Last night, a 29-year-old man named Richard Russell did the unthinkable. He used his position as a vetted ground agent at Seattle-Tacoma International airport to tractor tow a Horizon Q-400 into place, boarded that same aircraft, and took off in it. I listened to 25 minutes of audio between him and ground control and what I heard was a vibrant, funny, and energetic young man whose demons had finally won.
If you want to listen to that audio for yourself, you can find it here.
I know that feeling. Mine nearly won last September. It was close, it was very close for me and for Richard, it was fatal. My heart breaks for this witty and fun-loving individual who crashed that plane onto the uninhabited end of Ketron Island last night. My heart breaks for his wife, for his parents, for any siblings he might have had and for the people that were lucky enough to call him ‘friend’ when he was alive. My heart breaks for his coworkers, for his cat or his dog who might be waiting for him to come home when he never will.
Listening to him last night, I drew a lot of parallels to myself and my own situation. Specifically, how, near the end of his flight when he was chewing through fuel and as he was coming to terms with himself that this was it – there was no way he could safely land, there was no place for him to go, and he knew he was going to die, when he said and I quote:
“I got a lot of people that care about me, and uh, it’s gonna to disappoint them that – to hear that I did this. Um, I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Um… I’m just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it ’til now. Uh, just, you know…”
Even in this situation, he never wanted to or intended to hurt anyone and that’s the utter bitch of depression. You don’t want to hurt, and yet you don’t want to hurt anyone else and it’s a constant battle. You get so tired, and you just want to lay that burden down and rest but there is no rest, so you start looking for someone, anyone to help you carry it but you know how exhausting it is and how much it hurts and you don’t want to wish it on anyone… and you’re scared to reach out because you know how awful people can be and that they’ll just label you as crazy. The stigma around mental health issues is so strong and the help when you need it is just not there or is a complete joke… take it from me. I know.
At one point, control tries to get him to make the turn and land at McChord Air Force base’s runway and you can hear it in Richard’s voice when he says, “I don’t want to do that.” I had the same thought when I heard the suggestion. I wouldn’t want to do that. They would hurt me and I’m already hurting enough already. He says, laughing nervously, that he doesn’t want to land at McChord because he’s afraid of what they would do to him.
He diverts his fear with humor, kibitzing with air traffic control about how beautiful the Olympic mountains are, about wanting to visit the J-Pod mother orca and her baby she is mourning saying gaily “I want to see those guys.” His voice alternates between hopeful and mournful, laughter and deep sadness and at no point does he sound crazy or insane. He sounds like a man who has done something out of character, who realizes it, who knows he is at the end, and who just wants to talk with someone for a little while before he goes.
I know that feeling. I know what it’s like to look a loved one in the face and know that they just don’t understand and there are no words, nothing I could say to explain it and have them get it or to make sense in any way to them. The lonliness that brings, the insurrmountable pain, the lost hope and the feeling like there isn’t anyone out there that would understand.
I’ve been dealing with a lot of feelings over this. Solidarity, guilt, saddness, defeat, a savage want and wish that there was someone to reach out to. That there was a way for people like Richard and people like me to get the help that we need but with my own situation, I learned quickly, that there isn’t. There really isn’t. In my situation, I went to the hospital. I told them I didn’t feel safe, that I didn’t want to be alive anymore and the social worker that was supposed to be there in a capacity to help me? She rolled her eyes at me. She asked me what my coping mechanisms were and in a bid to punish me for ruining her night by having her called in, told me they were no good, that everything I did to hold on and make myself feel better were just ‘stressors’ and that I shouldn’t engage in them anymore.
I asked her what I was supposed to do and she said she didn’t know and I needed to “figure it out.”
When you reach out for help once, and that is the response you get? I don’t know if there is a single person on the planet that would reach out for help again. I don’t honestly know what I am going to do if I ever get that bad again.
I hope that Richard never had to feel that way. I am hoping when he broke, this last time, that it was his first time. I hope that he achieved some level of peace looking over the Olympics, with wonder in his voice.
I hope that this incident doesn’t get swept under the rug. I hope, like hell, that the conversation doesn’t turn to “How do we better secure…” and instead turns to “What do we do for those in crisis that they feel like they can reach out, so there is help, so it never gets to this point for anyone else again.”
I think, that for a very long time, we’ve been having the wrong conversation where suicide is concerned. I think we all need to do better in beating back the stigma around mental health. I think we need to change the course of the conversation, and I think we need to learn how to not just listen but to really hear other people in a way that they don’t feel alone. That they don’t feel like suck starting their handgun, or jumping, or hanging, or stealing a friggin’ airplane and sending it into a nosedive is the only answer they have left.
It’s not. But you have to make it to tomorrow to have a better day and it’s disingenuous to think or say anything but the truth when someone comes to you with this kind of a mess in their heart and in their head.
The truth is we don’t have all the answers to their specific situation. The truth is, you don’t have to have a fix or the answer right then and there. The truth is, all you have to do is be there, listen, hurt with your friend or family member for a short time until they feel strong enough to keep going while you simultaneously look for the professional that can potentially supply the answers you ain’t got. And if you run into a ‘professional’ like the one I got? Advocate for your person. Tell that professional they can fuck right off, raise some holy hell with the hospital until they give you someone else.
Sounds impossible, right?
Surprisingly, it’s really not.
It’s only time, a sympathetic, empathetic ear, and shoulder to lean on. An openness and willingness to understand and say, “It’s okay not to be okay.”
In the end, I got lucky. I had people in my corner who didn’t let me quit, took me in, and let me have a week to just breathe and let some of the stress, anxiety, and worry fall away.
Richard didn’t get that, for whatever reason, and I feel that right down to my very core.