A long time ago I learned that it’s pointless to read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to try to figure out if you have a disorder. Anyone can read a list of mental symptoms and say, “This is me!” What makes the list count is when symptoms interfere with daily life and relationships.
Post-traumatic stress disorder has been in the media in the last several years because of the number of war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling with it. I didn’t think my anxiety after 9-11 had anything to do with PTSD. So what if I hadn’t worked a full-time job since 2002 and had a few panic attacks. Isn’t that normal for a creative type? Besides, I’m totally ADHD with decent coping abilities. Plus, I’ve got my motorcycle.
Then in 2010, during a routine physical examination, my doctor heard my heart skip. She sent me to a cardiologist to rule out heart disease. When the results came back negative, she referred me to the World Trade Center health clinic. I didn’t go. Not right away, anyway. It took another year and the ten-year anniversary to show me how much 9-11 affected me.
September 11, 2001
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the ground shook like in an earthquake. I had just been hired that week for a weekend job that hadn’t started yet. It was a Tuesday and I had slept in. I felt the vibrations from where I lived on the 12th floor of a brick building near the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge. They woke me up. I asked my roommate if she felt it and to turn on the T.V. Nothing came on the news but emergency sirens started sounding outside.
After the fire trucks and ambulances had continued to drive by for a solid 15 minutes with nothing on the news, I started to get dressed to find out for myself what was going on. By the time I was ready to leave, news reporters had arrived on the scene. They caught the second plane hitting Tower Two on camera. The first tower imploded shortly after.
I had always done well under pressure. This day was no different. I got to the street with my camera, took pictures and then watched Tower Two implode from Brooklyn Bridge Park with a gathered crowd. People held onto each other as they watched, a woman screamed repeatedly “Oh my God!” and others wailed. I didn’t cry at all. I went back to my building and helped people who escaped across the bridge on foot by offering a bathroom and landline telephone. Droves of people came across, many running or covered with ash from the burning buildings. “The hospitals will be busy,” I thought, and I made my way to Brooklyn Hospital to help.
The emergency room was in total chaos. People hurried back and forth across the lobby floor. Patients who came to triage after escaping sat on chairs stunned. Tables had been set up as an administrative center. Volunteers with no leadership stood by. I offered assistance to an overwhelmed nurse who didn’t know what to say. So, I told her not to worry about the volunteers, turned around and gave them assignments. “You, go see if any of these people need water or something to eat. You, talk to people and listen to their stories.” I also went to the makeshift waiting area. We held hands and talked. Some were so in shock they were unable to say anything. I held a woman’s hand and prayed out loud with her.
After the chaos had settled, an administrator came over and asked if I would help man the hotline. After a two-hour break for dinner, I returned to the hospital at around 7:30 pm and answered the phone until five in the morning.
There was no way anyone inside the buildings could survive the implosion. Yet, hundreds of phone calls came in from people searching for their co-workers, friends, and family. There was little that could be said. Everyone who had checked in to Brooklyn Hospital had been discharged by 7 pm. Over and over we would look through the list of those who did check in that day and then apologized that a person was not at our hospital. We gave numbers to other hospitals in a way to offer some hope. Some people called multiple times.
I wished I could express sympathy for their loss. In the weeks after, I saw pictures of those lost tacked onto boards. For the first time during the tragedy, I cried. I could attach the names I heard on the phone to their faces.
As it goes with tragedies these days, emergency workers get debriefed in a way to allow them space to acknowledge the traumas they experience. I was never debriefed. But I got a letter without my name on it and a phone call thanking me for my volunteerism and a request to continue volunteering. I felt left out.
This was only the beginning.