You Are Not Alone: An Interview with Dr. Johanna O’Flaherty

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Johanna O’Flaherty, expert in crisis management from a psychological perspective, and a renowned expert in the field of trauma, addiction, and recovery. Dr. O’Flaherty began her journey into this field in a circuitous way. She started out as a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways where she flew all over the world, which she enjoyed very much. While working in this position she observed many of her fellow flight attendants developing eating disorders. While this was not her issue, she developed a drinking problem. She fortunately recognized the problem and got help in 1978. Since then, she has been in a very positive recovery.

Dr. O’Flaherty is no stranger to trauma. During her childhood there were a lot of dysfunctions in her family due to many factors such as poverty and her father’s drinking as well as living in a crowded household. When she was eleven years old, she was very ill with jaundice coupled with rheumatic fever. Subsequently, she was hospitalized for over three months, which by itself was very traumatizing. As a result of her time spent in the hospital, she became very religious and regularly practices the Catholic faith.

Dr. O’Flaherty has published an eBook titled The Correlation Between Trauma and Addiction. She explains that research substantiates that there is a very high correlation between trauma and addiction. People who have experienced traumatic events are indeed more prone to addictions. Untreated trauma can cause individuals who are in recovery from substance abuse to relapse. Research also shows that individuals who have healthy egos and a solid foundation from childhood will have a frame of reference and very good resilience which will enable them to recover very quickly from traumatic experiences. For an individual to have what they call in psychology “good enough parenting” one needs stability in the home. Those that have this will have that frame of reference and will recover from trauma expeditiously. Individuals who have been traumatized and are working on a trauma resolution will indeed recover just as well as the individuals who do not have a history of trauma. However, for those who are still struggling with unresolved trauma or indeed a substance abuse issue, which may include prescription drugs, Dr. O’Flaherty recommends that they seek help from a qualified therapist.

When it comes to traumatizing events, Dr. O’Flaherty can not only reference her own childhood trauma and resulting addiction, but she has been shaped in her adult life with quite a few major traumatic world events with which she has worked hands-on helping people cope. When the Lockerbie Scotland disaster happened in 1988, she was the corporate manager of Pan American’s Employee Assistance Program and she was dispatched to Lockerbie. This was her first experience responding in the aftermath of a major aviation disaster. As a result of responding to Lockerbie and observing employees who were put in a position to take care of the victims’ families without any training, she became very involved with the recovery efforts after returning to the United States. She became a member of the American Transportation Association and assisted in developing what we now know today as care teams to respond and take care of families of the victims of aviation disasters.

Involvement in the Lockerbie disaster was the catalyst for propelling her into a specific field of crisis psychology. Indeed, she became a trailblazer in this field. After the Lockerbie disaster she has responded to several major aviation disasters as a crisis psychologist, to include TWA flight 800 that exploded over Long Island sound in 1996.

As the Director of Employee Assistance Programs for Airlines, she often used to refer people to the Betty Ford Center as well as other treatment centers.

After completing her doctorate in clinical psychology Johanna had a desire to work more closely with individuals suffering from substance abuse and unresolved trauma, therefore she was seeking an opportunity to work in a treatment center where she could use her clinical skills and specialties is substance abuse and trauma resolution. She was very fortunate in that a position became available at the Betty Ford Center and was hired as the Vice President of Treatment Services. She went on to work there for over seven years.

In 2001 she was called to New York to assist with counseling airline employees and facilitating the crisis response training for the New York City Transit Authority after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. She has also conducted critical incident response training for the FBI and first responders.

The most recent major disaster that she has responded to was the October 1, 2017 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival on the Las Vegas Strip, where fifty-eight people were killed and another 546 people were injured. She continues to maintain a consulting practice and an active schedule as a keynote speaker in crisis management and addiction. She continues to be involved in supporting individuals, particularly first responders and airline employees, in the aftermath of disasters.

During my recent interview with Dr. Johanna O’Flaherty she shared the following with me.

For people who have become addicted to alcohol, and are fighting that urge to drink, what is your best tip?  For instance, what is an alternative for someone who turns to alcohol to cope, is there something they could substitute possibly?

There are many options available for individuals that are suffering from the disease of addiction. My first recommendation is to perhaps try the 12 step programs which are free and always welcoming. I would also recommend that you get an assessment from an addiction specialist.

Who is the strongest person you know and what are the personality traits that you see in them?

There are several people that I admire due to their accomplishments, their inner strength, their integrity, spirituality, and humility. There is no specific person.

What has been your biggest fear in life?

This is an interesting question and there is not one specific fear but rather many over the years. As a young person when I was based as a flight attendant in New York I was very scared of the city and the people, but I did become acclimated and enjoy the city very much.  From an internal perspective due to my family of origin issues and subsequently my own alcoholism I had many fears. Fears that I wouldn’t measure up coupled with low self-esteem and shame.

What has been your biggest challenge in life (if you had to pick one)?

I believe there will always be challenges in my life as I am indeed a consummate student of life and humanity.

Today my challenges are basically maintaining a consistent work life balance. I am at times inclined to overdo it, particularly with work. I enjoy my work very much and strive to maintain a healthy balance.

What do you find is the most common fear or issue of your patients?

The most common fear that patients present in today’s world is fear of the future insecurity based on primarily false information.

If you had to tell someone your number one tip for dealing with anxiety or fear, what would it be?

I would recommend that you find somebody that you can trust a good friend a chaplain a therapist and show your fears. I would also recommend that you minimize media exposure as I note in the media there is a great tendency to escalate fear.

If you had to tell someone your number one tip for dealing with depression, what would it be?

Depression is very complicated so I would recommend that the individual who is suffering from depression seek a therapist.

What is your top tip for coping after tragedy?

My coping tip for particularly responders and therapists who respond to the aftermath of a tragedy is that it is absolutely a priority to take care of oneself. This must be intentional.

What is your biggest project right now?  What are you working toward currently?

I recently published my memoir which is titled Flight with Weighted Wings. I address my involvement in aviation disasters and the Las Vegas shooting in my memoir from a psychological perspective. I am working on another book which hasn’t quite concretized with the title yet.

I continue to run a small private practice in Las Vegas, and I do a lot of public speaking.

I would like to leave the audience with a word of encouragement as this article has highlighted my personal journey, which was challenging and indeed joyful and painful. I would encourage you to read my books, especially my memoir Flight with Weighted Wings. Flight with Weighted Wings is a memoir that is very transparent, and it is a memoir of transformation and inspiration. My memoir will help you to connect with me on an emotional journey. The humanizing aspects of my memoir, sharing my personal experiences, challenges, and successes will demonstrate that you are not alone.