Guest post: The suicide pilot

Guest post by Simon Trepel, MD. He has more essays at Simon’s Creative Behavioural Therapy.

Truthfully, I probably would not have cared so much, about the shitty thing that Lubitz did, but I was literally stranded on a desert island, thousands of miles across the ocean from home, when he crashed the plane. Now, stranded is a relative term, the island was Hawaii, and I could only be less stranded while being on a desert island, if I was in Australia. But that is where I received the parcel of hate that he chose to deliver to my meme mailbox, that elephant part of your brain that never forgets, yet we call it the hippocampus. That would be a crowded university.And knowing that I needed to fly home, with my 2 daughters, ages 3 and 5, in less than a week, meant I was going to binge watch the entire miniseries, ping ponging between a fox, an spf, and a cnn.

And while it was a mystery on TV, for me, I knew early, why he splattered a plane, and 150 living, breathing, loving people, into a Jackson Pollock original, against the wall, of a new gallery of death. He loved to fly, and he hated to be sad. And, he loved what he loved, in his mind, more than you love what you love. He made the calculation that, since he could not complete his bucket list, neither could 150 people that contributed to his sadness in no way. So he exchanged a b for an f, and practiced relaxation exercises, so no one would think he was scared, for about 8 minutes.

There is no such thing as clinical depression. There is the depression your doctor diagnoses you with, and then there are the diagnoses we give ourselves. And it is different from sadness. Depression sucks, its worst feature is not the rewallpapering of your mind into a room you never want to be in, yet you are afraid to leave, because it’s even worse out there. The worst feature is, after a while, you want to die, but your body still thinks it’s its actual age. So then, you get suicidal. And here is where your personality finally gets a say. How do you want to kill yourself?

My first experience with suicide happened about 20 years ago, when my friend told me he came home to find his pilot father hanging in the bathroom, and my mind went blank after that. There are some sentences you hear in your life, cnacer is one of them, if you have read my only other essay since 1990, that act like instantaneous rohypnol is coursing through your brain. Once back online, I processed the story, learning that if you have depression, and you are a pilot, you are likely to lose your career. And if you have depression but it is well controlled on an antidepressant medication, you are likely to lose your career.

That, passengers, is the secret that they struggled with.

You may argue, that there are selfish sides to suicide, like there are selfish sides to suffering. There certainly are more and less selfish ways, in how you go about actually ending your life. I realize to him, the pressurized cockpit of the mask of happiness was becoming overwhelming. I see him that morning, sitting in his kitchen, drinking coffee on self appointed death row, shredding the doctor’s note excusing him from school that day. He has finished his homework, but he is still not good enough.

And, as he’s tearing the plane into little fragments, he’s thinking about the slaughter in its carriage, the meat luggage of strangers he does not care about. He is not enough of a man to be a pilot, as if gender matters, so saddling his daily resolve, he gives himself permission to be weak. The next domino is cowardice, and then tragedy.

It’s not Lubitz, but the mask, that we really have to worry about. The costume that helps us hide from the haunting stigma. We wear it so we are not judged, or perhaps have our very childhood dreams, that began gliding freely as a teenager, marvelling at more powerful engines, end up dashed like salt and pepper going 500km/h, on the side of a hill.

I want Marty McFly to appear, so we can go back, and I can talk to Lubitz, so we can all avoid this feeling of hate that he has projected into us, his last tantrum in a world where he did not get all the toys that he wanted, so he took his plane away. I want to know the shape of the face of the hero woodsman, more than I want to know Lubitz’s, even though the goods were never delivered. I want to meet all the people that he killed, and tell them not to fly that weekend, or to live their life like they are going to die at 35, or soon after 35000ft.

I want to plead with him not to usher down the aisle of his mind this villain, who is to take the final curtain call of his polymorphous perverse existence.

Not him, not now.

But what I really want to tell him, is that I know he was suffering alone. And that I know there are narcissistic aspects to depression, and even suicide. And that he does not have to lock himself in the cockpit of his life, but rather, stand up and say, I am a Pilot, and I have depression. And I don’t like how it steals my very ability to find joy and meaning in my life, so I have chosen to have it treated.

And if my doctor tells me that I need time off, to heal from an episode? Then, just like every other illness, I have that right, without the fear that my job, career or dream is up in the air.

Because I don’t want to be a suicidal Pilot.


  1. karmacat says

    The irony is that people in treatment or on medications are treated with suspicion. They are the ones who have people to turn to for help in a crisis. “Night Falls Fast” by Kay Redfield Jamison is a very good book on suicide.

  2. chrislawson says

    Look, I agree completely with Trepel’s opinion on the stupidity of endangering pilot’s careers for seeking help for depression, but I can’t agree that Trepel knew what was going through Lubitz’s mind from the early TV news stories, or that suicide is about wanting to die while your body is still young (old people and terminally ill people are known to suicide).

  3. ottergrey says

    Although, thankfully, I don’t suffer from depression, I have shared a life with someone who does, and been exposed to other friends who suffer the illness, many in silence and shame. From 30,000 feet, Treple’s story is about a pilot who makes a greedy and selfish decision to end his pain with the expense of others. The undercurrent of the story, is about our (cilivizations) unwillingness to accept, treat, and be compassionate about illness that aren’t apparent. The sadness of mental illness, depression, suicide, greed, and shame are all so intertwined here and in life.

    The image of a loved one, rolled up into a ball on the stairs at home, viciously scratching their head, and asking why their head acts this way is something that is part of my life movie, burned into my brain. The struggles they faced having their employer, family, friends, and physicians accept their illness and treat it, is depressing in itself.

    Our….my, your, their…. acceptance of this invisible illness and the cost it implodes on human life, around the world, needs to be given respect. The shame that people (pilots) feel, because they are ill, carries a huge price. If this illness was as “acceptable” as a broken leg, and if the stigma attached to it was no bigger than a sliver in the finger, would the pilot and his passengers still be hugging their loved ones when they arrived home from their flight.

    I don’t believe individuals with mental illness need to “change”, because I have seen, heard and felt how difficult that is. It truly is heart breaking. Their struggle affects their soul.

    We need to change how we treat, accept, and administer their illness and the stigma that we shamefully attach to the illness. Perspective is everything. We all know someone who suffers from a mental illness, we just may not know it.

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