How HBO Max's 'The Flight Attendant' Spoke to Me as a Trauma Survivor
Ever since I was a child, movies and television have been my favorite form of escapism. 2020 has not only not been an exception to that, but rather a reinforcement of the ways in which getting lost in stories can be a powerful source of mental health during challenging times. I often mention the shows I’m watching and any interesting observations I’ve made about them in therapy, so when my therapist suggested I watch “The Flight Attendant” on HBO Max because “It has some really great inner child work.” My curiosity was piqued.
The psychological thriller follows Cassie Bowden, played by Kaley Cuoco of “Big Bang Theory” fame, a slightly unhinged alcoholic flight attendant who finds her entire life upended after waking up next to a dead man she had met the night before. The fast paced series not only seeks to discover “who done it” but it offers a glimpse into how a traumatic event can destabilize the life of someone with childhood trauma, triggering the memory of long repressed violations, unleashing erratic behavior, upending long standing relationships and enhancing the desire to numb difficult feelings brought up by these memories via substance abuse.
In the show, we witness what I can only describe as Cassie’s unconscious unraveling right before our eyes. She begins to have flashbacks of childhood trauma and she struggles to maintain control as she comes to terms with these memories. As I watched the show, I recognized all too well the intense sense of chaos that the re-emergence of repressed memories can cause. I experienced a similar unraveling about six years ago when memories of childhood sexual and emotional abuse began flooding back to me, also triggered by a traumatic event in my life.
For the better part of about two years I quite literally felt like I was becoming unhinged. I couldn’t stop thinking about the abuse. Detailed memories of the events would playback on a loop in my mind making my brain an inhospitable place to live at best and intolerable at worst. Like Cassie, I’d tell my brain to shut up and stop torturing me. I didn’t want to remember these things that I had locked away for so long but, I didn’t have any control over it. The runaway train in my head had left the station and wasn’t slowing down anytime soon. The memories kept coming. My life felt hijacked by my childhood trauma and I felt helpless and out of control.
The pervasive feeling in my body was that somehow I was bad. Something must be fundamentally wrong with me otherwise these things wouldn’t have happened. I must have somehow asked for it. Maybe I misbehaved and deserved it. It was a cesspool of shame that I couldn’t seem to climb out of. As Cassie’s memories become clearer she too becomes convinced of her own culpability in her trauma. She feels guilt about how her brother and mother were treated by her abusive father, certain that she was his accomplice rather than a casualty of his toxicity.
We see Cassie as a child, being given alcohol by her father, bloodied and maimed after a tragic accident in which her father and two others perish. Her shame fuels her alcoholism and causes her to feel more and more isolated from her friends and family. Shame has a funny way of doing that. If I didn’t isolate myself from others, I’d unconsciously say or do something that would push them away, convinced that I didn’t deserve to be loved. If I pushed others away, I reinforced the belief that I was too damaged or broken to be in relationships and it saved me from the hurt of being abandoned by those I loved.
In the final episode Cassie finally has a revelation, one that has taken me almost six years of therapy as opposed to the eight episodes it took her without the help of a mental health professional (but I digress)…that what happened to her as a child wasn’t her fault and that she was allowing her trauma to fuel her as an adult to make poor decisions. She realizes that until that little girl is absolved of shame, she couldn’t move forward in life and heal the wounds that fueled her addiction and irresponsible behavior. This realization is depicted absolutely beautifully in a scene where adult Cassie visits child Cassie at the scene of the car accident. In it she holds her child self’s face in her hands while crying and says “This is not your fault, OK? Listen to me– a lot of things will be your fault. You will make really really bad decisions, but this one, this is not your fault. This will not define who you are. Okay?” The little girl nods in recognition and adult Cassie reaches over to hug her tightly. In that moment Cassie absolves herself of her shame and frees her inner child of the burden that she has been carrying her entire life.
As my husband and I watched the scene, he grabbed my hand and held it tight, knowing how emotionally impactful this scene was to me. I’ve wrestled with freeing my inner child for years. My logical brain has accepted that my abuse was not my fault. But I continue to harbor anger and resentment toward my inner child. I see photos of myself as a child and I cringe. I feel disgust, angst and some degree of hatred toward her and I haven’t been able to do what Cassie did in that moment. I haven’t been able to simply make peace with my inner child, forgive her, embrace her, free her to go on and actually be a child without the responsibility of carrying the heavy burden of healing the trauma she experienced.
After the show ended I emailed my therapist and said “Holy crap that was intense. And also, I did not like that scene at all!” And I sincerely mean it. Witnessing what could be and seeing it in such a vivid way was a kind of dagger to my heart. I still have so far to go on my healing journey. I’ve made so many strides, but this has been the missing piece that could truly propel me forward. I wish I knew how to actually do it, but I don’t, yet. However, seeing what’s possible and observing how freeing it was gave me hope that somehow I’ll figure it out.
Nobody’s trauma should define them. I know mine doesn’t. I just need to get that message to my child self so that she can move forward, so that I can move forward. We both deserve to be free, to be loved and to believe that we are worthy of being cared for. Television may often be a good distraction from life, but in the case of “The Flight Attendant,” it was also cathartic and hopefully a catalyst for meaningful therapeutic change.
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