Many of you have been suffering since the terrorist attacks of September
11. Indeed, the crash of Flight 587 seems overwhelming to think about. Having
been a Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years, and a psychotherapist for 15, I
feel compelled to reach out through this article to help you understand the
nature of trauma, for trauma is what these attacks have been for all of you.
Perhaps if you just pretend that we're sitting on a jumpseat together, doing
what flight attendants do best -- jumpseat therapy -- I can offer some ideas
about what you might be feeling and why.
Most people are not aware that Pan Am employees endured continuing
terrorist attacks since the 1970's, and that we had to live with constant
threats as well as the loss of friends. Add to that the pressure of management
problems, financial turmoil, airplane crashes, layoffs, Lockerbie, and,
finally, the fall of Pan Am, and it adds up to a traumatized work force. Aware
of the turmoil that my beloved fellow employees endured, I decided to study
trauma through the eyes and hearts of former Pan Am employees. I then wrote my
doctoral dissertation on what I learned and titled it A Psychoanalytic
Exploration of the Fall of Pan Am. I hope that it might be of some benefit to
you in these uncertain and scary times.
Trauma is any event outside the usual expectable realm of human experience
that causes a reaction of intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The events of
September 11 certainly fall within this definition. The experience of trauma
can produce posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. There are three hallmarks
of PTSD. The first one is intrusive memories, which are recurring thoughts and
dreams that elicit the same terror as had the experience. Have you been having
disturbing dreams or nightmares? Do frightening images come into your mind
over and over? The second is hypervigilance, in which you stay on red alert,
and any sudden noise may trigger panic or aggression. Are you worrying about
"going off" on passengers, or even worse, your children and loved
ones? Is your patience level markedly different since September 11? The third
hallmark of PTSD is withdrawal, through which shying away from situations that
stimulate painful memories isolates the sufferer. Have you been avoiding
friends or family or conversations with them? Are you disappointed with their
lack of empathy for you?
The symptoms of trauma can sneak up on you in subtle ways, until you
finally feel overwhelmed and don't know what hit you. Symptoms vary widely
from individual to individual, and can include feelings of hopelessness,
indifference, and isolation. Insomnia is common, or the feeling of just
wanting to stay in bed under the covers where it's safe. A loss of appetite or
the inability to stop eating everything in sight can be experienced, as well
as headaches, chest pains, and feelings of intense fear when recollecting the
overwhelming event, or putting yourselves in the terrifying place of those who
lost their lives, and imagining exactly what it was like for them. And, of
course, wondering how you would have handled the same situation yourself.
Persistent anxiety, jumpiness, fears, or feeling out of control, and excessive
worry over loved ones' safety can be present.
Fundamental to the experience of trauma can be a devastating sense of
helplessness. In my study of Pan Am employees, this feeling of powerlessness
was a common theme. Sometimes this led to feelings of betrayal and painful
disillusionment with Pan Am's management, who were seen as parental figures.
However, such anger was not usually felt toward the Pan Am "family"
as a whole. I can see many parallels between the feelings and behaviors of Pan
Am employees and those of American Airlines employees now. Are you feeling
angry about not having been protected? Some employees turn to unusual
behaviors to counteract their helpless feelings. For example, they may become
obsessed with gaining as much knowledge as possible about what is happening.
Or they may keep their lives "orderly," cleaning out and
straightening every nook and cranny in their homes. There are some flight
attendants who have not even been able to unpack their bags since September
11. Others deal with the emotional trauma by a cutting off of emotion, and
sometimes pushing those close to them away. Are you feeling numb or not very
loving? A particularly traumatizing aspect of September 11 was the inability
of so many flight attendants to get home. Many people state that they are less
afraid of dying than of again being helplessly stranded so far from home. They
are more terrified of feeling those feelings again than they are of actually
A common theme in the trauma literature, one that lies at the heart of
psychological trauma and is related to a sense of helplessness, is of a sense
of alienation and aloneness, and a profound despair about the improbability of
ever having one's experience understood. A traumatized person can feel as if
he or she is an alien to the "normal" people around them, a
conviction which leads to a sense of alienation and aloneness, that an
unbridgeable gulf separates him or her from the understanding of others.
Anxiety slips into panic when it has to be born in isolation. Hence, there
needs to be a place where painful feelings can be shared. I know that many of
you feel that family and loved ones have a hard time understanding what you're
going through since September 11, and perhaps you might even feel estranged
from your fellow flight attendants, especially if they are not expressing
feelings of fear.
A mentor of mine, Dr. Robert Stolorow, has written about the concept of
trauma and the absolutisms of everyday life. By "absolutisms", he is
referring to beliefs and assumptions whose validity are not open for
discussion, and unconsciously play a role in the normalcy of everyday life.
For example, you might say to a friend, "Have a safe trip," or
"I'll see you when you get home." These are statements whose
validity isn't questioned. Such assumptions are the basis for a kind of naive
optimism that allows one to function in the world believed to be stable and
predictable. It is the essence of psychological trauma that it shatters these
absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that alters one's sense of
safety in the world. When one can no longer believe in the absolutisms of
everyday life, the universe becomes random and unpredictable. The traumatized
person perceives the world differently than others do, and an anguished sense
of estrangement and solitude takes form.
As if this sense of estrangement and isolation were not enough to bear,
another aspect of traumatization makes a difficult situation even more
painful: it is not just the shattering of illusions, or the loss, or the
injury, but also the intense shame and self-loathing because of one's reaction
to that trauma. Flight attendants, in my experience, seem to have a feeling
that they should be emotionally invincible, impervious to fears having to do
with flying. Many flight attendants have expressed feelings of humiliation to
me about such fears, and this shame seems to be as painful as the fear itself.
Several flight attendants have expressed thoughts such as "if I were
strong or spiritually grounded, I wouldn't be feeling depressed or
anxious." Thus, ordinary feelings that many people in a similar situation
would experience are felt to be somehow shameful.
Some flight attendants may be feeling more traumatized than others, and
this seems important to understand. Just because some people are frightened
and unable to fly right now does not mean that they are weak or don't have
strong character. The situation is made worse for some people because it
represents a retraumatization, a feeling of repetition of a childhood history
of trauma which leaves them more vulnerable. That childhood trauma can be
anything, including the early death of a parent or family member, early
separation from loved ones through divorce or tragedy, or any form of abuse or
extreme disillusionment. Retraumatization happens most often when there is a
close replication of the original trauma or a revival of a feeling that was
present in the original trauma, such as a loss of the way of life as one knew
it, loss of a sense of power, loss of a sense of safety, loss of a sense of
innocence, loss of a sense of control, or brings back a feeling state such as
fear, horror, shock, panic, or helplessness. For example, what happened on
September 11 could be experienced as much worse by someone who early on in
life has already experienced a shattering loss.
People who have already had an experience with trauma while flying are more
likely to be retraumatized by the events of September 11. Such trauma can take
the form of a major illness on board the aircraft, an aircraft evacuation, an
assault on a passenger or crew member, the death of a passenger, an airplane
crash, or any perception of serious threat to self, other crew members, or
passengers. Many of you may have "gotten right back on the horse"
after other incidents, and never really understood its impact on you. So,
September 11 may have just compounded an already existing but unrecognized
traumatic state. For example, a dangerous experience with turbulence could
easily disturb one's background sense of safety, and revive old feelings about
an earlier loss of a sense of control in life, such as the divorce of one's
parents. Also, one might expect that any disaster that happens subsequent to
September 11 will have a similar retraumatizing impact, as did the crash of
Your most important function at work besides safety has always been to
provide passengers with a sense of comfort and reassurance, and a denial of
the possibility of death. I am imagining you offering "coffee, tea, or
immortality," and that's an extremely difficult task when you're feeling
at risk yourself. It's important that each one of you be able to find a place
within a relationship for your disturbing experiences and feelings, rather
than having to bear them alone, and to recognize that there is nothing
inherently shameful about these painful experiences and fears. Shame only
contributes to keeping feelings hidden and makes you emotionally isolated. I
urge you to tell each other how you're really feeling. Getting together in
small groups to talk can be extremely helpful. Leaning on your religious or
spiritual faith can be of great comfort. Symptoms of trauma do improve with
time and talking about it. If, however, you continue to experience symptoms
after reaching out to family or friends or faith, then it's time to seek out
the help of a professional therapist.