NOT NEONATOLOGY: The Suicidal Pilot by Dr. Simon Trepel
I probably, truthfully, would not have cared so much about the shitty thing that Lubitz did, but I was literally stranded on a desert island thousands of miles across the ocean from home when he crashed the plane. Now stranded is a relative term, the island was Hawaii, and I could only be less stranded while being on a desert island if I was in Australia. But that is where I received the parcel of hate that he chose to deliver to my meme mailbox, that elephant part of your brain that never forgets, yet we call it the hippocampus. That would be a crowded university. And knowing I needed to fly home with my 2 daughters, ages 3 and 5, in less than a week meant I was going to binge watch the entire miniseries, ping ponging between a fox and a cnn. And while it was a mystery on TV, for me, I knew early why he turned a plane and 150 living, breathing, loving, people into a Jackson Pollock painting on the side of a valley of death. He loved to fly and he hated to be sad. And he loved what he loved, in his mind, more than you love what you love. He made a calculation that since he could not complete his bucket list, neither could 150 people that contributed to his sadness in no way, so he exchanged a b for an f and practiced relaxation exercises so no one would think he was scared, for about 8 minutes.
There is no such thing as clinical depression, there is the depression your doctor diagnoses you with, and then there are the diagnoses we give ourselves. And it is different from sadness. Depression sucks, its worst feature is not the rewallpapering of your mind into a room you never want to be in, yet you are afraid to leave, because it’s even worse out there. The worst feature is after a while you want to die, but your body still thinks it’s its actual age. So then you get suicidal. And here is where your personality finally gets a say. How do you want to kill yourself?
My first experience with suicide happened about 20 years ago when my friend told me he came home to find his pilot father hanging in the bathroom and my mind went blank after that. There are some sentences you hear in your life, cnacer is one of them if you have read my only other essay since 1990, that act like instantaneous rohypnol is coursing through your brain. When I came back online and processed the story, I learned that if you have depression and you are a pilot, you are likely to lose your career. And if you have depression but it is well controlled on an antidepressant medication, you are likely to lose your career. And that is the secret that they struggled with.
You may argue that there are selfish sides to suicide like there are selfish sides to suffering, but there certainly are more and less selfish ways in how you go about actually ending your life. I realize to him, the pressurized cockpit of the mask of happiness was becoming overwhelming. And I see him that morning, sitting in his kitchen drinking his last coffee shredding the doctor’s note excusing him from school that day even though he finished his homework, because he is not good enough. And as he’s tearing the paper into little bits he’s thinking about shredding the plane the same way, along with the meat luggage of strangers he doesn’t care about. He’s not enough of a man to be a pilot as if gender matters, but that gives him permission to be weak in his mind, the next domino is cowardice and then tragedy.
It’s the mask that we really have to worry about, the mask that helps us hide from the stigma. We wear it so we are not judged, or perhaps have our very childhood dreams that began gliding free as a teenager dreaming to have a powerful engine, only to be dashed like salt and pepper going 500km/h on the side of a hill. I want Marty McFly to appear so we can go back, and I can talk to Lubitz, so we can avoid this feeling of hate that he has projected into me, his last tantrum in a world where he did not get all the toys that he wanted, so he took his plane away. I want to meet all the people that he killed and tell them not to fly that weekend, or to live their life like they are going to die at 35, or soon after 35000ft. I want to tell him not to usher down the aisle of his mind the villain who is to take the final curtain call of his polymorphous perverse existence. Not him, not now.
But what I really want to tell him is that I know he was suffering alone. And I know there are narcissistic aspects to depression and even suicide. And that he does not have to lock himself in the cockpit of his life, but rather, stand up and say, I am a pilot, and I have Depression. And I don’t like how it steals my very ability to find joy and meaning in my life so I have chosen to have it treated. And if my doctor tells me I need time off to heal from an episode, then, just like every other illness, I have that right, without the fear that my job is on the line. Because I don’t want to be a suicidal pilot. Simon Trepel, MD