Watching a friend almost killing himself
John kept on looking at me as I was standing in the pouring rain on the ladder outside the window of his study. His eyes were red and the smile that usually was found on his face was absent.
He stared at me for what was seeming an eternity. Finally, he asked me if I was going to continue standing on a ladder in the rain in a thunderstorm? I contemplated what he said and replied that it was probably not the smartest to be a living lightning rod for very much longer. I slowly opened the cracked window and crawled into John’s study. I raised up and looked at John, he looked at me, and then on the floor below me was a big puddle of water forming from my dripping clothes.
He turned his gaze towards the wall, lifted a half-drunken bottle of Jack Daniels, put it to his lips, and took a large gulp of the golden liquid. As he brought his left arm down on the armrest, I could see he had cut himself many more times on his underarm than I first realized and I could also see blood smeared on the edge of the knife.
I just stood there. I had no idea what to do. I mean, what do you do when your best friend is sitting with half a bottle of whisky in one hand and a big bloody hunting knife in the other? I had no training or experience in these kind of situations. I really wished that I did! What do you say to someone that obviously is in a lot of pain, cutting themselves and are about to get really drunk? So I naturally said what I should not have said.
This was truly not a very bright thing to say to a person in John’s condition. He raised his right hand and threw the knife straight into the wall above his desk with such ferocity and force that you could only see the handle of the knife sticking out. As he threw the knife, he let out a primal scream so terrifying that it cut through my very soul like the knife had cut through the wall.
Then he started to cry… He cried uncontrollably for several minutes. I went over to him and sat down on the floor beside John’s other friend, Mr. Jack Daniels. After a while, he stopped crying and I looked at him. Then I said something a little more sensible.
“Buddy, what’s going on? How are you really feeling?”
He turned his head and looked down at me, still sitting on the floor.
“I feel fine, can’t you tell. I’m getting drunk and cutting myself with my grandpa’s knife. Life doesn’t get any better than this!”
John had always had a sarcastic, dry sense of humor that normally was quite funny but I did not laugh this time. I thought that I maybe should try the same thing back at him.
“Yeah, I see you are having the time of your life but the question is, why? Wouldn’t it just be enough to get really drunk? Do you also have to cut yourself bloody to enjoy yourself?”
John was quiet for a long while and then he said:
“The alcohol doesn’t get rid of all the pain…. But the pain from the knife wounds helps me focus on that pain instead. Then I don’t feel the other pain so intensely….”
I thought a while and said:
“What other pain is that? Are you hurt or sick?”
John answered, “No, dummy, it is not any physical pain. It’s the pain of shame. I’m such a loser!” His eyes started to tear up again.
I told him, “John, you have nothing to be ashamed of and you are definitely not a loser! What kind of talk is this,? Tell me, what is going on?”
John looked at me and with tears in his eyes, slowly shaking his head, then yelling at the top of his lungs, “I’M FREAKING SCARED OF FLYING!!! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? I’M A FREAKING LOSER! I’M AFRAID TO DO WHAT I LOVE!!!”
Then he started to cry again. I just sat there and didn’t really comprehend what I just had heard. Should John, the aviation god himself, be afraid of flying? What did that really mean? How could he be afraid of something that he loved to do and did so well? I truly felt that I should get to know Mr. Daniels beside me a little bit better, but soon realized that this was not the time to get drunk. I needed to stay clear and focused to try to help John to the best of my ability.
For a long time, we just sat there without saying a word. Finally, John reached for the bottle on the floor but I was faster and pulled the whiskey away from him. I told him that he had had enough and he needed to tell me what really was going on. What did he mean when he said he was afraid of flying?
He continued to sit quietly for a long time. Then he said, “It is not really flying that I’m afraid of… It is the fear of flying into bad weather that scares me… More specifically, flying into thunderstorms and to lose control of the aircraft.”
I thought about this for a while and then said, “But we are not flying in thunderstorms, we have radar and weather forecasts to help us avoid getting into the CBs. It is very rare that we actually get ourselves into situations where we find ourselves inside one of those bastards.”
As I said that, a sharp lightning streak followed by a thunderbolt made its presence known in the storm outside the window. John tensed up and looked purely terrified. After another minute, he looked at me again and let it all out. He told me things he hadn’t told anyone before. I just sat there, didn’t say a word, and let him just tell me everything that he had kept inside for a very long time.
He told me that it had started just after his daughter Lea was born. He truly felt that he had it all. A beautiful family, a nice home, and a job that he really loved. He was living the dream! The only thing he was worried about was that any of these blessings would be taken away from him.
Riders of the storm
One dark and stormy summer night, during the decent into their destination airport, they were flying through a cold front that was loaded with embedded thunderstorms. John and his first officer were working hard with the radar trying to find a way around these giant buildups. They had deviated 40nm off course and could not find any way through the line of thunderstorms. A decision was made between the two pilots to penetrate the line where there seemed to be the least amount of echos on the radar.
They entered the storm and the turbulence was the worst John had ever felt. The aircraft shook so violently that the headset flew off the first officer’s head and it was hard to see the instruments in front of them. What they didn’t know was that there was a second line of thunderstorms just after the first one. The radar echo of this line was hidden by the first line. It was not until they were almost through the first storm that the radar started to depict the second line of storms and it was ill red on the radar! There was nowhere to go. They had to fly straight into the second line.
This was twice as bad as the first one. At this time the auto-pilot gave up the ghost and John had to hand fly. However, even if his hands were on the controls, it didn’t do much good. The aircraft seemed to be a feather flying around in the summer breeze. John felt no control whatsoever. He was certain that this was it. He would not be able to survive this. All he could think about was Laura, Luke and Lea and that he didn’t think he would see them again. The lightning strikes around them were so intense and so bright. They had turned on the storm lights in the cockpit but this did not help. They were half-blinded by the bright light from the lightening.
Suddenly, a big bang was heard and they realized that they were hit by lightening. For a moment, the aircraft went almost totally black when all of the generators went offline. They did, however, manage to get them back online after a few seconds. He had never felt so out of control in his entire life. Then came the hail… golfball-sized hail was banging the aircraft. The sound were deafening. Through it all, they could hear screams of terror and panic from the passengers. John got an image of a young mother and her infant that he saw when they were boarding the aircraft. Was he going to drive this young baby to a certain death? A whole life in front of this little person and he would be responsible for ending it!
To be continued…
Raise awareness by training
Mental illness can affect pilots too! The stigma attached to mental illness needs to be removed in order for people to talk more freely. With this stigma still in place, it tends to discourage people from acknowledging their problems and can prevent them from seeking out the help they need. Obviously, following this path can be detrimental to their health problems and this can also create potential safety hazards with regards to their work.
During the pandemic, countless aviation workers have suffered tremendously. Many have lost their jobs as a result, some have even had to face their homes or cars being repossessed once their incomes have been taken away from them. Such actions may cause your mental health to suffer and this is why we should encourage people to come forward, to have frank and honest conversations. Nobody has to face these challenges on their own, help is available from the moment you reach out.
We need to erase the stigma and help people to help themselves. It’s normal to feel anxious in the current climate, if you feel this way then reach out. Let’s raise awareness and start the discussion today!