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"ONE PILOT'S STORY" ARCHIVES
A new beginning, out of the ashes….
My name is Beth and I am a grateful alcoholic; my story begins in northeastern Pennsylvania. Born as a daughter to Bernard and Barbara; both very hard-working, middle-class folks - who believed in the American dream. A large family home on several acres of land. Growing up very much committed in the Catholic faith, mass every Sunday, and volunteering in the church. I was the baby with an older brother and two years between us. We had a beautiful childhood, growing up with horses and all kinds of farm animals. My dad has always been my hero. He served in Vietnam and had strong family values, excellent work ethic and was a very humble man. My folks grew tired of working blue collar factory jobs and began their own business in the eighties. My folks were busy growing their business and traveled often, when my brother and I were teenagers. My mom is a strong woman, who grew up with an alcoholic father, she herself becoming under the grips of the disease throughout her life. My earliest recollection of her day drinking is when I wasn’t allowed to drink the water she kept in the glass in the cupboard. It took me years to figure out what that was. The most vivid memory of my grandfather is sitting at his kitchen table in one hand a lit cigarette in the other, always a Shiltz beer. He was also the man that told me girls don’t fly airplanes.
I remember my first drink, sneaking sips of my dad's Genesse 12 horse ale and recapping them, when I was around twelve. This was also around the first time I had ever been drunk. My girlfriend and I were home alone at my house. My folks had a well-stocked bar, straight out of the seventies home décor magazines. Wood, stone and mirrors. Glasses hanging from a rack above the counter. My friend and I thought it would’ve been a good idea to make what we called “suicides;” A concoction of mixing a little of everything in a glass equal to twelve ounces - and having two each. I recall finishing her second one. I don’t remember much that night, other than my girlfriend getting sick and I had to clean up her puke and tell my folks how troubled she was. No one ever noticed the missing alcohol. To my best recollection this was the first sign I was drinking alcoholically. There was no stopping when I started and no concern for the consequences. With each encounter I had with alcohol or drugs, this was my experience. I avoided most trouble in high school. I held a passion for animals and wanted to become a veterinarian; however, I didn’t want to endure 8 more years of school. After graduation, I married my high school sweetheart, became a waitress and found a hobby in doing drugs. Horses were still very much a part of my life. It wasn’t the same, though. I was unhappy.
That’s when my career in aviation bloomed. I met my first flight instructor in the restaurant where I was working. I had this dream of flying and always thought it untouchable; despite my folks' best efforts at letting us know we could do anything in the world we truly desired. When my customer, Doc, asked what my plans were, I very literally answered. “I am saving my money to buy an ultralight; I think it would be cool to fly.” From there, it blossomed into the career I have today. As my journey continued, I learned many things about aviation. One rule not allowing a place for drugs ever. Unless of course, I was going to become a drug runner like Rik Luytjes, who was pretty infamous and lived not too far from me. I never really thought I was built to break the law. I don’t believe I could handle the stress if I were questioned. Not to mention, my first flight instructor was a DEA agent. So, I stuck to the path of
earning my ratings and looking for work. During this entire period of my life, if I drank, I got wasted. But since I didn't do it often, I didn’t see the problem. Some others may perceive this differently and looking back I often wore blinders to hide from my own truth.
I moved to Michigan for my first 135 job, with a promise to fly Beech 18’s. I was enamored with classic round motor tail wheel airplanes. Nothing is sweeter than the sound of Pratt and Whitney R 985’s and adjusting the blue flame. I started in the Cessna 310 quickly moving into the Beech 18 and flying around the country as a solo pilot. I was moving car parts at the end of an era, freight haulers in SE Michigan. Drinking had always been encouraged by my male colleagues. In fact, I had the reputation of drinking most under the table; something at the time I was rather proud of. I quickly moved from radial engines to jets. Flying Falcon 20s and DC-9s for a freight company in Michigan. I dug my heels in and stuck with this company being their first female captain ever. Then 9/11 happened, I was ready to be done flying freight. I recently got married and began having children. Flying had taken a back seat to family life and the lack of good jobs didn’t make that decision too difficult. The drinking was still the same, if I drank, I got drunk. I just didn’t feel it was a problem until much later.
I have four wonderful children! They are the pride and joy of my life. I love being a mother and a pilot. My world grew dark from a divorce and left me desperate to get back to my profession. It was the only thing I knew that could support us all, and I would be happy doing it. One day a friend called and said, “so you ready to get back at it” - “oh hell yes,” I responded. That was in corporate aviation. I had been out of the game for nearly 7 years. I was like a caged lion being released into the wild. There was some serious partying to catch up on. Those first trips proved how much of an alcoholic I was. Once I started, I did not stop, not until I was unable to drink anymore. This was a period in my life where my friends had noticed maybe there was a problem. One friend said, “I don’t get it, most people drink, feel good and slow down. You drink, feel good. Then its balls to the walls, drinking faster than the first.” I thought that was weird to say! Corporate flying was the perfect job: high salary, little bits of flying, great layovers, but you had to be flexible, even with your family plans. It was challenging because I loved being a mom as well. That ended with the great market crash and a severance package. It was time again to look for a job. I was off for a bit and feeling wonky as I always did when I wasn’t able to be in the skies. I always practiced binge drinking during these times off. I became a beer connoisseur at one point, but there were too many calories in beer. I had to exercise too much to get rid of that. Wine was good but had too many MSG’s. I couldn’t justify buying the expensive stuff with the way I drank; I didn’t drink for taste. Vodka became my drink of choice because it was cheap. It didn’t taste good. It was like drinking kerosene. Who was I kidding, I would have consumed jet fuel if it had quenched the never-ending thirst.
Then I got a job at a regional carrier. I learned the airline gig isn’t all bad. I thought: the pay sucks, being junior sucks, but I'm back in the saddle! Flying is awesome. I started out based in NYC. It was hard because I didn’t have a crash pad and time off was rare. But I quickly learned who I could hang out with and go out with. There were few people I befriended at this new place, mostly because I didn’t want them to judge my drinking. I always felt I had a good handle on the bottle to throttle rules and never intentionally violated them. As soon as I was able, I moved to a different aircraft to be based at home. I’ll spend more time with my family, I said. The real reason that hid in a dark recess of my mind was that
I would have more opportunity to drink. All this was so unclear to me at the time. By now in my drinking career, the duration between binges had started to become smaller. I began to notice problems that resulted directly from drinking. Friends and family had brought this to my attention on more than one occasion. A few brushes with the law, nothing that could be proven or would result in any sort of consequence. During one episode, I had difficulty with a colleague at work. It resulted in me being questioned by my company and asked to do an evaluation at a facility to see if I had a problem with alcohol. So, was this the turning point for me? Is this what it came down to? I agreed to do the evaluation. I didn’t feel I had a choice in the matter. At the time, I hadn’t had a drink in three months, the evaluation lasted a week. I had to disclose some of my baggage which I actually felt relieved about, and I could honestly answer the questions about alcohol because it had been three months. I made myself believe that I didn’t have a problem. I realized then my biggest justification was my perception of an alcoholic. In my mind, an alcoholic is someone cooking a squirrel on a stick under a viaduct. Since I had a nice home, a few cars, four children well-adjusted, doing well in school, there is no way possible I could be an alcoholic.
Justification of my disease had become my best defense over the next few years. When I was shaky it wasn’t because I was having withdrawal, it was because I had low blood sugar and needed to eat. Everyone knows pilots are run ragged and we don’t have time to have healthy meals. Before long, I started to realize that I needed three days to recover and feel normal after a binge; for the shakes to go away, and my heart rate to slow down. Even visiting my AME was a chore. It took several hours to try to complete an EKG, and it was something I had to work on. The sickness I felt the first of the 3 days was absolutely horrible, however I continued this path, justifying each symptom. At one point, I wrote a letter to the Hims chair at ALPA and asked what I could do if I thought I may have a problem. I was told I could speak with my company about my issues and go from there. I would be protected by Alpa from company retaliation. I so desperately wanted to hide all of this from my company, telling them was a last resort. I was a female pilot, there’s no way these guys are going to treat me fairly, just another nail in the coffin for female aviators. I didn’t want to be that girl. I was one of the guys for so long that I heard all of the tales and worked really hard to be part of that collective and respected as an equal, showing weakness was not in my make-up. I continued to binge drink and the recovery duration became less and less. The disease became all consuming. I held no notion as to what was going on inside my body and my head. That’s when my storm was entering its mature stage. I began taking as much time off of work as I could, to drink and recover. Such an insidious job! I was now working full time binge drinking and recovering, making all kinds of deals in my head, with God, the devil and any other possible remedy I could think of.
I’ll never forget the torment I felt, going to mass on Sunday mornings with my family, hungover. There I would sit and blame God for making me this way, blaming God for the pain and suffering I was in. Forgetting the freewill I was gifted at birth. I’d pray for relief from my misery, knowing full well the relief I sought was only on my terms and conditions. I held the power to make this happen. The insanity, was incredible. By now, I have called off many trips and ran out of sick time. Not working was not working. On one fateful day, the stars aligned, and my prayers were going to be answered. Not in the way I wanted or expected but answered, nonetheless.
That day was July 24, 2017, I had an early morning show. I drank the day before. I just got back from a basketball weekend with my son. I really didn’t have a good feeling about going to work that day, but I was out of sick time. Finally, I figured what the hell, it had been like 8 to 10 hrs. from my last drink to the best of my recollection. So, I showed up at the gate, met my captain and crew. I introduced myself and was told we had a jump seater - who will have to ride up front with us. I met them; they happened to be an FAA agent. Our flight was delayed with maintenance and the fed asked me for all my credentials since we had time, he thought he would do a spot check. I did intentionally keep my distance from him and was evasive when he asked any questions. The fed saw red flags, which unbeknownst to me, he expressed to the captain and gate agent. The captain was wandering around on his phone and would occasionally ask me questions, like if I had seen maintenance. I was having a conversation with captain, head of maintenance and a red coat on the jet bridge. It was just general bull about the delay, people's patience, etc... Shortly after, the captain informed me base management wanted to see me. I still was completely ignorant of what was going on. I was sitting in the base manager's office when I was told I was going for a reasonable suspicion drug and alcohol test, and I should call someone to meet us over there just in case I needed a ride home. I was totally perplexed by this statement and unsure what to do I just complied with all their wishes. When I blew in the tube and the woman showed me the results, I was dumbfounded. There's no way! It must be wrong, you should absolutely do this again, I told her. One more test concluded positive results. Honestly in those next moments, I felt a sense of relief. I knew my prayers had been answered, not in the way I chose, but answered. I immediately did not know what to do, my life as I knew it was over so I did whatever a good alcoholic would do, I went and got a bottle and began to drink. I got wasted. Over the next few hours, I reached out to my epac, told them my tale of woes, and was urged to go to the recovery center asap. But I have a life, I'm a single mom I have to square up my life before I leave, I need a few days. Gently urged that sooner is best. I was so fearful about what was coming next. The day after, I was flown to a meeting and told my fate at the company would be decided and I would be contacted later. Two days later, I was on my way to a recovery center about to embark on a new journey.
28 days was the FAA mandate to be in a center for recovery. I kept thinking of the movie with Sandra Bullock, as it turned out - this was nothing like that movie. No hot baseball player, no freedoms to roam the woods or fraternize with male counterparts, no phone, no tv, a required bedtime and required classes, mealtimes and no way to go to store when I wanted. This was my new beginning and I felt hopeful that something would change. My family supported me unconditionally throughout my recovery. I learned that it was not a weakness falling prey to this disease, I rather see it as a gift. An opportunity to learn to live life on life's terms, to truly see all the beauty in the world and live without fear. No one in my family ever discussed this disease and it was still seen as a weakness of character. Many conversations have followed, and I am still learning to proudly wear the scarlet letters on my chest. BOAF has contributed immeasurably to my recovery. After 29 days, I was released from my safehold, back to the world which I wasn’t sure how to navigate without alcohol. At this point, I had been exiled from the kingdom, stripped of my medical and soon to be stripped of all my credentials that I coveted so dearly. I had many tasks to complete and the most daunting was 90 in 90. I thought maybe I would drive a bit since the community in which I lived and had four children in school may recognize me and those dreadful scarlet letters would be present for all to see. I tried a few meetings further
away, but I was still living with my charterer defects. After a few attempts at driving to meetings far away from home, I gave in and that began the next answered prayer. I started going to local meetings, very near my house! That’s where I found my sponsor, she is a resourceful, smart, beautiful and humble woman who appeared to me to be a bit of a book thumper and not likely to tolerate my bullshit. April had become my guide, to help me understand the steps, from beginning to end. She insisted she was not going to cosign my antics and as long as I followed a few simple rules, she could help me achieve the peace and serenity that every alcoholic longs for. Over the years, not only did April teach me about the steps, but she also taught me about humanity, humility, grace under pressure, and gratitude. The gift of gratitude seems somewhat simple, but to achieve living in gratitude is something I have to still practice each and every day. The more I practice, the better everything becomes. Overtime with each step I embarked I learned of a new level of peace, facing my fears, letting go and letting God. Growing up catholic one would think that this program that mentions God so much would be easy for me to grasp. What I learned is the difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality equals serenity, and when I discovered this gift, naturally I wanted more. After losing all my licenses, I began a job at Home Depot, I didn’t want my children to suffer as a result of my mistakes, so I dumped my 401k and did my best to keep on keeping on despite what the FAA thought should be next on my agenda. The road to getting my licenses back first had to start with my medical, which took 3 1/2yrs, it was really a comedy of errors and information timing out as a result of the pandemic, FAA moving forward with Huddle, and a few other snafus along the way. At one point I thought I would never set foot in a cockpit again; I was very sad leaving a home group meeting about 2 ½ yrs. in, when I was approached by a well-respected member of our group, Matt. Matt had asked what was bothering me, and I explained that I'm not sure if I ever will fly again. He then asked, “You are very passionate about this flying thing, do you think that God would give you this passion only so you will feel pain?” To this day, when the mountain seems too vast to climb, I think about this one question. I am still a work in progress, and so grateful that I have an opportunity to practice these principles in all my affairs. Knowing its progress, I seek and not perfection. Given the gift of gratitude, and the ability to continue to work these steps in my daily life. There’s still fear, still problems, now I have the tools and some freaking awesome incredibly gifted and intelligent people around me who can help me trudge this road.
Today, I have been reinstated at my airline, a feat myself and many thought impossible. A tribute to living amends with my family, our relationships growing stronger with each day. A respected member of my local AA community, and BOAF. The only meeting, I have ever been late too, was my very first one.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story, I wish you all blue skies. And if you can relate to any of what you have read here, I encourage you to stop by a zoom meeting, listen to other flight crews share their experience, strength, and hope. “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principals before personalities.”
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