“Is he drunk?” I asked the young boy seated by the window just as the flight attendants began the safety demonstration. As his father slumped forward, he edged back in his seat to quietly whisper, “Yes he is.” I felt his embarrassment.
I prefer to take an aisle seat when flying, it gives me the freedom to move about especially on long flights. I also wait for the passengers in the middle and window seat to show up before I buckle up.
As the last four passengers bustled to their seats I caught a glimpse of the woman, she had a small child in tow, and she felt scared to me. She sat in the row behind me with her son. Her other son, along with her husband sat in the middle and window seats in my row.
Instantly I smelled alcohol on his breath. I watched as the young son struggled to get his Dad’s seat belt done up. Noticeably I felt the absence of his wife, she was quiet in the row behind me.
I immediately felt frightened and at the same time somewhat paralyzed seated beside this drunk man. I wasn’t breathing and suddenly felt like I was 14 years old.
So I took a breath and began to get present to just how I was being triggered unconsciously. Without an obvious explanation, this triggered response was difficult to tolerate… not to mention, disorienting and disturbing.
This trigger was body based. It automatically showed up creating fear and a loss of breath. In fact, it showed up even before my mind consciously registered it. That’s just how I am wired.
A flood of memories streamed my way. I remembered being on a flight from Vancouver to Calgary, my older brother was very drunk, and it was 43 years ago. I was 14 years old.
I remember the shame of having to be seen with him, his loudness was excruciatingly embarrassing, but I was helpless. I remembered wanting to scream for help. I didn’t make a sound.
With nearly a decade of studying shadow work with Debbie Ford and the Ford Institute for Transformational Change, I was able to quickly recognize what was going on in my brain. And instead of disappearing like I did 43 years ago, I was able to presence myself to what was really going on for me.
Our brains are organized to constantly make connections between what’s happening on the inside and outside in the world around us. It does this so that we can more reliably predict the future and with that, ensure our survival. For me, it is about creating my own sense of safely. In my lifetime that is one of my primary responsibilities given my experience with alcoholics in my life.
Having experienced trauma on that flight with my brother 43 years ago, my brain remembered the necessary aspects so it could prompt me to avoid a reoccurrence of the event. Each aspect of that event was registered as an emotional charge in my brain.
I am really proud of how I responded to the circumstance on that flight even as I listened to a tiny, but loud voice in me, which was saying, “Be quiet. Don’t even think of asking for help. No one cares about how you feel.”
As the man beside me passed out and his son struggled to get him seated upright, I quietly raised my hand to get the attention of the flight attendant who was just finishing the safety demonstration.
As she walked towards me with concern in her eyes I again heard the voice in me say, “Don’t create a scene. You’ll be okay.”
I suddenly heard myself saying, “This man is drunk and I do not feel safe flying with him beside me.” I glanced over and caught the eyes of his son. They instantly reflected relief.
The flight attendant asked how I knew he was drunk. My glance to her must have translated my fear and she immediately went into action. I shared that his son told me. They immediately questioned his wife who sheepishly said, “Yes, he’s a bit drunk.”
Citing federal law prohibiting passengers who are drunk from boarding an aircraft the flight attendants quickly inferred that they needed to consult the captain. In short order the plane was headed back to the gate. The announcement to the passengers stated that a situation had arisen that required immediate attention.
I was quick to notice all kinds of emotions as the four passengers were escorted off the plane. I felt huge compassion for the young son seated beside his Dad; my heart went out to his Mom whom I felt had been here many times before. And to the youngest boy I felt relief for him; perhaps he was too young to realize what just happened.
Although not usually easy, I love discovering the light at the end of my trigger. The more conscious I choose to be, the easier it is to recognize what’s triggering me. Not surprisingly, it’s also a heck of a lot easier to self-care during these moments.
A Mom, travelling with her two young boys, seated across the aisle from me thanked me for helping to keep her boys safe. One drunken passenger, according to the flight attendants, is a very serious safety issue.
To the Dad who was drunk I offer my gratitude. Through you I found my healing after 43 years.