My company, Suntra Modern Recovery, was born out of the trauma that I experienced on Sept 11, 2001.
It was the kind of day that pilots love flying on. Fall flying is really enjoyable because airplanes perform better in cool air. The engines rev up faster and takeoff rolls are shorter. Planes leap with lighter touches and climb faster. As the humidity and turbulence of summer departed, September 11th was a beautiful morning to go flying.
I vividly remember preparing my aircraft for take-off that morning. I remember walking around the plane in the crisp early morning air. Walk-arounds are a safety routine that pilots perform before every flight to make sure that no external damage has occurred. It is an awesome privilege to be on the ground so close to an amazing machine. I took some extra time to enjoy my walk-around that morning. After ensuring that the aircraft was safe, I returned to the flight deck to have a cup of coffee and prepare the aircraft for departure.
As I taxied my plane and turned onto Runway 04 at Newark Airport, I took a moment to appreciate my view of the New York skyline. I remember taking in the beauty of southern Manhattan, anchored with the Twin Towers.
Flying is second nature to pilots. What worries a passenger doesn’t phase a pilot. We take off and land over a thousand times a year and we do enjoy our jobs. Lining up the aircraft on the runway and taking the throttles forward to maximum thrust gives a pilot a little thrill each time. I remember the sportiness of the jet that morning, breaking ground and climbing to altitude in the inviting fall air.
Departing the New York area is busy for a pilot. There is a lot of chatter on the Air Traffic Control radios. Many demanding procedures must be followed. Twenty minutes after departure the intensity of the work dissipates, and pilots settle in for the rest of the flight, likely with a cup of coffee and a fuel plan that is monitored during the course of the flight. It is very rare for anything unusual to happen. Pilots are always prepared for an emergency, but 99.9% of the time flights are routine and predictable.
I was drinking my coffee when I heard, “All aircraft on this frequency, prepare to land at the nearest suitable airport.”
I had never heard anything like that from ATC. Air Traffic Control doesn’t tell pilots where to land, or to divert; pilots tell ATC that, and only when there is a problem on the aircraft. The word “suitable” stood out. A suitable airport is not necessarily one that the airline flies to. Instead, it’s the closest airport that will accommodate the aircraft for landing and of course a future takeoff. It seemed that ATC wanted us on the ground, fast. But why?
We were on a short flight that morning. When this directive came from ATC, we were already descending for our scheduled destination airport. For that reason, our destination airport was actually the “most suitable.” I questioned ATC, “What’s going on?” The controller responded with a flat voice, “An aircraft has crashed into the World Trade Center.” I thought that a small plane must have had a mechanical problem. An unfortunate event. I never imagined that it was an airliner.
A lot happened in the next 30 minutes. We landed safely, taxied our aircraft to the gate and scheduled to turn around soon. Our passengers quickly exited, completely oblivious to anything unusual. I hadn’t mentioned anything on the PA. I walked to the boarding area where I watched in horror as the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Now I knew that something was going on, but I was still a pilot. I had a flight to prepare so I stayed in professional mode. I went back to the aircraft and we started boarding for our return flight to New York City.
With a full airplane and ready to taxi out to the runway, ATC called to inform us that a third aircraft had crashed into the Pentagon. All airspace in the United States had been shut down. I got on the PA system and told the passengers, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have been informed that a third airplane has crashed. All flights are now canceled. We will be deplaning shortly.” I broke down in tears, I couldn’t make any sense of what was happening.
There were several other airplanes from the same base now grounded at the airport. In shock, we got all of the crews together. We couldn’t get any calls through to the airline, so we decided to drive the entire eight hours home. I called a car rental and reserved one of the few cars left at the airport.
Somehow I knew that I needed to be home that night. Yet when I got home I drank, and I drank for 3 days straight.
I’m generally reluctant to tell my 9/11 story because I feel ashamed that the situation affected me so much. We all shared the experience of that day together – how is my story more traumatic than anyone else’s experience?
We rarely understand how trauma has affected our lives until many years later.
In the weeks and months after 9/11 I showed classic symptoms of PTSD, a diagnosis which until then was usually only assigned to military veterans. My love for flying dissipated. Thoughts of going back to work made me nervous. I could no longer sleep. On nights before I was going to fly, I was filled with dread. I turned to alcohol to cope with a career that I no longer enjoyed.
I think a lot of my trauma had to do with the responsibility I felt as a pilot. Pilots are proud of the machines that we fly and when we are in charge of our planes we take care of them as if we own them. We are like farmers with their tractors or machine operators on factory floors. We do our best to ensure that the plane is always flown safely and lands softly. Collective safety is always our goal.
It’s this pride that made September 11th so traumatic for me. The perpetrators of 9/11 used airplanes in an unimaginable way. I had spent my entire professional life ensuring the safe use of a plane. Their actions were an assault on everything I stood for.
While I drank heavily before 9/11 and showed signs of addiction long before, I had never let substance use interfere with my responsibilities as a pilot. After 9/11 I began to use alcohol in a different way. I needed it to cope. I never sought therapy because it never even occurred to me. I thought I was able to manage my drinking on my own because I would never drink on nights before a flight. But during my alone time, I used alcohol as an emotional crutch to help me withstand the darkness that surrounded my life.
In the months that followed, my airline transferred me to New York City. In search of excitement, I immediately hit the club scene. From that moment, my substance use skyrocketed. The feeling of relief I experienced when I partied and experimented with drugs became increasingly more important to me than my career. Fueled by adrenaline and hypnotized by this newfound lifestyle, I quit my job as a pilot on a whim.
Career-wise, I was always lucky. I was immediately offered a sales job that paid me more than I could ever have imagined. This position not only supported my cocaine and alcohol use, it was encouraged. I thought that I had finally made it to the “Big Leagues.”
This new euphoric life lasted about two years before I became too depressed to function. Surrounded by excess and devoid of happiness, I realized that I was addicted to cocaine and alcohol and needed to change my life. I wanted better for myself.
After many failed attempts I was finally able to commit to recovery. As of this year, I have been continuously sober for 13 years. Although achieving sobriety was the hardest thing I have ever done, it has been the greatest thing I’ve accomplished in my life thus far. During my recovery journey I was able to build a successful company, sell it to United HealthCare, graduate with an MBA, and father two amazing sons.
Suntra Modern Recovery is a beautiful product of my trauma, addiction, and success wrapped into one. I could never have imagined that my path would lead me here or that my life’s work would be to help other people achieve recovery. I’m grateful for it and wouldn’t change a thing.