Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Flight: Why Heros are Drug Addicts Too

Examining a conflicted hero and the psychology of drug addiction

“Flight” is the story of Whip Whitaker.

It should be the story of a hero; an excellent pilot who heroically saved a ton of people by crash landing a plane that most pilots could only dream of doing. He was a truly skillful. There’s segment of the film that chronicles his expert handling of the situation, and it’s a context that shows Whip to be a man brimming with psychological resilience.

With the broken plane crashing to the Earth and death staring him in the face, Whip remained calm. He triumphantly managed his anxiety so as to execute a dazzlingly intelligent plan that safely landed the plane and saved most of those on board; a plan, I might add, that he succeeded in executing only because he also succeeded in soothing and guiding his co-pilot and flight attendant into performing heroically as well. And throughout the trauma Whip acted like a man with rare capability, he truly believed in himself to save the day.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

And, indeed he did. He saved the day, and it was due to the tremendously skillful way in which he managed his identity, his emotions and his relationships.

But, sadly, the story of “Flight” does not end there. Whip may have built a healthy mindset for himself within the context of the cockpit, but the life he was living outside of the cockpit was an entirely different story.

The story of “Flight” is not that of an expert pilot, but of a psychologically unhealthy individual who just so happened to be an expert pilot.

For instance, Whip was drunk at the wheel. Now, of course, Whip used good judgment. He wasn’t so drunk that his performance became impaired. After all, he still saved the day by doing the things that few pilots could’ve done, but the fact that he was technically drunk made “Flight” start to seem like the story of a man who, despite his heroics, was going to contend with a larger system hell-bent on unfairly explaining Whip’s intoxication as the cause of the crash.

But this isn’t the end of Whip’s story. It gets worse. Whip wasn’t simply a great pilot who happened to get drunk during a flight that, for entirely coincidental reasons, turned sour and fell under intense scrutiny. You see, Whip was a raging drug addict; and he was a raging drug addict because of a fundamentally unhealthy personality structure.

Drug abuse was merely one of many symptoms; symptoms stemming from an underlying cause marked by a shattered identity, dysfunctional interpersonal beliefs, maladaptive emotion regulation strategies and other dysfunctional habits.

Let’s step back from the drug abuse for a moment.

Who is Whip? First of all, he’s a man who can’t stop hating himself. He can’t let into his heart any sense of compassion or even praise for his heroics, which is weird because his heroics are so obvious. This movie, as is the case with most movies about drug abuse and dysfunctional personalities, fails to explain Whip hates himself. But deep down he does; he hates himself in a way that he can’t articulate or even recognize. It becomes clear that Whip genuinely believes he’s an incompetent failure incapable of building a life worth living, and undeserving of love from others.

Now we could speculate about where this belief comes from, but the reasons aren’t particularly important. For instance, Whip’s upbringing played an important role. People only come to hate themselves if that’s what they learn in childhood. Being neglected and mistreated by the person whose supposed to provide unconditional love is a prime example. We don’t know if Whip suffered such poor parenting, but what’s crystal clear is that he, in fact, hates himself.

How do I know? Well, I’ll cite one particularly striking point.  After the plane crash, when Whip goes to visit his estranged family his adolescent son storms into the living room and venomously screams that he hates his father. What does Whip do? He agrees; he bear hugs his son and whispers with clenched rage, “I know. I know. I do too.” If that’s not self-hatred I don’t know what is.

But hating oneself and feeling like an incompetent, unlovable failure isn’t the only chink in Whip’s psychological armor. As a natural extension of this fragile, negative identity, Whip’s upbringing and the reality he co-constructed as an adult, taught him certain bad ideas about how to handle emotions too.

Throughout the film Whip is confronted with a storm of intense emotions. There’s the fear from having just barely managed to escape death during a fiery plane crash; there’s the anxiety of a looming congressional hearing that threatens to annihilate his professional life, and, more broadly, there’s the guilt at having abandoned his ex-wife and adolescent son. Whip can handle problems of the cockpit but he has no idea how to effectively manage all these overwhelming emotionally-charged events. Unfortunately, the same developmental process that taught him to hate himself, also taught him to avoid the conflicts in his emotional and interpersonal life.

So, instead of soothing his stress with social support, he spends the movie isolating and withdrawing. He avoids the adoring media, keeps at arms-length those who want to love and support him, and lashes out at those who want nothing more than to ensure that his public image remain intact.

His personality structure is grounded in faulty interpersonal beliefs that other people can’t be trusted to help.

This is where drugs come into play.  Drugs can be an incredibly appealing solution or problem-solving strategy for someone like Whip. Drugs offer an escape, a short-term silver bullet. Alcohol benders and cocaine rebounds serve to block the pain of self-hatred, albeit briefly, and exist as the only logical option to reduce emotions. Unfortunately, drug abuse doesn’t solve problems, it only delays them. Moreover, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, drug abuse is a habit that begins to reaffirm the dangerously maladaptive ideas Whip harbored about himself. For instance, it’s Whip’s long-standing drug addiction that likely estranged himself from his family in the first place, and it’s the unresolved pain of this familial unrest that reinforced that core belief of failure; and it’s this accumulating amount of psychological pain that, in turn, overwhelmed coping resources that were never properly developed to begin with.

In the end, after struggling with addiction every step of the way, Whip achieves the impossible – he effectively treats his drug problem.

If drug abuse is really the result of masking the pain of self-hatred, and an effective avoidant maneuver in response to problems that you don’t believe you can fix, and emotions that you don’t know how to handle then the only way to overcome drug abuse is reflect on your life…decide you are going to perform an about-face and confront the mysterious and insidious internal forces that have been chasing you.

In the end, Whip starts to do this. He turns and confronts his enslavement to alcohol via a grand confession at the congressional hearing; he turns and confronts his negligent, alcohol-infused parenting by openly discussing his lack of identity with his son (the last scene in the movie is Whip genuinely grappling with this conversation); and he turns and confronts his belief that he’s not good enough to be liked by others (as to opposed to earlier in the film when he ducked the flight attendant who truly cared for him, he’s now connecting with his fellow inmates).

Ultimately, “Flight” is a highly entertaining film that houses a tear-jerking performance from Denzel Washington. But for a movie about drug abuse it falls short in the way that such films often do. It depicts the drug abuse without explaining it. It’s not about the impulsive, destructive behavior happening on the outside so much as it’s about the fearful chaos happening on the inside.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

more...

Subscribe to Reel Therapy

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.