The pretty South African woman sitting next to me said our flight from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth was taking longer than expected, although I hadn’t noticed. I arrived in South Africa only a few hours before. Jet lagged, I was wrestling with the cellophane wrapper guarding the plastic cutlery that came with my in-flight meal.
She told me she was flying to “PE” (what the locals call Port Elizabeth) to attend a luncheon with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had flown there earlier that day. As she smoothed her cocktail dress and pushed a loose hair behind her ear, she asked if she could squeeze pass me for a quick exit once the plane touched down.
Having learned Clinton was in town, I wasn’t surprised when we landed and could see emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, parked near the terminal. Cynically, I thought of the money and resources spent in the spirit of good deeds, something I too was guilty of as I flew from the U.S. to South Africa for a conference on violence in the Congo. As if there wasn’t plenty of violence in America I could be addressing.
Of late, I had come to expect violence as commonplace. The last two years as a trauma-focused psychotherapist largely involved supporting people as they worked to create lives without violence or its lingering effects. That’s what being “trauma-informed” often means: being violence informed. It wasn’t easy work. I was suffering a bad case of vicarious traumatization from supporting too many people who had been senselessly hurt and were still hurting, often decades after being victimized. Some
were also using violence as a way to presently solve problems. My heart was weary from trying to halt the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Those emergency vehicles were much like the state of my mind: constantly on alert.
It wasn’t until the SWAT team clad in all black — black fatigues, black boots, black bullet proof vests, black helmets, black goggles, and black machine guns — surrounded our plane that I began to think this might not be just about Clinton. My jet lag began to evaporate, replaced by a sense of shock. I blinked several times and leaned towards the window, trying to clear the incomprehensible from my eyes as the men in black surround our plane. Right outside our window one dropped to his belly on the grass lining the tarmac, his legs spread apart behind him. Resting on his elbows, he pointed his machine gun directly at the plane. I thought of the plastic toy soldiers my brother would use to threaten to kill my Barbie.
“What’s this?” I asked the woman sitting beside me, hoping this was customary treatment of flights that follow on the heels of luminaries.
“It probably has to do with Clinton,” she said. There wasn’t any nervousness in her voice.
“I don’t think so,” I said, as my shock morphed into fear.
The tall, slender man sitting by the window agreed with me. His face looked like mine felt: big-eyed and expressionless.
The three of us began surveying the plane. Other people were doing the same. There wasn’t a flight attendant in sight. I felt fear take an icy path across my body, settling in my stomach with a hollow thud. People around me started fumbling for cell phones. I kept scanning for signs, something that might explain what was happening. After what felt like eternity, the pilot’s voice descended from the speakers above our heads.
“You probably can see the officers outside your windows. It’s very important that everyone stays calm. Please don’t use your cell phones. In a moment, they will be coming on the plane. Please stay in your seats. Do not do anything that might make them suspicious. Please do not use your cell phones.”
He sounded like he had just discovered a cobra in the corner of his cockpit and was gingerly walking backwards, trying to get everyone’s attention without provoking the snake. But who or what was our snake?
In my already crisis-driven mindset, it didn’t take much for me to imagine the worst. So this is it. This is how I am going to die. To hell with the pilot, I’m calling G. I’m not going to die without telling him I love him. Will calling him really get me killed? Is there a bomb on the plane? Is one of us a terrorist? What does it feel like to be blown up? Shot? Burn to death? God, I hate it when people scream…
I would have continued to spiral in my apocalyptic internal rant if not for the woman next to me.
“This is crap,” she said. “Now I’m going to miss the entire luncheon. Clinton’s probably already arrived and left by now.” Pointing to the officer outside our window she added, “Look at him. He gets to lie down on the job. Where can I get a job like that?”
The man by the window this time laughed and nodded. I could only sense the tightness in my throat. I told myself to feel my feet on the ground and breathe.
“You don’t sound too nervous about this,” I said, trying not to squeak as I spoke.
“No. This kind of stuff happens all the time.” She was texting rapidly, visibly annoyed by the inconvenience of law enforcement. I was curious about what she meant by “this kind of stuff,” but was more worried a trigger-happy cop would shoot her as she texted her kid’s sitter. I asked if she could turn off her phone anyway, “just in case.” She complied, but as she did, I caught a glimpse of her home screen. It was a photo of her grinning baby boy. My heart sank. What if this wasn’t the usual terrorist hoax? Just three days before, the U.S. had issued a Global Terror Warning for travelers. They had intercepted an Al Qaeda communication that suggested increased likelihood of attacks in northern Africa. What if the would-be terrorists were geographically challenged?
I found myself beginning to psychologically unravel in response to the threat of violence. And as a trauma therapist, I knew all the signs of an impending trauma-based reaction. I was frightened, and on the verge of feeling overwhelmed. I could feel myself starting to dissociate, my mind getting ready for a quick psychological escape. But something also felt non-traumatic. I didn’t feel alone.
I have had my own trials with violence and the threat of violence, and for me facing it alone, and dealing with the aftereffects alone, caused the most suffering. Although on the plane I was scared, and uncertain about the future, there was a cabin full of people — including the seemingly friendly people on my aisle — going through this craziness with me. For me, this was deeply healing.
So I let myself feel drawn to them, these two strangers, like I would be drawn to a buoy if I were drowning. I dropped my usual trauma defense — stoicism in the face of threat — and instead reached out. “I’m from America (as if they didn’t already know). I’m here for a conference at Rhodes University. On violence. Violence in the Congo. Ironic to be greeted by machine guns on my arrival. I also practice trauma therapy. Boy am I having a few trauma-related responses right now! What about you?”
They laughed at my feeble attempt at cross-cultural exchange in a potential terrorist situation. And then, as if a gift to my rattled nerves, they shared too — their feelings, their reactions to threats of violence, and what it was like to be young and black in South Africa. We also talked about what we didn’t like about America — mostly capitalistic greed and hypocrisy as the U.S. propagated violence abroad while claiming the role of peacekeeper. Yet they also shared how they were inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement. They believed they could learn from the American people about race relations and entrepreneurship.
As we spoke, I kept my eye on the officer stationed outside our window and anxiously awaited more news from the pilot. I felt like two people, each with her own purpose, although both vital for living through uncertainty. This felt different from the kind of splitting that often happens when violence is endured alone. It was more like multitasking — staying alive while staying connected to what mattered. People. Ideas. My body and my sense of self.
About the time I was settling into my fate as a potential hostage, the doors were opened and we were free to go without the fanfare of a SWAT team swarming among our seats. The woman went ahead of me as planned, and the man by the window and I left each other with a handshake and genuine appreciation.
As I walked down the stairs placed at the plane’s exit door, I caught wind of a burning smell — likely flares — and saw the men in black huddled below the belly of the plane. I thought maybe a bomb had been diffused (probably because I have seen too many action thrillers). The next day, my husband could only find a small article on the web about the “incident” — a prank call to Air Traffic Control.
While I rode the shuttle from PE to Grahamstown, the home of Rhodes University, I tracked my body for signs of trauma-related dysregulation. As I began to get a dull headache, I knew my parasympathetic stress response had settled in and my body was leaving the freeze state I had entered when I first saw the SWAT team surround the plane. Yet even though my body was showing signs of traumatic stress, I felt okay — that I who holds the sense of being free to be myself and openly express what I feel without judgment or threat. And I think this was in large part because two people were willing to cross the divides created by countries, continents, cultures, and skin color to talk meaningfully and honestly with me. I didn’t get lost in crazy thoughts or the panicky feeling in my body. Instead, I was left with a deeper appreciation of that often used adage, What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Those young South Africans sitting beside me had that spirit, likely modeled by the struggles of their parents, grandparents, kin, and community. They also helped me see this adage is especially true when you have people willing to go through the rough patches with you.
In Remembrance of Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013
Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.