Getting There from Here

All these years later, I can’t quite track the progression from hypothetical musing to holy-crap actual behavior, but however it happened, one bright summer morning in 1993 the majority of our mental health Continuous Treatment Team piled into a borrowed van and headed south to Laurel, Delaware to jump out of an airplane. I wish I could say that we were going to increase team cohesiveness or to break through growth-limiting barriers, but honestly, we were motivated by nothing loftier than, “It would be so cool.” The ride down was marked with the kind of giddiness and exhilaration that can only be generated by people spurred to recklessness by group dynamics. The tone was raucous, the humor black. I laughed loudly and freely but tasted copper in the back of my mouth.

Upon arrival at the airstrip, we signed a series of waivers releasing our hosts from liability in the unlikely, but possible, event of our deaths.
We were then directed to a barn where we received a couple of hours of intensive training before our jump. The instructor moved us through a series of stations where specific information was imparted and skills were practiced.At one, we stood on a hay bale and held onto a two-by-two nailed to a post while arching our backs and extended our right legs out behind us. We also practiced jumping off hay bales and landing with feet together and rolling smoothly to the ground. We learned how to locate and pull the two ripcords and to manipulate the toggles that steered the parachute canopy. With each skill learned I felt more at ease. I mean, with all this practice, and surrounded by all this expertise, what could possibly go wrong?

“There are a few things that can go wrong,” our instructor said. He then described the potential catastrophic consequences of surrendering our fate to the interaction of gravity and a thin, multicolored nylon bed sheet. We would be doing a static-line jump. Our ripcord would be attached by a wire to a ring on the floor of the plane, and our parachute should open automatically once we stepped out into space. “But your canopy may fail to deploy or it may deploy but not open properly. Your lines may get tangled or your slider may not drop to the proper position.”

We might also land in water or a tree or someplace worse. “If you land in a power line and you’re not killed instantly,” the instructor said without a trace of irony, ”hang quietly and wait for help but don’t let anyone touch you.”

We took turns being suspended from a barn rafter in a parachute harness and shown a series of poster-sized photographs, each depicting a disaster scenario, and drilled on emergency responses to them. When our training was complete, we were given our parachutes and divided into groups of three. When it was my group’s turn, the jumpmaster led my two colleagues and me out of the barn to the waiting airplane.

Somehow, way back in the safety of our air conditioned office and all the way to this very moment, I pictured standing in the doorway of something like a C130 military transport aircraft with my parachute static-line tethered above my head and being all I could be while stepping confidently into space like they do in those army recruiting commercials. And despite all that practice with the two-by-two and the bale of hay in the barn and with nothing remotely resembling a C130 anywhere in sight, this image proved intractable, so when we were ushered to a single-propeller airplane scarcely bigger than a Toyota Corolla with the seats removed, I almost wet my pants.

Within minutes we were sitting on the floor of the plane, bouncing along the flight line with forty-pound parachute rigs on our backs. When we reached an altitude of 3,000 feet our jumpmaster slid the door open, instantly blasting us with a wave of noise and freezing air. The jumpmaster shouted something unintelligible over the roar of the wind and airplane engine. He pointed at Mark and motioned him to the door. Mark crab-walked over and a moment later he was gone. I hadn’t even seen him exit the airplane, but within seconds I saw his canopy outside the window. I barely registered relief before the jumpmaster pointed to me. When I scuttled over to the doorway, he yelled at me, “Be aggressive!” Aggressive? Wasn’t gravity pretty much going to do the work here?

In the barn I stood on a large bale of hay holding onto a stationary two-by-two nailed to a wooden beam. At 3,000 feet above the earth, I had to place my left foot onto a small steel peg not much bigger than my shoe while holding onto the cold metal wing strut of a moving airplane. I looked at the peg incredulously. I’m not standing on that thing. What if I fall?

In the barn I practiced shouting a sequence of words, each designed to cue a particular action. “Arch!” cued me to arch my back when I let go of the strut. “One thousand! Two thousand! Three thousand!” was how long I would fall before the static line went taut and deployed my canopy. “Check! Check! Check! Canopy! Line! Slider!” This was to prompt me to check, check, check to see that I had a canopy (very important), that the lines were untangled, and that the slider had dropped into position. In the barn I barked out the sequence with the confidence of a seasoned paratrooper. In the sky, I was so overwhelmed by wind and cold and noise and adrenaline that I barely managed to croak, “Arch” before the static line jolted my canopy free.

Stunned but pleased to be alive, I looked up as I had been taught, and checked the canopy, lines, and slider. They were all fine, but I noticed that my risers, which connected the lines to the harness, were tangled around each other. That wasn’t one of the things the instructor said could go wrong, but hanging 3,000 feet in the air, I felt strongly that everything should look perfect. So generalizing from what I had been taught in the barn, I simply reached up and yanked the risers apart until they looked the way I thought they should. How’s that for aggressive?

The one-way radio I had been given crackled and I heard one of the instructors far below giving Mark directions. “Looking good, Mark. Toggle left. A little more.” I waited patiently for the instructor to talk to me. I had been in the sky for what felt like hours and the instructor hadn’t addressed me once. “Okay, Mark, you’re drifting. Toggle right.” Shouldn’t he be talking to me by now? “Mark, toggle right.” And then it occurred to me, Wait, does he think my name is Mark?

In time, of course, the instructor did address me by name and coached me to a safe landing. Just before touching down, I had to pull down hard on both toggles simultaneously in order to collapse the canopy and “brake,” resulting in a momentary mid-air stall that would abruptly cut my speed. In the sky, without the horizon for perspective you don’t feel your rate of descent, but as you approach the ground you realize just how fast you are falling, parachute or no. The instructor’s coaching is crucial because the timing is critical. Brake too soon and it’s a long, fast, plummet to a very hard ground. Brake too late and you go into the ground like a lawn dart.

We all landed safely and without mishap (unless you count one of us getting dragged over a quarter mile of pasture by her parachute a mishap). At the end of the day reactions to the experience varied. Some found it very empowering; others felt unnerved, but all agreed that enjoyment of the day had been greatly enhanced by not being killed.

Skydiving was an important personal experience for me, but I swore I would never do it again. I’d done it once and once was plenty. There was definite risk, but because I was trained and supervised by experts, the risk was calculated and manageable. And for all the ostensible danger, real disasters are comparatively rare or else these skydiving operations couldn’t stay in business. That said, I recently learned that this particular skydiving place did in fact go out of business. I’m hoping it’s because the owner wanted to write poetry or fight infectious diseases in Africa, and not because someone died jumping from one of his little planes.

The instructors worked hard to provide us quality training, but it was the guy in the lawn chair coaching me by radio that ultimately got me to the ground safely. Without him I might have been the very paragon of arching and yelling and check, check, checking, and still ended up a greasy spot in the field or a hood ornament on an eighteen-wheeler transporting chicken from the local Purdue poultry plant.

Without the training in the barn there was no way I would ever have climbed into that airplane. With the training I was able to exit the plane safely, I could deal with the tangled risers even though they weren’t on the “oops” list, and I could follow the radioed instructions from the coach on the ground. Had anything truly catastrophic occurred in the air – the photo I was shown of a wad of balled up nylon comes to mind – I’m doubtful I could have executed the prescribed emergency maneuver because despite the competent instruction, nothing in the barn adequately prepared me for the sensory overload I experienced when I stepped from the plane. I didn’t even have enough perceptual time to recognize the cues necessary for me to complete each step of the basic exiting sequence so I’m not convinced I could have registered the danger, processed the response, cut away my useless chute, located the backup ripcord and deployed my auxiliary chute before becoming a Jackson Pollack in the field below. Maybe I could, I’m just saying I’m skeptical.

We did not practice any of the exercises with a parachute rig on our back. We did not practice moving in the crab walk position to the doorway of the plane. We did not practice balancing on a tiny metal foot peg, we did not practice ripping away our main chute and pulling the ring on our auxiliary chute, we did not practice following directions in blasting wind and cold air. None of these skills were practiced in the airplane we would be jumping from or anything like it. In addition, if the parachute did not open, we would not be operating from a vertical head-up orientation the way we trained; we would in all likelihood be tumbling through the air.

Like any skill or complex cluster of skills, repeated practice would have greatly increased comfort and performance, and the more closely practice exercises had simulated the actual conditions under which a skill was to be used, the more likely I would have been to employ the skill when the need arose. Repeated exposure to the sensory elements would have also facilitated habituation to all the stimuli that overwhelmed me when I exited the airplane. I know this experientially because the next time I went skydiving I wasn’t quite so disoriented by stimuli, was able to complete more of the exiting sequence elements, and actually perceived and registered more discrete moments once I let go of the wing strut. (Yes, I know I swore I would never do it again, but that was before I met my future wife who told me on our second meeting that she had always wanted to go skydiving. Talk about conflicting motivations).

“Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane,” as my father-in-law would say, is scary, which explains why very few sensible people do it. But in treatment programs, developmental centers, residential settings, and schools all over the country, adults and children with psychiatric or developmental disabilities are asked to do things each day that they may find equally intimidating. Things like asking for help, reporting psychiatric symptoms, taking medications, using alternative behaviors and skills, walking away from conflict, persisting in the face of adversity, accepting feedback, maintaining optimism, initiating conversation, deflecting unreasonable demands from others, managing their anger, and waiting patiently for someone in authority to finally respond to a very reasonable request they made an unreasonably long time ago.

We may take such things for granted, but change is hard. Change can be frightening and change involves risk. I like to say there is no such thing as maladaptive behavior because all behavior, no matter how destructive or unusual or uncomfortable for others, is a person’s adaptation to life’s demands. If the behavior is occurring at all, then it must be in some way working. In a profound and very personal way, the old behavior – the behavior others are concerned about – can represent safety for the person, particularly if it evolved as a strategy to deal with trauma or fear. Discarding a behavior that works in favor of a new strategy prescribed by others can be distressing and difficult.

We ask families to do difficult things as well. A few years ago I worked in our state’s Birth to Three Early Intervention System, which provided services to families of infants and toddlers with disabilities. These families received high-density community and home-based supports from developmental nurses, physicians, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, early childhood education specialists, psychologists, and support coordinators. Until their child turned three. Then they “transitioned” to services provided by the school system. Seeing families leave the security of home-based supports provided by people with whom they had formed trusting relationships – relationships that often formed during very painful or frightening periods in their lives – was like watching them scuttle, wide-eyed and harrowed, to the door of a small plane. “Be aggressive!” we shouted, and pushed them out.

I think as a rule we’re getting better at providing what is essentially barn-based training to people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities. We run support groups, substance abuse groups, space-time orientation groups, psycho-education groups, socialization groups, and recovery groups. We teach stress management, conflict management, anger management, time management, and money management. We teach problem solving skills, self-care skills, vocational skills, academic skills, and life skills. Unfortunately, we usually teach these things in the relative sterility of the classroom, group room, or office. We seldom teach in the actual environments that demand use of the skills and we’re not great at systematically simulating the real conditions in which the skills are required. Consequently, skill transference from the training setting to the person’s real environment (stimulus generalization), as well as the person’s ability to make novel, creative adaptations to situational demands (response generalization) can be hampered by our methodology. That’s why it so often feels like the person’s behavior can’t seem to get there from here.

We really need to increase our ability to be the Lawn Chair Radio Coaching Guy for people in our programs because ongoing guidance and encouragement of skill use is such a critical element of support. For a new behavior or skill to be learned and to become useful to the person, it has to produce positive outcomes for her when she does it. We need to be alert for opportunities to cue the skill in natural environments and to provide structured opportunities for the person to practice the skill under (at least) approximations of realistic conditions.

As the person initially learns the new behavior or skill we may also need to provide incentives for her to practice the skill. Ideally, this contrived reinforcement would discontinue once the new skill produced positive results for the person’s life. If we have a healthy and positive relationship with the person we can facilitate this process by helping her see the connections between use of the skill and ways in which her life is improving. Like most effective supports, these approaches require vision, planning, teamwork, and will. By attending to these processes we can improve people’s lives and elevate our own practice. Besides, it would be so cool.

-September 2006