Going Down into the City....
I listened today. I have spent the last four days talking, presenting and generally expressing myself, using all manner of verbal devices and non-verbal behavior. But today I listened. I was at the North Chicago Naval Hospital where I do that 'teaching' thing I do every week or two. Damaged veterans who have come home in quiet pieces from Afghanistan and Iraq. My job to acquaint them with the things they cannot tell the shrinks once they encounter them. My job to make sure that they do not share their photos and war memorabilia with their new found non-combatant neighbors. Usually the 'class' goes pretty well. But today we happened to turn to the issue of the Sullenberger Flight, as I call that controlled crash into the Hudson River. And the discussion was discomforting to me. The vets went back and forth about just how much the passengers cried and lamented about their experience. How the whole crew and all the passengers got out of the potential fatal disaster with nary a scratch. How many of the same 'uninjured' are filing suits against the airline. How all of them are on television talking, crying and even singing about their histrionic experience. I took a good twenty minutes of that kind of talk before I used bully-pulpit-power to make my own opinion felt.
"Any of you guys ever afraid to fly?" I interjected, with an innocent intonation. Nobody said anything. These guys don't yet admit to fear of anything, although they are seeing me because they have a new found fear of everything. "Any of you guys ever been on a commercial airliner that had a problem while you were in the air?" Nothing. Dead stares. A frown here or there. "Okay then, can you imagine being inside that aluminum tube, low over a developed city, just having lifted off, and having the engines shut down?" A few nodded, hesitantly, not trusting where I was going. "That's right. No engine noise whatever...the plane just gliding...and you can look out and see the city below. Very close below." They all frown as one, and I pause a few seconds to let them fully take in the scene I've described. "And you can't see the river. You can't see any water, because even in a window seat you cannot look either directly down or see where the plane is going." They look at one another an move their surviving limbs uncomfortably. You are gliding just above tall concrete buildings with no power, and you begin to realize that you are going down into the city itself aboard an unpowered airliner."
"The pilot comes on and tells you to brace for impact." You could drop a pin in the room, and the sound would reverberate up from the rug. I nod my head, as I continue "Yeah, you are going to die in a few seconds, and it is going to be anything but pleasant." All the guys in the room (there are two females but I call all my returning kids 'guys') grow still. They know about death. They know about the expectation of death and the painful process which trauma usually starts, and then plays out, mercilessly and viciously.
"But you don't die. The plane hits, unbelievably bounces a bit, and then settles to a harsh stop. It then begins to rapidly fill with ice water." I smile now, as I talk, after all, life is once more found. "You can't panic because you are not yet over the shock of certain death. You allow yourself to be guided out to stand on the wings of the plane in your shock. Cold, ugly ice water is up to your knees, as you look around at the city skyline, finally becoming aware that you are standing in the middle of a great huge river. Boats are everywhere, coming toward the plane. But the plane is sinking, and not real slowly." I look at their faces. They are in the story, as possibly only patients with post traumatic stress disorder can be in such a story. They are there, seeing it. One of the passengers or crew. They are standing on those wings.
"The boats come ever closer. Your legs, almost fully submerged, are freezing. Helicopters are flying nearby and you notice how flat the water is under where they hover. Divers are in the water helping some of the passengers you have not even noticed. Passengers who have fallen off the, now invisible, submerged wing you are standing on. You look, but nothing impacts on you, as the rescues are effected. A boat comes close and you reach out for warm welcome arms, extended with serious smiles from kind dry people telling you that everything is going to be alright." I stop talking and just stand there in front of them. Nobody moves, or fails to meet my eyes, as I sweep them back and forth across the group.
Moments pass, until one of the female IED survivors of Iraq raises her good left hand (the other is in a sling, it's damage unknown to me). I nod, ever so slightly.
"Everything isn't going to be alright," she says quietly, her eyes averting to floor past her feet set in the little steps of her wheelchair. "It's never going to be alright." I nod at her, even though she does not notice.
"Those people, each and every one of them, they are your brothers and sisters. They are like you. They are like the survivors of 911. They all will live their lives with a defining moment they did not choose, and cannot every avoid or get away from. Just like you. They will have your road rage, your hyper-vigilance, your sleep deprivation, and even your strange dreams. Take care of them. Only you will ever truly understand them....and they, you."
I closed with that today, earlier this morning. It effected me. You see, I have post traumatic stress disorder. It is so easy to minimize the effect or performance of others who have gone through similar or differential stressors, to arrive at where I live and breathe. It took many years for me to understand that these people are my fellow travelers through life. A different life from any that I ever imagined or might have made for myself. And these people, the crew and passengers of Sully Sullenberger's flight into the Hudson, are traveling right with me every step of the way.