Fifteen years ago, I remember sitting at my computer desk in our old apartment when the phone rang. I have no idea what I was doing at my computer – and the internet wasn’t like it is today. We may have even had dial-up internet service at the time, which means I wasn’t online when my mom called to tell me that a plane had flown into the side of the World Trade Center.
I remember feeling a moment of sadness for the people on-board, but I didn’t feel the full weight of what had happened. I thought it was another freak plane crash, no reason to believe anything sinister was taking place.
My husband Tom and I both had the day off from work, and we’d been planning to go look at houses while we had some mutual free time. We didn’t sit glued to the television screen that morning like most other people did, so we actually went out to do just that.
I still don’t know if I was in shock or denial about what was actually taking place. I do remember Tom asking me, “Are you sure?” about going out to look for a new place to live, and I said yes.
We started our search at the modular home place down the street. They had a few model houses we wanted to look at – building a house seemed more appealing to us than buying someone else’s home. The two employees at the modular home office were gawking at the television when we arrived. They went through the motions of telling us about the homes before sending us off to walk through the model homes on our own. I’m sure they were talking about us once we left them alone, wondering who could be shopping for a house at a time like this.
It didn’t really hit me until later that night when we finally started watching the TV. And then I was hooked into the nation’s mutual horror of the terrorist attacks. I couldn’t stop watching.
It really sank in when I went back to work the next day. I worked as a mental health worker at a psychiatric hospital. My home unit was the pre-teen unit. Most of our kids were ages 8-13, though when the teen unit got full, we occasionally ended up with 15 and 16 year olds. The television was on all day long for the staff to watch, though we tried to keep the kids away from the news as much as possible. I have no idea how they broke the tragedy to the kids the day before. I do remember we ended up admitting a girl who had lost someone when the Twin Towers collapsed.
I cried a lot. I watched the television coverage obsessively. I own a DVD copy of the 9/11 fundraising concert, America: A Tribute to Heroes. As an overly empathetic soul, I have always absorbed other people’s grief and experienced it as my own. I felt sadness in my bones for all of the people who had lost husbands, wives, parents, and children to the terrorist attacks.
But as time wore on, it morphed into something completely different for me. As President George W. Bush talked about the new War on Terrorism, irrational thoughts began to invade my head. I was terrified that the U.S. military would institute a draft again, that my husband could be unwillingly packed up and shipped off to fight somewhere. I was so afraid that I would lose him the way so many military wives lost their husbands. I became obsessed with these thoughts, and I would burst into tears at the drop of a hat just thinking about it.
I went to my primary care doctor and talked to her about my thoughts and feelings. I was bawling in her office. She reassured me that many people were feelings depressed and anxious following the September 11 attacks, and that my fears were unlikely to come to fruition. She wrote me a prescription for Celexa. She wrote me another prescription for Xanax to deal with the full-on panic attacks I was having, as well.
It took several weeks for the Celexa to kick in, since most of these antidepressants take time to build up to a therapeutic level in your system. I was still obsessed with keeping Tom safe, and I made a plan in my head to ensure his safety if a draft ever did become a reality. If he got called up, I was going to break his leg. A broken leg would take time to heal, so he wouldn’t be able to go to basic training. I debated the best way to accomplish this… pushing him down the stairs would risk a more serious injury like a broken back. Maybe running over his leg with the car? Better to hurt him and have him suffer for a few months than to risk letting him go off to die.
Eventually, time and Celexa did its job. As the months wore on, I realized they weren’t going to start involuntary conscription again. I cancelled my followup appointment with my doctor and just stopped taking the Celexa when I was feeling better.
Except that I would never be the same again. I’d always had anxiety running on a low burn, even in childhood. Perfectionism has its roots in anxiety. I was a straight A student all through school, but even as a toddler, my mom said I hid myself away in my room and spent an entire day teaching myself to tie my shoes because I didn’t want to let anyone see me fail at it. (To this day, I still tie my shoes using the bunny ears method. Tom is responsible for teaching TJ to tie his shoes the right way.)
But 9/11 had awakened my anxiety full throttle. The fact that I “felt better” meant only that I wasn’t obsessing about losing Tom, that I wasn’t having anymore panic attacks. For years, though, I ignored how anxiety (and the depression I still hadn’t acknowledged) were shaping my life and my actions. It took seven years before I admitted I had a problem and I needed more help than my primary care doctor could provide.
So 9/11 is a personal tragedy for me, in addition to being a national tragedy. I feel selfish in admitting this. I did not lose anyone on a plane that crashed or a building that toppled. My father was no longer active duty in the fire department, so he never even considered going down to help out at the World Trade Center site in the aftermath. He never had to inhale that toxic soup that was so pervasive in the air.
But I will not be watching any of the 9/11 tributes or retrospectives today because I cannot get sucked into the national grief again. I cannot intentionally put myself in that terrible place. Selfishly, I do not want to remember how my own life changed that day, how I “snapped” and became the emotionally broken person I am today. It’s been 15 years since we’ve been able to feel safe within our own borders. It’s been 10 years since I could consider myself “normal.” I can’t divorce the two facts in my head.
How did you life change because of 9/11? Are you like me, feeling slightly guilty that your own personal tragedy seems petty in the face of such egregious loss? I would like this to be a safe place to share your thoughts.
Another version of this post originally appeared on ChristinaGleason.com in 2011.