The Woman Who Fell From The Sky
This year marks an anniversary for me, a big one, a decade. The symbolism of a ten year anniversary is huge, whether it be a marriage or someone’s sobriety, ten years is a lifetime from that first day when your life changed. In those years, you have grown, learned, and possibly changed and morphed into a different version of yourself, maybe a better one. I can surely say that my metamorphosis in these ten years has been life altering.
May 24th, 2008, that is my day. Yes, I know that it does not directly belong to me, but I am (and have) claimed that day as my day for these past ten years because it is the day that I was in a helicopter accident on Catalina Island. I was twenty at the time, a completely different version of myself and I was on summer vacation from college. I had flown home just five days earlier and now my family and I were going to celebrate the beginning of the summer together in our favorite spot, Two Harbors, on Catalina. When we boarded the helicopter, we thought it would be a nineteen minute trip over to the island, but we had no idea where the journey would actually lead us. But let’s begin the story with that morning, as it has had a lasting impact on me.
I was twenty and had just transferred to a new college on the East coast. I was going through some issues, adjusting, but I was lost at the time, truly lost and with this loss I was angry and could not communicate my needs or feelings to those around me. I thought my family was not understanding, that my boyfriend at the time knew everything, and I was lost spiritually. I had no roots and felt that no one understood. I flew back to California from school and on that plane trip, I prayed like I had never done before…praying that my life would radically change that summer. Let me just say, be careful with prayers, He listens and you do not know what His answer will be.
The morning of the 24th of May was dark and foggy. I remember arriving to the Long Beach helicopter terminal and feeling how ominous this day was, something was off. I looked at the helicopters as we walked into the building to check in, and felt my anxiety rise. This trip was different than the others because usually my family and I make the crossing together on our boat, but this time my dad had my mom and I go on the helicopter, and he was going to make the crossing to Two Harbors on his own. We would also be riding with family friends, Tania and CJ, who were spending Memorial Day weekend with us. ‘It was off’, I kept feeling/telling myself. We boarded the helicopter, my mom getting in the front passengers, pilot in his seat, Tania and I switching at the last minute so she could have the window. CJ and I were in the middle, right under the engine, and John, an employee, boarded to go have lunch with a friend on the island. We lifted off, and started the journey over the deep blue.
Everything on that flight seemed normal and it was quick. Before we knew it, we were seeing what I like to call bird shit rock appear in the distance, meaning we were almost to the harbor. As we got closer, we saw my dad in our boat, Wayne, Tania’s husband and CJ’s dad, in his boat. We waved, they did back and then…BOOM, BLAST, BANG! Fire started streaming from the engine attached to black smoke. Bells and alarms started going off. In the back row we all clasped each others hands. We were almost to the landing pad, but we weren’t going to make it. The pilot tried his hardest, was able to get us past all the electrical poles, and he was going to try and do a controlled crash my making the blades rotate by themselves. I looked at Tania, and she smiled at me, the best smile in the whole world. Still holding hands, the pilot said, “Here we go”, and tipped the nose forward to a pitch and we started our fall, all the time I was making a silent prayer for God to do His will.
I woke up in a sea of mangled metal, scorched earth, and blazing fire. CJ was still next to me, clasped my face, and made his escape out, crawling through the wreckage. I looked at Tania, but she was gone: it was my turn to get out. I unclasped my belt, stood up, and fell, so I crawled out, not knowing where to go, but being lead out by something more powerful. I crawled through the debris, fully getting out, but could not see my mom, so I went back in to find her. All I saw was her blonde hair, buried underneath metal fragments, and I pulled with all my might and got her on top of me. I started my crawl back out, and before I knew it, bystanders on the beach arrived to help and pulled her to a safe place, and me to another one. My mom, CJ, and I were the only ones who were pulled out of the wreckage when the coast guard arrived, and I later found out that we were the only ones who survived the crash.
None of our recoveries were easy. I had broken my pelvis in three major locations and needed surgery to put it back together. My mother was in a coma for several months with tremendous injuries and burns, and CJ broke his leg and a his back. I spent the rest of my summer learning how to walk again, rebuilding my muscle, and trying to go back to school without a cane. But this was just the physical recovery, the mental recovery was much more intensive and took much longer.
No one prepares you for the damage a trauma will take on your life. There are thoughts, bursts of anger, making irrational (but rational at the time) choices, and possibly a constant depression which is debilitating. This is why I am a beautiful disaster. My emotional and mental recovery from my crash took years and I still find myself in situations where I am triggered and have a moment where I am taken back to that day. But, the biggest thing I have learned from this is that in my pain and suffering, there was beauty. I was able to go back to school after that summer, with no cane and all because of the amazing support from my family and friends. Therapy with a well trained psychiatrist aided me through my battles and suffering; without her guidance, I would not be where I am. I also dove deep into my exploration of why God allowed this to happen, and now, a decade later, I know clearly why.
My life now is a dramatic contrast to where I was at twenty. I met a great man after that summer, who loves me unconditionally, and supported me through my trauma. In 2013, we had a son and welcomed him into this world knowing that he too could experience trauma one day, but that we would not let our fears affect his life journey. We got married in 2014 and have been together for over nine years. We continue to love each other every day, and he continues to support me in all of my ways. My life now allows me to help others, and just last week I walked and received my diploma from Pepperdine University with a Masters in Clinical Psychology, with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. I am now going to help others in my community, like those who helped me. My pain was beautiful, my disaster was beautiful, because without it, my life story would not be complete. I am a beautiful disaster because I wear my trauma every day, loud and proud, with no shame in sharing my story, much like the beautiful disaster brand, because there is no shame in what has happened to me, or you, or anyone who has experienced trauma. It does not have to define you, but if you allow it to become part of your story, and wear it with pride and humility, maybe, just maybe it can have a positive impact on someone else.
Skylar Sharpe Fahlman, MA, RBT, AMFT, APCC