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Flight: The Insanity of Alcoholism

December 2013
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I watched the movie Flight for the first time.  That movie gets the greatest compliment I can give to a movie about alcoholism and the road to the bottom:

It gets the insanity right.

If you don’t know already just how messed up in the head an alcoholic can be, watch that movie – and then come back to this post because this is going to contain spoilers.  If you have no desire to watch the movie, don’t mind having a few things spoiled before watching it or have seen the movie, read on…

It is well-known that we drunks, when properly sobered up, make excellent employees.  The reason for this reality is evident in the opening scene if you know what you’re looking for.  After a night of debauchery Captain Whip Whitaker wakes up with a drink.  After the drink, he straightens out with a couple of lines of coke to “get him going”.  By the time he walks out of the hotel room he’s loaded again.  The Captain then goes on to pour himself a vodka and OJ on the plane to keep his buzz going after punching through a particularly nasty thunderstorm and after he cancels the beverage service because of turbulence*.  He then takes a nice little nap from which he is jolted awake by the plane pitching into the dive that ends the flight and the lives of only four passengers – everyone else survives.

The captain, on awakening, swears off drinking and drugs as many of us do for an impressive few days until he is presented with a challenge that he’s ill-prepared to handle emotionally – oh how I could relate to that, I went through more than a few of those…

Now, I’m going to skip to the end of the movie because the last half-hour or so perfectly encapsulates the insanity of living with alcoholism – at the bottom…

Captain Whitaker comes to the eve of his hearing, having sworn off alcohol yet again and accumulating nine days sober (nine days, 2 hours, 26 minutes if I remember – and yes, I did count like that for three weeks).  The head of his pilot’s union and his attorney get him a room at the hotel where the hearing will take place the next morning.  The attorney hands the captain an enormous folder to study that, amongst other evidence and photos, holds suggested answers to difficult questions that will be asked (yes, that’s how it really works – speaking from experience).  The captain, understandably restless, skips his studying and opts for TV in the hope he’ll fall asleep.  Having checked the mini-fridge (I cringed when he went for the door – I knew he was screwed I just didn’t know how it was going to happen – been there, jumped that shark) only to find that it had been stocked with soda and Snapple.  All through the night there was a noise, a random bumping sound, that was coming from somewhere…  Whitaker has finally had enough and decides to investigate and comes to find that somebody had left the adjoining suite door open.  Sure enough, when he checks out the that room’s mini-fridge, it’s chock full.

The scene fades with him grabbing one of the small bottles after wrestling with whether or not to down it.  I imagine at this point most would hope it’s not too bad, that Whitaker only downs a couple to steady his nerves and loll off to sleep… maybe reserve a little emotion for the worst – only to underestimate how bad “worst” really is.  I knew exactly what was coming.  I’ve lived it.

The next scene begins with the union official and the lawyer standing outside the room talking with the guard they’d placed there to keep an eye on Whitaker.  He reports that all was quiet and nobody had come or gone.  They enter the room to find the neighboring room’s mini-fridge and all of its bottles empty strewn about the room.  Whitaker is hammered and bloody, passed out in the bathroom.  This is the part that hurt me.  I’ve been there so many times.  Just when you think the enablers did their job and everything is going to work out – the drunk has finally gotten the message and is ready to straighten up…  He finds a way to completely pooch-screw the situation.  Now, there’s a point where Whitaker is in the other sweet wrestling with whether or not to drink – he even caps the first bottle and sets it back on the fridge…  When you saw him replace the cap on the bottle, you thought there was hope.  When I saw that, I knew he was already gone.  He was hit when he walked into that room.  This is the insanity of alcoholism – the complete lack of ability to turn away once a certain line in the mind is crossed.  What a nine-day dry, no Twelve Step havin’ drunk lacks is the ability to run like hell when he finds the door unlocked.  He knew what he was going to find in that room.  The difference between Whitaker and me is that I’m on the phone to the front desk as soon as I see the door unlocked…  I recoil from alcohol as if from a flame (more like an inferno).  In short, I’m drunk long before that first drop hits my lips because I can’t win a battle in my mind once I get too close.  Once Whitaker got too close – once he put himself into a situation where there were no physical barriers between him and the drink, it was all over but the shouting.

The drug dealer is then called in to fix Whitaker.  They set out a simple but elaborate spread of drugs to bring him back.  Miraculously it works and Whitaker is made ready for his hearing and actually performs quite well – right up until the last question when it’s time to come to Jesus…  I’ll leave the rest to hang.

Flight is the insanity of alcoholism tucked neatly into a two-hour movie with the exception that there’s usually a lot more puke – and less money to fix things.  The insanity of alcoholism is the complete helplessness – the complete lack of ability – to stay away from alcohol when a line is crossed in the mind.  The sad thing is I can’t describe that line.  It’s different for everyone.  For me, it’s a thought argument that occurs in the gray matter between my ears.  If I entertain the notion that I can or should drink for more than a few seconds, I. Will. Lose.  There are no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.  I’ll be drunk just as sure as the sun will rise because I am a drunk and drink is what drunks do.

*I’ve written a few posts on the fallacy that when alcoholics do something stupid, they do so as “a cry for help” to get caught.  The notion is silly on its face.  We don’t, ever, want to get caught – we just deal with the fallout when we do, or we try to lie our way around it then deal with the fallout if the lies don’t work.  The V&O in the plane at the beginning of the movie ends up being the captain’s undoing.  Sitting at the NTSB hearing at the very end, he’s finally reached his bottom where one more lie is simply too much.  One more day stuck in the madness is too much, it’s either time to get right or get busy dying.  One could argue, mistakenly, that the captain threw those three vodka bottles in the garbage can because he wanted to get caught – it’s one of those perfectly stupid things, the cry for help.  As a drunk, I can tell you that when he threw the bottles in the garbage, he knew they would never be a problem.  He knew that the flight staff would cover for him because he always flew loaded and he’d always gotten away with it in the past.  It just so happened that it didn’t work out that way – it was anything but a cry for help, more like “shit happens”.

Oh, I almost forgot:  Why do drunks make good employees when we’re sobered up?  We have to function like everyone else with 90% of ourselves tied behind our backs just to drink successfully…  Sober us up – you take the ties off and we’re awesome.  Also, we come from a pit of despair – a form of hell if you will.  We tend to be fairly grateful and happy once we emerge from the hole.

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7 Comments

  1. Great post… I had mixed feelings about the film, some of it was just breath-taking and you’re right about the insanity – I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I spent the middle 90 minutes uttering, ‘noooooooo!’ It was so painful to watch – I like a drink, but that kind of drinking is just – I’d be dead!

    It was better the second time round for sure.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Thanks man… I know what you mean about the middle 90. Try living your whole life – for YEARS in Denzel’s part, with everyone you love going “NOOOOOO”. It’s a nightmare brother.

      The good side of that though, is once you’re through it, living a clean life is simply AWESOME. Mmmm, to be free.

      • I was watching one of my favourite films early this morning – The Verdict – Paul Newman, again alcoholism is a theme more than a plot point – but Flight was very much at you…

        Good for you, I can’t imagine how tough it must be, having that moment each way, that drink discourse you describe so well. Long may it last for you! 😀

        And merry Christmas to you!

  2. Kecia says:

    Awesome post Jim…I have yet to see this film. After reading this post, I am definitely going to have to watch it over winter break. This gives me a good lens to watch it through 🙂

  3. serenitypond1977@charter.net says:

    Emily was saying the guy that gave the open talk on mac Island in Oct. His story in the big book grounded. (She said she also thinks )the movie flight was based around his journey. Not posititve on the last part.

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