not have to fly, and then after you were hired your boss pressured you to fly anyway, with the threat of termination. Basically, your boss lied to you and betrayed you.
And then, rather than protest and risk losing your job, you attempted, on the advice of professionals, to chemically short-circuit your own perhaps well-grounded fears. And things went haywire. It sounds like you had an overdose or you mixed medications that had dangerous interactions.
So, again, pardon me for just following my instincts on this, but it feels like you introjected, or took into yourself, the mistreatment by your boss. And this is what you refer to as trying to be stoic.
Let’s talk about your stoicism for a moment. When legitimate demands conflict with our own desires or plans, sometimes we have to suck it up. That is a good kind of stoicism. But should we be stoic when people lie to us and mistreat us? I do not think so. I think such stoicism is a betrayal of the innocent person in us who believes what he or she is told, and trusts others, and feels deeply and rebels upon the shock of recognition.
In fact, maybe I am stretching here, but isn’t it possible that underneath this traumatic event is a hidden wish to prove that you can’t fly, to be prevented from flying, or forced to not fly? I mean, I don’t want to push my theory, but neither do I want to minimize the power of this trauma and fear you have about flying. It’s deep down, right? It’s a very powerful fear. And because its actual mechanism operates below your awareness, it is capable of arranging events below your awareness, that is, by causing you to take too many pills.
The result is in certain ways positive: You now have a very good reason not to fly. You are now saved, in a way. You are safe. You won’t have to get back on that airplane.
I do not mean to minimize your trauma, but to suggest that unconscious forces sometimes succeed where more above-board methods have failed. Is it not possible that working its subterranean routes your deep, primal, unconscious fear pushed you to overdose and wrought, in its own crazy, anarchic way, the very result that you wished for?
Of course you also suffered real trauma. That would be the price your unconscious was willing to pay to achieve its objective. And the trauma is now affecting you and you would like to make your peace with it. If I can be of any help at all, I would urge you to be calm and systematic about seeking out a therapist to help you get over the trauma, to accept what has happened and to examine the forces in your life that brought about this calamity. You were tied down and manhandled. You have been mistreated and taken advantage of. Such treatment does not have to be unlawful or unjustified to be traumatic. Nor does the fact that there is some meaning to it mitigate the effect of the trauma.
I suggest being calm and systematic because while there are many therapists and many therapies, you strike me as someone who has been through a lot and may feel compelled to seize the first option that becomes available.
But let me spell out this unconscious thing a little more.
If you have a primal fear, then your instincts are going to try to protect you. There is no bargaining with this fear. It will do everything it can to protect you.
Your unconscious thinks it sees the future. It thinks it knows. It thinks it is protecting you. It’s like a dog. I spend a lot of time with dogs, and they do not fool around with what they fear. If they fear it, they fear it. Your unconscious is like a dog. You can explain all you want, but if it’s afraid to get on a plane, and you get on a plane anyway, it’s going to tear shit up. That’s what dogs do. They tear the place up. They’re like our unconscious minds.
So I’m not blaming you for this, or saying you set it up. I’m saying: Do not underestimate the power of your unconscious mind to manipulate events. Respect it. Respect your own fears. Do not underestimate the power of the unconscious to achieve what it needs through subterfuge if it cannot achieve what it needs through rational, verbal channels.
Look what happened when you made a rational, businesslike deal with your boss, agreeing to work there with the understanding that you do not fly on airplanes: You got betrayed. You got lied to. Telling your boss honestly, in a rational, aboveboard way, that you don’t fly did not work. You told them that you don’t want to fly. You were aboveboard about it. They disregarded that. How would your unconscious interpret this? It would see that rational, verbal, aboveboard behavior is not heeded. And so it would say, OK, if they aren’t going to listen to rational, reasonable information and talk, watch this! It found it necessary to precipitate a breakdown. And now you are safe.
There are numerous treatments for the aftereffects of trauma and stress. As I said, I suggest you carefully evaluate the doctors and the available treatments, paying close attention to your own feelings about it. Take notice that your stoicism may minimize the wisdom of your feelings. Put your stoicism on hold and go with your instincts about what you need. Find a therapist who you know in your heart is the right person.
And tell your boss you really, really, really do not fly on airplanes.