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LET’S REALLY NEVER FORGET….THE DAYS AFTER 9-11: Fighting to Heal Trauma and Mental Illness is the Battle to Fight, and One We Can Win

I always feel an indescribable weight during the first part of September. Perhaps it is a culmination of exhaustion from a lack of enough sleep or a feeling of melancholy due to the change of seasons? Perhaps I have been absorbing negative energy from the bad news around the world, or I  lack energy due to […]

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I always feel an indescribable weight during the first part of September. Perhaps it is a culmination of exhaustion from a lack of enough sleep or a feeling of melancholy due to the change of seasons? Perhaps I have been absorbing negative energy from the bad news around the world, or I  lack energy due to the various lunar phases? Perhaps it is the sadness and weight of the pandemic? But then I realized that a certain date looms above all of us regardless of any of the aforementioned: September 11.

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations will never forget Pearl Harbor.  My father will never forget hearing the news over the kitchen radio in his childhood home in Brooklyn.  Our parents’ generation will never forget where they were when they heard the news about President Kennedy’s death.  On that fateful day in 1963, my mother was in school in Switzerland.  Though she will never forget the sadness she felt being alone in a foreign country, she also will never forget the kindness shown to her that day, as everyone knew she was an American.Similarly, we will never forget where we were or what we experienced when those planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and that Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001.  

Like everyone, I will never forget that day.  It’s as clear today as it was eighteen years ago.  When I went into the dentist’s office in midtown New York City on a picture-perfect bluebird Tuesday morning for a 9:00 a.m. appointment, I did not know that my beloved city – and the world – would change forever when I walked out onto Fifth Avenue at 10:30 a.m.  The normally heavy downtown directed traffic was non-existent, and people were walking in the middle of 5th Avenue in the uptown direction. I looked downtown and saw the smoke, all the way from 55th Street.  I then heard the news of the second tower collapsing in real-time over my Sony Walkman. Without any context at all as to what had happened, I ran to my best friend’s home and on the way, thankfully got my family on the phone to learn that they were ok.  Soon after that, I learned that my best friend’s husband was in the second tower when the plane hit (he thankfully survived, only to come home later that evening).  

It was also in the immediate days following however, when the events of that day really took hold. My memories are dramatic because I learned that I lost five friends.  I began to hear stories from friends who were there and survived – yet experienced the trauma directly, witnessing unimaginable things.  In those days following, heavy, black clouds of smoke, the putrid smell, the sense of sadness and loss, and the sounds of a quiet emptiness pervaded the air around my hometown.  The city that never sleeps had been silenced. It was an atmosphere permeated by and surrounded by death, yet the tragedy became political (locally, nationally, and globally) very quickly, and the trauma of that day became secondary – though the sensory experiences and the terror within were there to stay.

We were all harmed that day in ways that left a permanent collective scar, not to mention individual ones.  This is called trauma.   I could never ever feign or deign to compare myself to those who experienced the attacks first-hand: those who died, those who survived, those who fought the fires and saved lives, or those who lost family members and close friends.    I do know that I absorbed trauma that day, and though I have worked very hard to heal it and will always relive it in some unpredictable way, it is triggered at unexpected times that are not necessarily on the anniversary of 9-11. Can you imagine what is like for those who were there?

Though fighting terrorism continues to be one of the most heated global geopolitical issues of our time, we can fight terror of another kind right here at home.  Trauma is manifested in a number of ways, but it is the terror relived by those who experienced 9-11 first-hand every day since that day.  It is the terror within those fighting for us on the battlefields, during natural disasters, in hospitals and treatment centers.  It is the terror within those fighting physical, mental, and/or emotional abuse of any kind on a daily basis. 

Trauma is real. It causes mental, emotional, and physical disturbances that lead to illness – not just mental illness – but yes physical illness, including cancer. When I saw Jon Stewart speak alongside first responders John Feal, Founder and President of the FealGood Foundation, and former Deputy New York Fire Department Chief Richard Alles about how they were continuing to fight for those battling illness resulting from 9/11, I cheered and finally breathed a sigh of relief for those people.

The September 11 Victims Compensation Fund established through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 has doled out $4.3 billion to date, with the total $7.3 billion in the fund to have expired in 2020.  Less than a year after I first saw Mr. Feal speak with Jon Stewart, we all saw them valiantly stand up to Congress as champions for our first responders’ rights, their healthcare…their lives.  They fought through resistance and won.   Their bravery led to the signing of H.R. 1327, an act ensuring that the victims’ compensation fund related to the September 11 attacks never runs out of money.  Signing this bill into law is not only a groundbreaking milestone for first responders, but also one with transcendent meaning that can inspire all of us to help those dealing with trauma and mental illness of any kind.

Though I am grateful for self-awareness, financial resources, emotional support, and therapeutic treatment to continue to overcome trauma’s deleterious effects, I imagine those who are still dealing with its effects from that day or of any kind – yet do not have the self-awareness, inner tools, support system, or financial resources to overcome it.  I imagine how those who lost their loved ones on that day and those first responders must have felt in those days following, and still may continue to feel 18 years later. I imagine and try to put myself in their shoes, but I will never be able to do that.  But I still try.  Will you try with me? 

As time passes and the memory of that day recedes with each passing year, it is imperative that we never forget to take care of those who risked their lives that day, those who risk their lives on our behalf every day, and anyone who needs healing from traumatic events and experiences.  We can honor those suffering by….

  • Providing relief to those fighting on our behalf – the victims and their families from 9-11, war, natural disaster – as well as those suffering from physical or sexual abuse/assault/trauma from any societal ill by contributing funds or volunteering for veterans organizations like the Bob Woodruff Foundation, first responders organizations like the Feel Good Foundation and Project Rebirth, and mental health organizations like NAMI.  
  • Releasing any shame, misunderstanding, or ignorance surrounding trauma and mental illness and seeking education through organizations like NAMIMental Health America, and Bring Change to Mind.  
  • Advocating for mental health resources in our local communities and at the federal level and speaking up through organizations like Be Vocal or to your Congressional representatives directly.
  •  Raising awareness of mental health issues and initiatives through social media and in your every day lives by talking openly about it with your family and friends and participating in programs like Foundation for Art & Healing and Ashes 2 Art.
  • Developing a greater sense of empathy, listening, and supporting yourself and others to seek help through the myriad number of public and private resources available.  

Finally, it is paramount that trauma be taken much more seriously as a public health issue and an illness unto itself.  It is essential to our nation’s collective health that trauma be understood more empathically, that any mental illness be treated equally to physical illness, and that anyone suffering from trauma and mental illness has the opportunity for treatment, as well as be treated with the kindness, compassion, and humanity he or she deserves.  

The threat of the demons and terrorists here and abroad remains a constant, but the terrorists are the cowardly ones.  Fighting the demons within is just as tough and courageous a battle – but it’s one we can win.  If this can be just one part of the legacy of 9-11, then we are honoring those who we have lost, those who stand for all of us on the front lines every day, and very simply, honoring humanity. It’s also a way to effect change and put real truth behind those words that everyone says with each passing anniversary: never forget.

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