I have never been a comfortable flyer. Having traveled, over the years, on numerous flights around the world, and, on occasions coped with turbulence and severe storms especially on small planes, I have learned to base my safety on my assessment of the flight attendants’ behaviour. If the airplane hits turbulence and the attendants are going about their business as usual then all must be well, the plane is not about to crash and I am not going to die.
In the summer of 1996, on a flight that was forty-five minutes in the air leaving out of Newark, New Jersey, one of the engines made a sound that took me back to the time when I was seventeen. Driving my dad’s car a mere week after passing my driving test, I ignored the orange oil light illuminating the dashboard. Completely out of oil, the car engine eventually emitted a loud high-pitched whine that rapidly descended into a low groan, then died. I could tell all was not well on that plane, because the plane’s engine emitted a similar whine and groan before seeming to die. One of the flight attendants carrying a tray of drinks stopped dead in her tracks and mouthed soundlessly, “What the hell was that?” Another ran full tilt to the back of the plane, while another left the passenger she was serving to urgently pick up the phone hanging on the wall at the front of the cabin presumably to call the crew in the cockpit.
They say humour can arise from our grimmest moments. I remember turning to the wondering-what-was-going-on passenger sitting beside me and saying to her, “I bet they forgot to check the oil.” The joke fell flat amidst the drama going on around us.
It turned out that one of the plane’s four engines had failed. The captain consequently decided to empty the fuel tanks in mid-air as a precaution and turn back to Newark. Once there, we landed safely amidst an armada of fire trucks that followed the plane, with mechanical hoses turned towards the aircraft from the time it taxied onto the runway until it arrived at the arrival gate.
When the captain made the announcement to the passengers telling us about the engine and his intention to return to Newark, I panicked. I went into anxiety, a survival-based anxiety because I believed my life was in jeopardy. My way of coping with my anxiety was to do something irrational: I leaned forward and grasped onto the top of the seat in front of me. When the flight attendant advised me to sit back in my seat because we were going to attempt a landing, I looked around for something else to hold on to, choosing to grasp both hands onto the arm of the seat I was sitting in. And this I held onto until the plane taxied safely into the gate.
This need to grasp onto something is a typical reaction when our survival is at stake. It is as if trauma puts us into a no-mans land, where the people and things we were dependent upon are no longer dependable, and so we grasp onto whatever is available, in the hope that it will save us and guarantee our survival.
I fixated on the seat in front of me, then the arm of the seat, and became dependent upon it as a security for my survival. This is not rational. But believe me, as someone who has been in a few situations where my survival was threatened, if there is no rational way out of it, you turn to the irrational for your assurance.
When in survival-anxiety, we are more likely to fixate and become dependent upon something we deem as reliable. That which we fixate upon and create dependency to can be any object, behaviour, event, person, activity or substance. There may be little logic or rational behind what we choose as reliable or dependable.
If we all have been exposed to trauma, as is being suggested here, we all carry quantities of survival-anxiety. Whenever we experience survival-anxiety, whether we know it or not, we will grasp on to a dependable addiction, out of panic, in the attempt to ensure our survival. If we all have been exposed to trauma, then each and every one of us have addictions. We are all the same in that respect. The difference lies in those who accept we have addictions, and those who don’t.
What we grasp onto will never cure our anxiety, in the same way that grasping a branch as we fall off a cliff will not guarantee we will not fall to the bottom. The branch is a lifeline and a reprieve, just as the addiction is a temporary reprieve. It distracts us from our anxiety, and the worry for our survival. It masks it, but it does not guarantee the anxiety will go away – the branch may break.
Tune into next Friday’s blog post and learn how:
“Our societal tendency is to label an addict as someone who is dependent upon a substance, such as a drug or alcohol.”
“In actual fact, we can become addicted to anything…”