CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Sunday, August 21, 2011

REMEMBERING 9/11: Four Stories

On the 10th anniversary of the unimaginable, four members of the CPPNJ community -- Sally Rudoy, Martin A. Silverman, Lillian Shaw and Eric Sherman -- share their memories of the day that changed us all, personally and professionally. We welcome your comments, including your own 9/11 reflections.

A Day, At First, So Ordinary
by Eric Sherman

The thing I remember most -- besides the images of people jumping to their deaths -- is the smell.

A stench that hung over lower Manhattan, reaching the Greenwich Village neighborhood of my New York office. It smelled like burning rubber. Everyone knew what it was, even if we didn't want to acknowledge it. The odor carried the charred remains of the World Trade Center and -- most horrifying -- the people who had perished inside.

I had loved my office because of its giant windows and sweeping view of lower Manhattan. The regal Woolworth Building and the Twin Towers in the distance. On bright days, like the morning of September 11, 2001, I kept the blinds closed. The sun would have been too distracting.

At 8:48 am, as the unthinkable happened beyond my giant windows, I was in session with the same patient I saw every Tuesday morning. What stands out for me is this -- we heard nothing, we saw nothing, we knew nothing. The session went on like any other. How could I ever trust the ordinary again?

When the session was over, I bumped into my suitemate in the men's room. "Did you hear?" he asked excitedly. "A plane just flew into the World Trade Center."

I rushed back to my office and peaked through the blinds. I saw clouds of smoke billowing from what I assumed was one of the towers. I had no way of knowing that both buildings had been hit. I assumed a Cessna or other small plane had gone off course and accidentally struck the tower. I wanted to keep looking at the scene, but I had no time. I was off to teach my first post-graduate class ever, and I was nervous as hell. So I closed the blinds to the last view I would ever have of the World Trade Center and rushed to the subway. The towers crumbled while I was underground.

My first inkling that something frightening had happened was when the train I was in, trapped in a tunnel for 20 minutes, finally pulled into the Columbus Circle station and Transit Authority personnel ran on with bullhorns shouting that the station was being evacuated. A New Yorker from birth, I was concerned, but not terribly phased. Perhaps I would have an interesting story to tell the candidates when I began class moments later.

There would be no class that day, and no return to normalcy for some time. As I walked the 2-1/2 miles back to my office wondering how I would get home (the subway and New Jersey Transit were no longer running and Manhattan had been sealed off), my mind raced. Didn't one of my patients work in the Towers? The thought that he might be dead chilled me. (He had in fact been at his desk when the second building lurched forward upon the plane's impact. When I spoke with him that evening, he was fine, though quite shaken. So was I.)

The weeks after 9/11 were surreal. At first, I needed to show a photo ID to get past the police barriers on the corner of my office building. I kept the blinds closed tight, occasionally peeking out at the sight of the giant gray cloud engulfing what used to be the World Trade Center. I could only look for a few seconds at a time. The scene disturbed me too much.

My office -- the world -- no longer seemed safe. My patients and I -- the city, the country, the world -- were in a state of trauma, and there was no escaping it. The ever-present stench. The bomb-sniffing German Shepherds and National Guard officers with giant rifles at every train station. The terror that it could happen again at any moment.

Seeing patients in the days after 9/11 was both life-affirming and traumatizing. As much as I wished to work through what had happened and be present for my shell-shocked clients, at times I had the desire to shut down and forget. I kept the blinds closed tight in my office partly so that I could pretend that when I opened them again, there would be the World Trade Center, gleaming in the sun.

But there was little opportunity for denial. Session after session my patients relayed the horrors of that day and the anguish they were going through. I tried to help them sort out their feelings even when, occasionally, I wanted to scream: "Stop, please! I can't hear anymore." Instead I listened, shared my own experience when helpful, and cried with each one. Together we healed.

I have since moved my office to another part of the Village. It's on the ground floor overlooking a courtyard. There are no tall windows with views of the downtown skyline, no need to shut the blinds. Each morning that I commute to my New York office, I walk by the now-closed St. Vincent's Hospital, where many of the victims of 9/11 were rushed. The emergency room that served as a chaotic triage center is bordered up and ghost-like. Perhaps it is fitting. It is also terribly sad.

At some point this September 11, I will watch as much TV coverage as I can stomach. I will pause to think about trauma and bravery, finding meaning in what seems too much to bear. It is what I do every day as a psychotherapist. It is what gives life purpose.

First Responders
by Sally Rudoy

One memory I have of 9/11 and the few days in the aftermath was a feeling of wanting to be useful – to do something to help others. Somehow providing succor to others’ fear and shock would mitigate my own. I wanted to run toward Ground Zero, not away.

I heard from a colleague of mine that the next day there would be a coordinating meeting in the High School library. The board of education had put out a call for therapists in the community who would be willing to volunteer time to counsel traumatized students. When I arrived at the meeting in the library, it was standing room only. Around every table, packed against the book carrels, and perched along the length of the check out desk were psychotherapists of every discipline. Clearly, I was not alone in my need to do something: to make order out of chaos, return the world, now forever changed, back to its pre-9/11 predictability.

Somehow I thought this impulse to run toward disaster might be unique to those in the “helping” and first responder professions. However, as I counseled students and patients throughout the weeks following, I heard echoes of the same impulses. Teenagers wanted to go to lower Manhattan and help dig in the rubble, make casseroles for the families who lost parents, or sign-up for military service and go get the guys who “did this to us.” Younger children wanted to raise money or hold a bake sale for…for…for somebody, for something.

Early psychoanalysts discovered the phenomenon of the mind’s use of defense mechanisms to protect the self from disturbing thoughts, feelings and behavior. In those early days after 9/11, enveloped as I was in the same trauma as the ones I sought to help, I began to recognize a universal defense of keeping helplessness at bay by helping others. On the face of it, this seemed adaptive and a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. Now, from the perspective of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I also see my response as more nuanced. The person most helped by my actions in those dark days was myself.

PTSD Hits Too Close to Home
by Martin A. Silverman

Our daughter, 2000 miles way, called us that morning to tell us that an airplane had crashed into the WTC. We turned on the TV and watched the second plane hit the other tower and the two towers collapse to the ground. A few hours later, a woman called me and asked me to see her son, who was very upset about the incident, which he too had watched on TV. I helped her son deal with his agitation and distress -- and I helped HER to deal with it as she was even more upset than he was. I saw them a few more times, but my main preoccupation, as president of the Association for Child Psychoanalysis at the time, was that of working together with heads of many other mental health organizations to help children and families across the country to deal with the emotional impact of that terrible occurence.
Exactly six months after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the WTC, on 3/11/2002, I had left my home office and was in my kitchen getting an apple, when I heard a roar that sounded like it was coming from the engine of something gigantic racing up my driveway. Then I heard an explosion and saw debris flying up into the air. I realized suddenly that what I saw were pieces of my house. A woman, in a huge SUV, with her children in the back seats, had started to use my driveway to make a k-turn. Then she lost control of her vehicle, raced up my driveway, plowed into my station wagon, crumpling it like an accordion, and pushed it into the back porch of my house, demolishing the steps outside the kitchen, sending the pillars holding the roof up over those steps flying into the air, and knocking a hole in the side of my house!
When I stepped outside, I found that it was that same woman who had come to me with her son after the World Trade Center attack half a year earlier. "I'm so sorry," she exclaimed; "I don't know what happened!" But I knew what had happened. She had returned to me, and to my dismay, had re-enacted, at my expense, what had upset her and her son so much on 9/11! I am glad to help children and their parents who are emotionally distressed, but this clearly was over and beyond the call of duty, don't you agree?

September 11, 2001, Ten Years Later
by Lillian Shaw

The morning of September 11, 2001 dawned easily with the bright sun in place, a warm and welcome visitor, cool breezes, and billowy clouds dotting the sky-scape. As I walked into the day room of the hospital where I worked, to gather together ten patients for their ongoing twice-a-week therapeutic group, the television was on and the New York panorama looked crisp and bright.

“We will have our group now” I told the patients. It was 9:15 AM. The patients were accustomed to joining together and talking about their illness, themselves, their struggles and even current events. Especially loved was the topic of the baseball playoffs, and the World Series, set to begin in September, 2001. Groups, I had told them, allow you to change. You sit together and come to understand your thoughts and behaviors, responses and reactions to others, and theirs to you. You learn about yourself, in a group. Nothing could be truer for the close-knit September 11 terrorists, who planned their activities well, and were self-supporting, and increased their functioning and resolve, through their network.

One patient moved quickly into my personal space, and said “Did you see? Look at the TV”. I looked and saw the instant-replay of a plane smashing into the World Trade Center tower. The announcer was saying something about a plane off course. It was quiet in the room. I stood there and saw the replay three times in quick succession. Inside I felt as if raw nerves were being hacked, producing feelings of numb, and helpless abandon. Vulnerable and overwhelmed America, I thought, already had experienced atrocities resulting from the Achille Lauro, the Gulf War, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City, Atlanta Summer Olympics, the USS COLE, and others, and I felt the pull. The Twin Towers were icons, and all the people who would die that day had left home in the morning never to return. I had never been in either Tower, or navigated to the top.

After the group, I went back to the day room and watched the replay of the second plane hitting Tower two. America’s blood, tears and tissues were being poured onto New York’s pavement, I thought. And then came the horrible, terrible stories of untimely death, unasked-for and unsought bravery, and running to escape, running to save self and to save others, running for your life. The Tunnel-Run race honors Stephen Stiller’s brave run through the Battery Tunnel with 75 pounds of fire gear on his back, to help. And we watched heroes live, and we heard of heroes dying.

A socials worker on the next unit left the building in tears. Her father worked in the World Trade Center and she could not get him on his cell phone. My son Tom was out of work and had several interviews the previous week in the WTC section of the city. Does he have any meetings scheduled today, I thought? The cell phone was dead as I tried to call. No cell tower transmission, I was told. I later found out that Tom had no interviews that day and that he and my nephew Ted, each living in Hoboken, had met at the fence surrounding a waterfront park, after the first impact. They saw the second plane hit, and heard the whoosh of the fire as it enraged into a red and orange ball, and witnessed the changing of the New York harbor line, and our secure feelings, our concept of freedom, and many lives, forever, in a quick few seconds.

Then the towers came down, and New York looked like a ghost town in black and white, as the world was riveted to the television. The firemen, police, ambulance workers, hospital workers and nearby workers, all pitched in and ran and helped, and we saw an unfolding of life in goodness. It was butted against evil. Mayor Giuliani was there and it felt terrifying

We heard about the crash of a plane into a field in Pennsylvania. More heroics and bravery from people who stood up, never thought of themselves, and wanted to save others and stop the terrorists’ attack. Todd Beamer’s “Let’s roll” has become a mantra for action-oriented goodness and Mark Bingham and Tom Burnett’s bravery, and that of others on flight 93, an inspiration. Then more desperate death. And you began to worry if we will ever understand the trauma of that day, the inconceivable and despicable acts of a few, and then war. The Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 were prayed on board, in those last minutes, and over the phone.

The rebuilding continues. Much the same as individuals rebuild lives after emotional illness, mental illness and physical illness, trauma and abuse, and it takes time. Our nation continues to build and grieve, and to know that life matters, our lives matter, and our freedom is worth fighting for.

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