Over a decade ago when I struggled with alcoholism, I had brief periods of sobriety, averaging about two months, with the longest stint lasting a year and a half. During my lengthiest interval of abstinence, I acquired a sponsor. Once when I was at her house in Santa Monica doing step work, I stared aimlessly at my Big Book while she read The Doctor’s Opinion aloud from her leather bound Big Book. It occurred to me that the pages of my book, which I owned for years, had red wine and coffee stains. I noticed that the pages of the sponsor’s book were highlighted in pink, yellow and blue ink. While the pages of her Big Book looked like a rainbow, my book looked like a coaster that you would find at a seedy bar.
At that moment, I wanted to escape.
“Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol,” she read.
Then she saw that I was gazing at her door and she said, “You’re not listening are you?”
“I am having a nicotine fit,” I lied.
She stared at me.
“ You remind me of an airplane that’s taking a nose dive,” she said.
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After I recently watched the movie, Flight, that odd conversation came to mind. In the film, Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington) spends a night (and morning) in drunken excess at a hotel with Katerina (played by Nadine Velasquez). After Whip snorts some coke in the early am, the next scene reveals that Whip is a pilot. He walks down the runway to board South Jet Flight 227. Katerina, who formally greets him, is a flight attendant. After some turbulence, which occurs after takeoff, Whip emerges from the cockpit. While addressing the passengers, he secretly grabs two mini vodka bottles, mixes the alcohol with orange juice, and drinks a screwdriver. Later, when disaster hits the aircraft, Whip expertly handles the situation. At one point, he inverts the jetliner in an effort to control the altitude and balance. Right before the plane crashes on a field, its right wing decapitates the steeple of a church where congregation members, all dressed in white robes watch the surreal scene unfold. Once the plane collapses, the churchgoers pull survivors out of the wreckage.
As a seasoned pilot explained in an Air & Space article, flying an inverted plane is a stretch, even though the sequence was loosely based on Alaska Airlines Flight 261. During that tragic flight, pilots flew the jetliner upside down, in an effort to control the height above sea level. The plane crashed into the ocean, killing all of the souls on board.
According to Dr. Carl Greiner the inverted jetliner in Flight is one of the film’s themes. When the crash goes under investigation, to ensure that the incident was a mechanical failure, and not negligence on the part of the pilot, Whip’s toxicology screen, done while he was unconscious at the hospital, revealed a high level of alcohol and drugs. Even though Whip saved 96 of the 102 souls on board, his substance addiction overshadows his heroism. After the crash, he struggles to stay sober, but he relapses, and his alcoholism spirals out of control.
Just like the plane that he flew upside down, Whip’s life capsizes.
Hugh Lang, Whip’s competent attorney (played by Don Cheadle) discovers technical mistakes with Whip’s toxicology report, which nullifies the testimony. During the hearing, the NTSB head investigator Ellen Block (played by Melissa Leo) concludes that after professional scrutiny, the plane had serious mechanical issues, and that other pilots could not have saved the plane. However, there is one loose end. An image of the two vodka bottles that Whip drank on the flight is projected on a screen. Due to the turbulence followed by the emergency on the flight, drinks were not served to passengers. The culprit was a crewmember. All of the other flight attendants and the co-pilot had clean tox screens, except for Katerina, who died during the crash. Due to the fact that she spent the night and morning before the flight drinking and drugging with Whip, her postmortem toxicology report revealed a high level of alcohol and drugs.
The NTSB head investigator presumes that Katerina drank the vodka, and asks Whip to back up that claim. An image of Katerina is projected on the screen, and Whip stares at the picture of his dead lover.
For the first time in his life, he is torn.
Hugh and Charlie yell, “objection!” in an effort to invert the situation. Whip ignores them. He tells the investigative board that Katerina died, after she got out of her seat when the plane was upside down so that she could save a little boy’s life. He admits that he drank the vodka. Then, he says, “I was drunk. I’m drunk right now, Miss Block… I’m drunk right… I’m drunk now, because… Because I’m an alcoholic.”
A Psychology Today article said that the movie focuses more on Whip’s substance abuse, than the co-occurring disorders that triggered his addiction. Whip exhibits self-hatred, which is usually a symptom of depression. And he suffers from PTSD, as a result of the crash.
But in other respects, it shows a man who finds liberty through recovery. After Whip’s admittance during the hearing, he is sentenced to jail time. One of the film’s last scenes shows him leading an AA meeting. He says, “And this is gonna sound really stupid coming from a man who’s in prison…but for the first time in my life…I’m free.”
Recovery is freedom.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance addiction, please call us. At Cycles of Change Recovery Services, we offer a comprehensive evidence-based protocol that treats substance abuse and co-occurring disorders, along with 12-step facilitation. Our compassionate team of licensed professionals, many who are in recovery, provided individualized treatment plans, because one size does not fit all.
We look forward to your call.
Clyman Psy.D, Jeremy. “Flight: Alcoholics are Drug Addicts Too.” Psychology Today. 3 Nov. 2012. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reel- therapy/201211/flight-why-heros-are-drug-addicts-too
Gatins, John. “Flight.” Paramount Pictures. 12 December 2011.
Greiner MD, Carl B. “Flight: The Descent of Addiction.” The Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and Law. 14 June 2103. http://jaapl.org/content/jaapl/41/2/321.full.pdf
Satre, Steve. “Is Denzel’s Upside-Down Flying Trick Plausible?”
Air & Space Smithsonian. 14 November 2012. http://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/is-denzels-upside- down-flying-trick-plausible-123318220/
Silkworth MD, William D. “The Doctor’s Opinion-Alcoholics Anonymous.” Alcoholics Anonymous. http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/en_bigbook_foreworddoctorsopinion.pdf
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