Exposure therapy

(I’m not in the mood to do much editing of this, so I apologize for the randomness and any grammatical offenses I may have committed.)

When I returned to NY at the end of February, my temporary corporate housing was on John Street, right near the Seaport. The relocation company had asked me what area I wanted to be in, and I remember telling them “I don’t want to be west of Broadway”. You see, I still hadn’t come to terms with that place, and I wasn’t ready to be around whatever it had grown to be.

I never walked over that way while I was living there, even though my office was located just a few blocks away.

A few months into my time here, when I had to walk to that side of town to get on the PATH train, I found myself not quite ready to be there. The new “F you” tower, as I like to call it, our ostentatious response to the world, is now complete and serves as a centering point, but not the one I remember. I am still disoriented when I go there. Nothing is where it was before I left, and I am unsettled by the things that are familiar, yet not.

In behavioral psychology there is a concept of dealing with phobias called “exposure therapy” (maybe that’s what it’s called; maybe that’s not exactly right…did I mention that I am not in the mood to do a good job with this post?). Basically, the idea is to give exposure to the thing that the person fears on a gradual basis. So someone who is afraid of dogs might look at a picture of a dog, then a video, then be in the same room as a dog, then come closer to the dog, etc until they can be in the immediate presence of a dog without having a panic attack.

On the day I walked to the PATH train, it struck me that I have had 15 years of not having to go near this place. I think I may have gone once, in the spring of 2002 when visiting with friends (we were staying at a hotel near the World Financial Center), but although I’ve visited NY multiple times since, I never had any desire to go near that mess. It was hard for me to even go into Century 21 to shop…again, disoriented. This tower does not stand where those towers did. Everything is a little bit off, and all I feel when I am there is an unsettled kind of anxiety.

Do I need exposure therapy? Will I ever go visit the memorial itself, search for the few names that I recognize, let myself be in that place? I don’t know. I thought for a minute that today would have been a good day to go, only because the risk of stupid and trite tourists might be slightly lower than usual…but at the same time, it’s not my place to be there today, on someone else’s sacred burial ground.

My writing here doesn’t make sense, and yet I am going to let it stand…because none of it makes sense, and I still haven’t come to terms with it, and although I am beyond overjoyed to be back in this city that I love, there is a piece of its history (and the aftermath) that I was not a part of, and need to figure out my place in relation to that narrative.

I haven’t had time to be desensitized to the military presence in Grand Central Station, or to the random bag check stations as I enter the subway. I don’t know the stories of each of the people I pass as I go about my day, or what their experience of that day has been. What I do know is that they do have stories…so many stories.

Living in Grand Rapids, I was not unaware of the subsequent untimely deaths of many first responders. It was only a few years ago that a friend had to bury her husband due to asbestos-related cancer that the doctors finally admitted was related to the air he breathed that day (You can read his story here, although please be aware that it is quite graphic and could be triggering).

But I am here now, and need to find my way through the rubble of a history that I was and was not a part of, and still am and am not a part of. The “F you” tower stands, and, good capitalists that we are, a pretentious high-end shopping center, shiny and clean and new, is emerging.

Maybe by next year, I will have made some sense of it all. Or maybe not. I guess the thing about “the new normal” is that it really isn’t normal at all, and never can be.



ten years . . .

. . . and I could find plenty to say, but I think I need to learn to sit with the silence.

Here’s what I’ve said about this day in recent years.

This year I didn’t do Project 2996, either . . . maybe next year. There are so many stories yet to be told. For now, though, I will engage in a wordless tribute.

reflections – year 9

I feel like I have to mark this day somehow, as I have for the past several years . . .

I feel so connected to this day on such a personal, visceral level . . .I worked in lower Manhattan for several years; I was working at a shoe store two blocks away on the day of the first WTC bombing in 1993. Knowing what I saw that day, and then trying to translate my own experience to the magnitude of this second attack,  I feel like somehow I “get it”; I tell myself that I am not just one of those people who is appropriating someone else’s grief for my own purposes.

but the more I hear about what some of the people I know went through on that day, the more I start to believe that I am really just a fraud after all . . .

I know the rhetoric–that this day happened to “us” as a nation, and particularly to “us”, my beloved hometown of NYC.  But if I am to be honest to myself, it didn’t happen to *me*. Not in the way that it would have happened “to me” had I still been in the city at that time . . . not in the way that it happened to these people I know, people for whom those streets were not merely recent memories viewed from a distance, and for whom the events of that day cannot be shut off from their consciousness simply by changing the channel on their TV set.

Had I been there, had my feet walked those streets and my lungs breathed that death-filled air,  I would not now be capable of watching those events reenacted, moment by painful moment, as I did today and have done for the last several years. I would not be capable of sitting in front of The History Channel until I am too sick to my stomach to watch anymore. If I had lived it, I would not be merely trying to imagine the tastes and smells and sounds of that day, because they would have been indelibly seared into my brain, far beyond the reach of any psychic “off” switch.

Those of you who have lived it, and survive it still, are as much heroes to me on this day as those who lost their lives nine years ago, and it is a privilege to be able to honor your journey.

September 11th–remembering the survivors

(I am participating in Project 2996. Follow the link to find other stories, or to help out with a tribute.)

It is right that we remember those who lost their lives on this day. Their death has had a huge impact on so many of us. But when I heard about this project, I felt strongly compelled to write about the “other” victims–better labelled as “survivors” . . . because they outnumber those we’ve lost, and yet we seem to sometimes forget about the ones that still live in the shadow of that day.

A friend of mine has posted several reflections on his experiences on and after that day. You can find his story here. I should warn you that it is NOT light reading, but maybe after reading it, you will better understand my frustration with those who seek to appropriate this day, with patriotic song-fests instead of solemn vigils, and with no-clue tourists who see “Ground Zero” as just another site on their list of  “things to do in NYC”.

(I know, I know . . . not every person who didn’t live in close proximity to NYC,  DC, or PA on that day deserves the “no-clue tourists” label–but there are some that do, and it is in large part for those people that I am writing this post.)

My friend Ken’s story is just one of thousands upon thousands. I have other friends whose lives were profoundly shaken by what they witnessed on that day,  and know others still who waited in vain for someone (or several someones, or MANY someones) they loved to come home.

If *I* (and I consider myself “lucky” to have experienced relatively few losses on that day) wince at commercials for a movie that “opens September 11th!”, and shy away from hosting a Tupperware party on this date because somehow that level of enthusiasm seemed horribly disrespectful to me (let alone the people in 2005 who chose that as their WEDDING date), then what do these reminders, myriad and subtle, do to someone who lost loved ones on this day eight years ago?

What does it feel like to those who walked down 84 or 52 or 12 or 112 flights of stairs and whose lives were spared, to those who made their way home through clouds of smoke and stench, or who watched, helpless and numb, from across the river as the towers fell?

Or what does it feel like to be the main character in one of those wonderful-yet-horrible stories of  “fate/luck” survival . . . like the friend-of-a-friend who overslept and was late to his job (at Cantor Fitzgerald) because he had attended a Michael Jackson concert the night before?

Or what is this day like for those who are watching their family members and fellow employees who are succumbing to  illnesses that are clearly related to their rescue work at the site? How do they feel about people coming and gawking at the empty hole where their own lives started to end?

Yes, I am willing to acknowledge that we were all changed on that day, but for some, this day is only sad in the way a celebrity’s death is sad . . . when you hear it on the news, you feel that sadness for a moment, but then you move on. For others, though, it is embedded deep within them, as if the smells and sights and sounds of that day have been embedded into their psyche.

It is these survivors that I want to pay tribute to today.

Yes, life goes on, and I don’t mean to suggest that we should curl up in a ball and stop living . . . those who have survived that day certainly haven’t done that, though they would have every reason to.

I just ask that we remember those whose hearts are raw today in a way that those of us who haven’t lived it can’t understand, and that those of us who are hundreds or thousands of miles away from the eye of this storm stop to remember and to reflect upon the damage that this storm left in its wake.

To do so is to honor the memory of those who live on, as well as those who were lost on this day.

eleven things about september 11th

1) answering the obligatory question “where were you when you heard?” . . . I was sleeping (I was working second shift at the time) and my friend Tannel called me at about 9:30 and left a message telling me that I needed to wake up and turn on the TV because “something’s going on in NY with the World Trade Center”

2) watching TV while on the phone with Max. When the firs tower collapsed, I remember saying, “It just fell” and his disbelieving, “No, it didn’t . . . ” The idea of it falling down was so inconceivable to him (to most of us, I think.)

3) walking out of my apartment to go to work a little while later and feeling almost bombarded by the brightness of the sun. It was a perfect fall day here in Grand Rapids, just as it was in New York, and it felt so utterly incongruous . . .

4) talking to my (now deceased) ex-roommate, George, via e-mail after a bit of an impasse (we were on less-than-stellar terms when I left NY at the end of 1999) . . . on one level, it was good to talk to him, but on another level, it was annoying to hear his posturing about how Arden (our Gap district manager and my former boss–the store in the WTC was in her district) was confiding in him all the time. “Arden has kept a strong face publicly but in private has expressed her devastation to me” (sure, that may not sound to you like posturing, but trust me on this. I knew him well, and in the land of Gap assistant managers, it was all about the competition . . . )

5) hearing that Arden moved to the Philadelphia area a few years later, purportedly to have more of a chance for advancement. When I tell friends that I think she was traumatized by September 11th and that this contributed to her need for a change of venue, they don’t agree with me. But hey, I’m the one with the undergrad degree in psychology! (would you like fries with that?)

6) not knowing what to think about the words of Revelation 18.

7) hitting a point at work (after everybody seemed to want to come to me to “talk about it” all the time, I guess because I had that NYC connection) where I had to say, “I CAN’T HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS ANYMORE!” A few people expressed surprise at my reaction; I can’t remember who it was that said, “It’s okay if she doesn’t feel like talking about it”, but that person was a hero to me in that moment.

8. remembering all of the shopping I did in the WTC concourse. When I was home visiting just ten days prior to the attacks, I had purchased a Barbie doll for my friend’s daughter in the Warner Brothers store there. I also ate a donut at Krispy Kreme and a hot dog from a vendor in front of 7 WTC.

9) realizing that I’m lucky in the scheme of things, and yet I still try to reach for a connection. One such connection is that the guy on the right in that well-known picture that became a stamp is the brother of another guy that I went to elementary school with.

10) going back to New York for the first time in January of 2002 for my grandmother’s funeral. As I was driving in New Jersey along the Turnpike, I started to freak out because I couldn’t orient myself . . . there was this huge hole in the skyline and without those two buildings that were supposed to be there as a demarcation point, I was engulfed by a huge sense of loss and panic.

11) hearing these lyrics to a Julie Miller song . . . I think the song was written before 2001, but the second verse seems like it was written just for that day . . .

I`m making flowers out of paper
while darkness takes the afternoon
I know that they won`t last forever
but real ones fade away too soon

I still cry sometimes when I remember you
I still cry sometimes when I hear your name
I said goodbye and I know you`re all right now
but when the leaves start falling down I still cry

It`s just that I recall September
It`s just that I still hear your song
It`s just I can`t seem to remember
forever more those days are gone