Trouble in the Skies at Home
This article was published in Southwest Airlines Reporting Point Volume 21. No. 6, SWAPA Government Affairs Committee Protecting Our Profession. Marc Kantor is an Interventionist Consultant to SWAPA HIMS. He has served several of our Pilots and their families over the past two years. He can be reached by calling SWAPA HIMS at 301-535-9871.
Most people are familiar with the danger of a pilot who becomes addicted to alcohol or substances. A pilot under the influence has been the theme of many popular movies, for instance, Flight with Denzel Washington. In real life, pilots have a fairly high rate of long-term recovery, approximately 80% by some estimates.
A pilot who self-identifies as having an addiction problem receives support from their union, access to treatment at no cost or little cost, and is required to enter a specialized monitoring program, known as Human Intervention Motivational Study or HIMS. The HIMS program was created by the FAA to ensure pilots receive treatment and maintain sobriety. It's the FAA and airline's goal to safely return the pilot to work.
What people are less familiar with are the dangers posed when a pilot has a son, daughter, or spouse with an addiction problem. Such a scenario is the plot of the 1994 film When a Man Loves a Woman with Andy Garcia, who plays a commercial airline pilot, and Meg Ryan who plays his alcoholic wife. Garcia's character is shown as being distracted by thoughts of his chaotic situation at home. This movie does an excellent job demonstrating the physical and mental effects addiction has on sober family members. In therapeutic terms, the dynamic between an addict and their family is referred to as codependency.
"People who live with an alcoholic or drug addict can often experience the same symptoms as their addicted family members while being completely free of any mood-altering substances. Some of these behaviors include uncontrollable rage, lying, losing a sense of time, feeling hungover, depression, guilt, and shame", according to Dawn DiCicco, LCSW, a therapist in South Florida, who specializes in addiction and family systems.
A pilot at another airline recently shared with me how stressful and distracting it was for him knowing his daughter was actively using drugs. He would be 1500 miles from home and constantly be thinking about the situation at home and how powerless he felt. "My head wasn't always where it needed to be," this pilot confessed to me. The pilot's daughter is currently more than a year sober.
I regularly encounter parents of addicted kids who tell me "they haven't slept in years" because they are constantly anxious about getting a phone call in the middle of the night saying their son or daughter is in jail or worse, suffered a fatal overdose. I can't imagine what it's like for these parents who have to go to work the next morning and perform their jobs like nothing is wrong. Getting through a workday with an emotional hangover is as debilitating as a night of drinking. It's easy to see how being in this situation could affect a pilot's ability to perform to the best of their ability.
A lot of families will carry on for years before appropriately addressing an addiction problem, as they often hope it will just go away. They say things like, "let's see what happens next month" or try to justify their loved one's addiction as "not that bad". Sometimes they convince themselves that sending their son or daughter to treatment is an overreaction or a betrayal of their trust. None of these excuses are accurate as this type of reluctance is a response out of fear.
When done correctly, an intervention is a loving and life-changing event. Your son or daughter doesn't have to be homeless or an IV drug user to warrant an intervention and treatment. Often, it's parents observing their young adult child struggling to be happy and productive that causes them to contact me. For example, they see their son or daughter not working or attending school, isolating, not socializing, and generally depressed. On top of this, these young adults are quite often smoking pot daily. A lot of young adults experience a "failure to launch" after graduating college.
The addiction and mental health crisis have been worsened by the Coronavirus. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been forced into isolation which has robbed them of personal connections that are an important part of maintaining good mental health. Not having these personal connections can be dangerous for people who already struggle with depression or substance use.
SWA pilots have good insurance benefits which extend to spouses and children and allows them to get quality residential treatment at no cost or for very little money. The retail price for residential treatment is approximately $1000 per day.
If someone in your family is struggling with an addiction or mental illness; seek help for them sooner than later. Like everything else, an early response is the best course of action.
Marc Kantor is the author of How to Do an Intervention; A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents, the founder of South Florida Intervention, and a member of the National Association of Treatment Providers and Association of Intervention Professionals. He can be reached at 202-390-2273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.