United Anger

this is a very long post, but I think it’s worth the read. I was trying to connect a lot of ideas that are related to “Story of Pain”.

The other day I was texting with a friend in Billings, MT when my phone rang. I answered, assuming it was she, but instead found myself listening to a United Airlines supervisor at the Billings airport. He was upset about an email I had written to the airline. The conversation did not go well.

About 10 days earlier my flight from Denver to Billings had hit a nearly catastrophic patch of clear air turbulence. Seemingly out of nowhere the plane dropped almost 1,000 feet in about 12 seconds. This is kind of like falling off the Chrysler Building in NY. However, that’s a misleading comparison because it didn’t drop in one smooth fall, but instead bounced up and down and pitched from side to side at the same time. When the madness began to abate a half a minute later, a stunned silence was punctuated by cries and moans.

In my email to the airline I had complained about their response to, and communication after, the incident. Rather than calling to address the issues I had brought up in my email, the supervisor was calling to defend himself. In rapid-fire delivery, he let me know that he had six people there to meet the plane, and that they had done everything they could to make sure that everyone was taken care of. This included setting up a triage area, and he assured met that no one – well one other guy he heard about – got past him. Finally, after waiting for a break to respond, I cut him off with something like, “Hey, hey, hey hold on please.” He stopped long enough for me to tell him that it was clear that he was a caring and passionate individual, and that I wasn’t blaming him personally. However I explained, “Clearly your system failed me, and I got past you, so I’m really confused as to why you’re not trying to figure out what went wrong rather than telling me what went right, when clearly it didn’t go right for me.” He continued on explaining that he and his team had worked tirelessly to make sure that everyone was taken care of. That’s when I started to get really frustrated.

To be clear, I was not physically injured by the turbulence, but many other people on the plane were, including a flight attendant who was still unconscious as we left the plane. A woman across the aisle from me had cracked her head and was clearly in a lot of pain. Later, when I reached the baggage claim area, I saw her wandering around with a friend who had come to meet her. I was shocked that no was giving her aid or getting her to a doctor.

The day following the incident I had written to the airline to find out how the injured flight attendant was doing, but I got no response. A week after that I took to twitter to see if I could get an answer. My tweet led to a little bit of back and forth, and the United Airlines’ tweeter “escalated my case for review”. This language, and the airlines’ response in general, was baffling to me. I had been on a flight that scared the hell out of everyone on it, and injured many people. It seemed logical that if the airline can get everyone on a flight an email, letting us know that our flight was delayed by 7 minutes, that they could check in with us after such a traumatic event.

During the flight I had been reading a book, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, which attempts to make sense of how deep-seated, and often unconscious, habits shape the behavior of individuals, institutions, and societies. I was reading it just before we started to fall and pitch so alarmingly. Ten days later I’m still reading, and it’s giving me insight into United Airline’s institutional culture as well as my own reactions to it.

Social scientists have done a lot experiments to figure out ways in which habits can impact our behaviors, performance, and our success. By examining the results we can learn about ourselves; why we do what we do, and what we can do to change how we do things. I had been introduced to “The Power of Habit” on a flight a couple of weeks earlier. I was telling my seatmate about a film that we’re working on, “Story of Pain”, which focuses on the work of Dr. John Sarno and his insights into the relationship between stress and pain. As I talked to him about how we often habitually “hold our stress” in certain parts of our body, he pulled out the book and said, “You gotta read this.”

He was right, as it contains many threads that are deeply connected to “Story of Pain”. For example, it illuminates the idea that if we can become aware of habitual behaviors that we engage in, especially unconscious ones, then we have a much better chance of changing those behaviors. One metaphor for unconscious stress asks people to imagine that when we are stressed out and unaware of it, it’s kind of like having one’s foot on the brake and the gas at the same time. When we become aware of the fact that our foot is on the gas we can start to figure out how to take it off. Mindfulness mediation can help people to become more aware of how their bodies respond to tension. When we are aware, we can start to change our habitual response.

My from Denver to Billings was delayed due to a missing pilot. Having slept only a few hours the night before I nodded out as we waited at the gate. When we pulled away in preparation for takeoff, I woke up and began to read a couple of chapters of the habit book. I put it down when the friendly flight attendants came by with coffee, and then I closed my eyes to meditate.

Concentrating on my breathing, I was in a calm state. When I heard a loud bang it didn’t register that strongly. Even when the plane started to drop, bounce, and pitch in extreme ways, it took me some time to realize what was going on. When I finally opened my eyes and looked out the window I saw the wing swing violently against the horizon. At times we were at such an extreme angle, it seemed as if I was looking straight down. In my meditative state I was able to hold onto the idea that I had no control over the situation. As such, I reminded myself that a fear response wouldn’t help me in any way. It worked. In quite possibly one of the most violently traumatic moments in my life, I was able to stave off fear.

As the bumping, shaking and dropping tapered off, a flight attendant came on the speaker system to explain that we had hit some turbulence, and that we should stay seated. Shortly thereafter two flight attendants moved cautiously towards the back of the plane. They crouched low, holding on tightly to the seats as they went. Their posture signaled that we had reason to fear another attack of violent air. After a few minutes they announced that the other flight attendant was badly injured and instructed us all to stay in our seats. My neighbor, a rugged construction worker, was ashen faced. I tried to make conversation but he didn’t crack a smile when I said, “That was interesting”. I was actually feeling pretty good, buoyed by the fact that we appeared to be safe, and that I had been able to stay calm. I looked across the aisle and saw that a woman in the window seat was holding her head, and was clearly in pain. My sense of calm began to fade as I sensed the feeling of aftermath on the plane, and the fear that it might happen again.

While working on “Story of Pain,” I had begun to look into mediation as a means of dealing with mindbody-based pain and health issues. I have been practicing for about six months now, and I have found it extremely helpful in lessening my own unconscious anxiety. The fact that I was meditating when the chaos hit clearly helped me to stay calm in that moment. However, my anxiety blossomed as we started our descent into Billings. As the plane began to bounce and shake again, I realized that the pilots had not come back on the intercom to explain what had happened, or to prepare us for the shaky descent we were dealing with.

The lack of information from the cockpit, and the increasing understanding of how severe the incident with the turbulence had been, on top of the progressively shaky landing, caused my fear to spike. My mind began to try to fill the information void, and I searched for an explanation for what might be wrong. I imagined that perhaps the pilot had been injured during the turbulence and that the less-experienced assistant was handling the landing. I wondered if the wings, or perhaps the engines, had been damaged by the violent shaking of the plane. As I raced to understand what was going on, I thought that maybe the injured pilot had been able to put the plane on autopilot after the turbulence, but was now trying to fly despite being hurt. The point is, without any communication from the cockpit, I felt unsafe and insecure and was left to search for possible answers to fears that should have been allayed by the pilots. As I write this, it’s clear that my habitual response – of mentally escalating the danger – had been suppressed by my mediation efforts, but at some point, my calm was worn down and the floodgates opened.

The airport in Billings is up on the top of a ridge, so it seemed like all of a sudden we were nearing the ground, and then almost without warning we hit the runway hard. For a moment it felt as if we might actually tip over as the plane listed severely to the right, but the plane quickly righted itself. I have been in stressful landing situations in which the plane erupts with clapping when the wheels touch down. There was no clapping as we sped down the runway. My thoughts turned to prepping for my shoot. I only had two days to shoot while I was in Billings, and I wanted to make sure that I was calm and ready to leave the airport with a clear sense of what I needed to do.

We were asked to stay in our seats when we hit the gate so that medical personnel could come to the aid of the injured flight attendant. In short order, a team of medics rushed to the back of the plane. We stayed seated as requested, but very quickly thereafter someone announced that we should hustle off the plane because they needed more time to prepare to put the injured flight attendant on a body board. Our exit was calmly chaotic. Everyone wanted off, but there was still a communal sense of tense order as we deplaned. I later found out that all three flight attendants went to the hospital by ambulance with their injuries. The news reported that the one in the back was unconscious and bleeding from her ears as she was taken from the plane.

When I walked off the jet way into the airport, I looked around and was surprised that I didn’t see anyone from United. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I was confused to only find a bunch of people milling around waiting for the next flight. I expected someone would be there offering assistance. I still felt fine, but I would have liked to know there was someone to contact if I had any questions.

I hustled to the bathroom to wash up, as I had been unable to leave my seat on the flight. When I came out of the restroom, I told someone who seemed to be waiting for the next flight that it was probably going to be delayed. I stood around for a moment trying to assess the situation. Like me, it seemed that most of the passengers had wanted to get the hell out of there.

After a very short time, I went downstairs to meet the person I was interviewing. When I found her in the baggage claim area, I explained that the flight had been a bit nuts and then set down my bag so I could build my camera. Looking up, I spotted the injured woman who had been across the aisle from me and I pointed her out to my new friend. A friend was there to meet here, but she looked like she still needed help. I was surprised that no one was giving her any kind of medical care. Then I thought of how odd it was that the pilots had never come back on the intercom to explain what had happened. As far as I could remember, we had only heard from the very scared sounding flight attendants. I explained all this to my new friend as I concentrated on calmly putting together my camera.

Having just read a couple of chapters of “The Power of Habit” I was very conscious of my behaviors as I pulled my camera out of the bag. I knew that, in situations like this, when someone is waiting for me, I have a tendency to rush. I was able to remind myself to move slowly and thoughtfully, as I needed to be focused to make sure that everything was working. I also knew that focusing on the task in a mindful way would help me to calm down after the traumatic landing.

When we got outside, the winds were whipping wildly. I realized that this might have been why the landing had been so bumpy. We shot for a few hours and then I went back to my hotel room to download my footage. It was the first moment I had alone since the plane incident, and I realized that despite my efforts to stay calm, present, and focused, the seriousness of the incident had taken a toll on my nerves.

I focused on what Dr. Sarno had to say about whiplash. I knew that if one expects whiplash or believes it can happen from a fender bender, that it was more likely to occur. I reminded myself that I’d been on the cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island a dozen times with getting it, so there was no rational reason I would get it from this flight. I also thought about the fact that so many others would.

Later that night, when I was shooting again, in a quiet bar, I mentioned the flight. The bartender overheard me and told me that it had made the national news. When I got back to the hotel I read the stories and was shocked to hear about a baby that flew several rows backwards and to find that the badly injured flight attendant was in a coma. When I got back to the hotel, I wrote to United Airlines to see if they could tell me more about how she was doing. I was surprised that they hadn’t followed up with me or the other passengers.

My brother, who is a well-known social psychologist, is writing a book about power and we have talked about the subject at length. Lack of information makes people feel powerless. The fact that we got on information from the pilots was terrifying, when we have a lack of power due to our jobs or poverty, it can also affect our health. Our mother had breast cancer when we were in junior high school. She had a terrible working relationship with her boss at the time. Even though it was 35 years ago (when I was 12) I remember her coming home from work and complaining about her work situation. Though she is skeptical about some aspects of my work on “Story of Pain,” she has stated that she believes the stress she was under contributed to her illness. When we are forced to repress our emotions, the feelings become unconscious, but they still affect our bodies.

Dr. Gabor Mate, who we have interviewed for our film, confirms the likelihood of this hunch. In his book, “When the Body Says No”, he points to several studies that show a powerful correlation between the repression of emotions and disease. One study that he points to makes it painfully clear that when a woman has a breast lump, the level of her emotional repressiveness is highly predictive of whether or not that lump will be malignant.

When people do not feel listened to or respected, their sense of their own power is affected. As the Neuroendocrinologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky learned from studying apes, low-status primates have much worse health outcomes than high-status apes. If their status positions are reversed, so are their health outcomes. His data shows us that low status can cause stress and anxiety. The physician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris saw this effect in the clinic she ran in a high poverty area. Once she stopped treating the symptoms of stress such as anxiety, asthma, and stomach problems, and started to address the stress itself, she found a great deal more success in helping her patients to heal.

The conundrum is that while repressing our emotions can affect our health negatively, we often run into problems with social interactions if we express them too freely. It’s also important to be aware of when in the guise of being “positive” we are denying our negative feelings. Often times, when we express emotions in “inappropriate ways,” it’s a signal that repression of one kind or another is at play in the interaction. That is to say, that while repression of anger is not good, our inappropriate expression of anger can also be related to the unconscious, and to our habitual repression of our emotions.

After a week of travel I returned home to North Carolina on two uneventful flights. Despite the harrowing experience that I had had the week before I wasn’t nervous about flying. However, I was exhausted when I got home, but I still had to get right back to work. As I checked my mail, I saw an article on the front page of yahoo calling for a prohibition against lap babies on planes. The article was written in response to the flying baby on my flight that had ended up several rows back after the turbulence. It reminded me that I still didn’t know what happened to the stewardess. I turned to twitter to see if I could get info from United in that way. I first got a few dismissive boilerplate responses. I tweeted them a picture of my boarding pass and asked again. They direct messaged me and offered to get my “issue” resolved.

The next day I got yet another boilerplate response from United explaining that that due to privacy concerns they couldn’t tell me anything about the flight attendant. Then they added, “ Turbulence is an inherent part of travel although it is not always this severe. We ask that all passengers have their seatbelt securely fastened when seated at all times. The passengers who were injured werenot wearing their seatbelts.”

This made me livid. Clearly they saw me as a potential litigant instead of a passenger who deserved information. Further, it was clear to me that some people who did have on their seatbelts had also been hurt, and this seemed like a sentence designed to deter litigation.

Back on my phone call with the supervisor, after about 20 minutes of back and forth, I let go with some inappropriate anger and some choice words. I had become increasingly frustrated by the fact that this gentleman kept talking over me. When I told him this, he shot back that I kept talking over him. I raised my voice considerably (it was about as close to yelling as you can get… ok it was yelling) and spit out some curse words about United and their response. “Listen, I believe that you’re a nice guy and that you worked hard to help people. BUT you FAILED me, so you need to listen to me and try to figure this shit out so you don’t fail the next person. Whatever protocol you had in place failed you… and I’m mad because the assholes at United are treating me like a goddam litigant instead of a person.” Informing me that he was a Christian man, he made it clear that he didn’t appreciate my cursing. But he also started listening a little better.

The question that I had to ask myself though was why I cared so much? Like I said, I hadn’t been hurt, I didn’t need medical attention, and I didn’t plan to sue anyone. As my yelling makes clear, my response wasn’t exactly socially appropriate. I know that I have a very difficult time when I feel un-listened to. It makes me feel powerless.

The study of power, like the study of habits, is integral to a more complete understanding of how stress affects our bodies. Lack of information makes us feel powerless and can lead to anxiety and stress. Many studies have shown this fact and it explains why when we are on hold with customer service, a voice comes on periodically to tell us that someone will be with us soon. Personally, I find this enraging. However, I also know that it’s better than having no idea when someone might speak to me. This is also why I became increasingly frustrated by United’s response to the situation.

Even while I was on the phone reacting with anger, I again wondered exactly why I cared so much.. I think it was clear to me that their response was lacking. I wasn’t seeking compensation. They had taken 10 days to even respond to my question, and only because I had made a stink on Twitter. When they did finally respond they didn’t seem to have any interest in listening to me or addressing my concerns. Instead I was stuck listening to all of the things the supervisor thought they had gotten right.

He assured me that he had personally told everyone coming off the plane, the address of the website to visit if they had questions. I suggested perhaps that they have a card with this information to hand out. People who are shock do not have the best memory for the exact address of a website. Lastly, I told him, “If you treat passengers as potential litigants rather than potential allies, you’ll get litigants rather than allies.” I was calling to help and I had been dismissed.

In the end he said, “Ok, I hear that we should have information to hand out in these situations. That makes sense. I’ll pass that on.” With that, I hung up. I took a deep breath and I had a beer. I thought about the flight, my conversation, and my automatic responses, working to find clues that would help me to change my habitual responses to difficult situations. Surprisingly, I haven’t heard back from them since.

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