September 11, 2001, was a beautiful and bright picturesque summer day. The sun was bright, the air warm but not overbearing. I clearly remember wearing a cream-colored long maxi dress with a matching blazer. I recall just wrapping up a meeting at work when we got the notice about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I can remember almost every moment of that day 20 years ago but I can barely remember what I wore and did last week. This is how trauma works. Sights, sounds, and even smells all become much more vivid from the date of the event that triggers the traumatic response. During hurricane Sandy, I can remember the anxiety and fear of sheltering in place while listening to the violently whipping winds tear at the siding of surrounding homes. Most people may have short-term symptoms of trauma that will not become chronic. Nonetheless, trauma is something that you do not forget or can ignore. You do not have to be a New Yorker to have experienced the trauma of 9/11.
Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” Although nothing about the events of September 11 were an accident or natural, the list of what causes people to experience trauma is not set in stone. Those who can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), may not have been directly involved with a dangerous event. It is common to experience some type of trauma after a loss or life-changing event such as September 11. Personally, I did not have anyone in my family or friend circle that was a victim, however, I still felt the grief of all of the families that were impacted by the loss of their loved ones. The reality settled in that it could have easily been me, a family member, or a friend there that day at the World Trade Center. I thought about all the times I had visited the center or walked by it, never once feeling like I was unsafe. The certainty is, we all lost something that day. We lost our sense of security and freedom. Suddenly, terrorism was not just something you read about in the news. Terrorism had landed on our front door in the most personal way. September 11 victims were people living their lives and many going about their normal daily routine. Nothing about living through this cataclysmic day was routine and as such many experienced PTSD immediately after the events and long after.
After recovery efforts winded down and the area was cleared, many insisted we go back to normal. This was done without acknowledging how people felt or how to process those feelings. The real issue with not seeing and defining trauma is the risk of it continuing to manifest and resurface time and time again. It is prudent that we all know what our trauma triggers are and deal with them as opposed to ignoring them. Sometimes it takes more than just a moment of silence but a real examination of how we are coping. We should acknowledge and sympathize with our fellow countrymen who have lost their loved ones due to this horrific act of violence. It should also be recognized that everyone feels and processes things differently and the horrible events of that day resoundingly can impact some more than others. Not everyone has the same coping skills and may need to speak with someone professionally in order to process their trauma. The lessons learned from September 11 should be applied to so many who are currently suffering from the present pandemic as well.
Society often expects us to move on and sum up all of our feelings in one day of remembrance as if that is enough to go back to normal. PTSD is something that carries a stigma among most facets of society but even more so within communities of color. Instead of learning how to process traumatic feelings, we are taught to forge forward with our lives as normal including going to work, school, or caring for loved ones. Not once does it occur to many that it is ok to feel hesitant about taking a ride across a bridge, being in large crowds, riding public transportation, or sitting in a tall office building after the terror attacks on that day. The harsh reality is that people do not have the luxury of taking time off from work or their daily routines. In addition, some individuals work at jobs that fail to support mental wellness let alone provide outlets for employees to talk through their feelings or receive help. How do we truly move on from the events of September 11 if they appear to be gone from everyone’s mind unless you lost a family member or loved one that day? There is no easy answer but there is hope. We have the ability to speak up and comfort one another as fellow members of society. We also have the ability to erase the stigma of seeking help to process our past and present traumas particularly within communities of color. That process starts with building up the courage to speaking up and confront the problem. So while it is good to pause and reflect on September 11, let us not be afraid to admit that we need more than just one day a year to reflect. We also need to remind ourselves that 20 years later, people within our families and communities may still be experiencing triggers that bring the trauma of that day back as if it were yesterday.
If you are anyone you know needs to speak to someone, please know that there are resources out there that are confidential. Located on The National Institute of Mental Health website are the Disaster Distress Hotline, 1-800-985-5990, and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK. For additional information, please visit the National Institute of Mental Health website at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/.