Once my aneurysm was discovered in the ER of the hospital closest to my home, I was airlifted to a hospital farther away. There, I underwent surgery to place platinum coils in my aneurysm, and to recover in the neuro-ICU.
I have no memory about my time on the life flight helicopter.
But, apparently my nervous system remembers. Once I was home, living under the flight path of the life flight helicopter, I would have anxiety, palpitations, and sometimes flashbacks when I would see or hear the helicopter. Eventually, the nightmares followed. In these dreams, I would be hiding, laying on the ground, and the helicopter would be hovering above me, searching for me. It would seemingly spot me, and then race to where I was hiding. Once it found me, I’d wake up and have a full-blown panic attack.
I had a hard time being in the backyard playing with the kids. Every time it would pass over us, I’d go inside and try to breathe through the panic.
I didn’t know what to do. My psychiatrist prescribed me some medication to help with the panic episodes. I dealt with it as best as I could.
In January of 2020, exactly two years ago, NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Calabasas_helicopter_crash
The news of this crash was everywhere. Every news outlet, social media platform, and conversation with coworkers and friends centered around this crash for what seemed like weeks. It was impossible to escape. It’s easy to tell someone to just unplug, stop checking social media, stop responding to texts and emails, and stop watching TV. But doing it for weeks really is difficult. When everyone around you is talking about it, when people are sending you text messages about it, you can’t just unplug and ignore.
So, there I was, face to face with the images of this horrific helicopter crash and thinking about the horrible moments these poor people faced in the last minutes of their lives. Fight or flight mode engaged. Trauma responses initiated.
I couldn’t escape the media attention this awful event received. In a way, it was exposure therapy for me. Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities or situations https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy#:~:text=Exposure%20therapy%20is%20a%20psychological,feared%20objects%2C%20activities%20or%20situations
It was suggested to me by a therapist to try exposure therapy. She suggested I look at pictures of helicopters first, then videos, and then I should try to find the company and crew that took care of me the day of my stroke. What happened instead was accidental, in your face, exposure therapy because of this crash.
I tried looking away, but for some reason, I couldn’t. I read reports about who was on the helicopter, where they were headed, why it crashed, and even looked at arial images of the crash. Despite what seemed like morbid curiosity, every time I was confronted with news of the crash, I was anxious, agitated, and on the verge of panic.
During this time, I was in talk therapy. My therapist had an option for me to send her written entries between our sessions. I decided to write out a long diatribe. I wish I’d saved that entry, but I didn’t.
After I wrote about how I was feeling, how this crash affected me, and how it was affecting my symptoms of PTSD, I hit send. I fell to floor sobbing. Full body sobs, ugly crying. It lasted awhile, and then it stopped.
For reasons I can’t explain, and don’t understand, seeing and hearing the helicopter rarely affected me after that. I can go into the backyard and play with my kids. I can drive around and see the chopper, and not have to pull over and breathe through it. It seems the exposure therapy really did work.
What happened to the people on that helicopter is tragic. I have so much empathy for them and their families. The crash somehow helped me. I wish it could have been different, though. I wish they’d never crashed, had made it to their destination, and continued their lives. I wish I had found another way to diffuse this trigger.
I feel guilty that their loss benefitted me.
Rest in peace, Kobe, Gianna, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Payton Chester, Sarah Chester, Christina Mauser and Ara Zobayan. I am so sorry for what happened to you.