Where were you on September 11th, 2001? I was just getting ready to fly to Utah to speak at a hospice conference. I set out my breakfast and turned on the television news, as I did every morning, just as the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Like everyone, I was confused and in shock. Of course, plans were cancelled as we spent days at home glued to the television set. Like so many others, that event would change my life in unexpected ways. At the time, I was living in San Francisco only miles from our daughter, Heidi, and her family. A few months later, Heidi would move to New York City to work with Columbia University on a research study supporting the deceased firefighters’ families.
There are many others stories to be told about 9/11 by those of us who were not directly involved, but felt the trauma of the event and still wonder about the impact of traumatic anniversaries. I recently met a young man who had watched the episode “Coping with Traumatic Loss” of our television show Grief Relief. The young man said that he had been a part of traumatic experience that he was never able to process as he was impacted by the experience but not really a part of it. He proceeded to tell me the following story.
“Eleven years ago, I was working at Merrill Lynch in New York City. Our building faced the Twin Towers. On 9/11, we heard a loud crash and someone said that a bomb had gone off in one of the towers. Through my window I saw smoke and fire. With coworkers from the same floor, I headed for the elevators and went down to the main lobby and out into a courtyard. I saw a man jump from the top of the first tower. I will never forget his tie flying straight up in the air and the seeing the silk lining of his suit jacket as he floated down through the air, hit the ground, and bounced. I then saw the second plane headed for the tower. I could even see that it was a United Airlines plane. It was so very close that I could have given you the tail number.”
The young man then described how he ran confused and terrified through the smoke and ash. He initially ran with the crowd uptown, towards Harlem, and then decided to turn around and run back downtown to the ferry going back to his home in New Jersey. He then boarded a packed train finally making it home. David told this story with energy and detail as though it had happened only days ago, however he did not show overt signs of distress or crying.
Many in his upscale community commuted to New York City, with many neighbors working directly in the World Trade Center. His town suffered a significant number of losses, with virtually everyone he knew directly affected in some way. David initially had ample opportunity to talk about his experiences, but had not discussed the details for years until today. David said that for months he was depressed and despondent, but that after the birth of his second child something changed inside him. After seeing the baby he almost immediately seemed to “snap out of it.”
As I listened to David, I got the distinct feeling that he was wondering in the back of his mind, “Am I really okay?” It then occurred to me that many people who have witnessed trauma, like David experienced on 9/11, must be wondering the same thing. Is the hurt or the trauma buried too deeply? How do I know when I might crack? As we come upon the anniversary of 9/11, let’s look at some of the issues.
Question: Who can have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Answer: Anyone who was a victim, witnessed, or has been exposed to a life-threatening situation. According to http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net, we who watched on television witnessed, and those in the destruction zone were exposed.
Question: What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?
Answer: You may experience frequent thoughts about the event even when you don’t want them. You may find yourself avoiding reminders of the 9/11 disaster, an almost impossible task. Check yourself for feelings of anxiety, irritability or even numbness around the around the time of the event. You may also have trouble sleeping or concentrating.
Question: What can I do about post-traumatic stress disorder?
- Recognize that you have experienced a trauma. It is normal to experience some stress around the time of the event. Sometimes the days leading up to the anniversary of an event are more stressful than the actual day itself.
- Give yourself permission to do your own thing. Plan carefully what you want to do on the anniversary of the day that you experienced the event. Do you want to attend memorials, or just take the day off and go to a movie or for a hike?
- Talk to others about your feelings and describe your experience. If you were “exposed” to the experience and are feeling overly stressed you may want to consider therapy. There are some desensitization treatments that have been found to be very successful.
- Yoga and breathing exercises have also been found to be helpful to decrease anxiety and stress. Going for a walk in nature can give you a real boost.
It has been thirteen years since the events of 9/11, and our hearts go out to all of those who lost their friends and family members and those whose lives were change forever. We live in a highly-charged world and this has been a difficult year for our country. It is important that we take care of ourselves by looking for the beauty in world and by surrounding ourselves with many kind, caring, and loving people.