A lesson learned in trauma recalled

My friend Norm lives in New York, as do I whenever I have a few days' chance. This weekend I took the opportunity to ask him about something that has bothered me for a while. Late last October he told a mutual friend "New York is completely recovered" from the September 11th attacks. It seemed strange to me because I certainly wasn't recovered at that time, and a year later mental health specialists are talking about 10 to 20% of New Yorkers suffering persistent post-traumatic stress syndrome. Such matters have been on my mind again these days, and today I decided to ask him rather than let the matter fade forever.

It seems Norm is actually fed up with what he sees as greed on the part of some people publicly known as survivors of the attacks. He sent me an article complaining about the whining of those who play-act the role of victim for the media. I gather he feels that anyone who doesn't recover rapidly from trauma is purposely dragging things out. For my part, I don't have a TV and really haven't followed those news stories enough to say what the truth is. But I see people around me who have been affected for the long-term by the attacks, and I had my own experience with a form of shell shock this past year. I don't think any of the people I have encountered are "play-acting".

After the attacks I myself suffered from anxiety for, I suppose, the second or third time in my life. For the first two months or so, I woke up four nights in five feeling ill at ease, finding my hands twisted tensely into strange positions, or convinced (until the first 30 seconds of semi-wakefulness wore off) that some highly improbable event had taken place - someone had drilled into the San Andreas Fault and placed powerful charges there and caused a massive and destructive earthquake. Or the sea wall had given way at the World Trade Center site and the subways had flooded and the whole west side of Manhattan had been undermined by the water pressure and fallen into the Hudson. Etc. etc. These events were actually real to me for about 30 seconds each on different nights last October, and there were many others I can't remember now. I felt stupid for having believed them once I became fully awake, but I also felt frightened to have dreamt such things up in the first place.Although I knew I was suffering from shell-shock and wanted to be well, and actually believed I could be well if I willed myself to fortitude, that alone didn't have an immediate effect.

The only short-term help for it was to get out of bed each night at 2 am (or whatever the time was), turn on my non-endocrinally challenged companion, and read obscure international news sources or histories of the New York subway system till I got sleepy again. I also found that a glass of scotch and soda or dry sherry in the evening helped me unwind before sleep, but my stomach doesn't take alcohol well and I haven't made a regular habit of it.

What helped me the most, besides living in New York again for a few weeks over the winter (for life in the city heals all ills), was taking the time to write random stuff on everything2, which seems to have exorcised my legion demons adequately.

But I'm sympathetic to people who can't get completely back to normal. I can't say about professional survivors acting for the media, but I know most of the people I talk to have been affected by what happened, even if they aren't New Yorkers, and there are plainly people who remain more affected than I am now. In the past week I've started feeling a little tense again, but now I see quite plainly that I'm not nearly as tense as a lot of other people around me. Maybe I'm better now because I was worse at first. Anyway, the military seem to have begun protective flights over the DC area again, and yesterday on the shuttle bus home from the University a helicopter passed low overhead and a lot of people turned instantly to the windows and looked up at it until it was gone. I used to feel an irresistible need to do this, but no longer do. And that fact struck me, suddenly, when I saw them doing it.

I wanted badly to start talking to all of them to ask them how they were feeling, but my nerve failed me. We were a few minutes from the end of the ride, so when I got off I addressed the nearest person to me and asked her if she had been thinking what I had been thinking when she heard the helicopter. That was enough to make her voluble about her feelings. She had it, all right. I told her my adventure in the Frozen Area last September 12th, and we chatted a bit about how we felt then and now. I think that little conversation relieved her, and I think I did the right thing. Actually, I'd like to do more of it. Perhaps, as a teacher, I can create some opportunities to do so without too much strain. This semester I am teaching a course on traditional Chinese values, and one important question is under what circumstances Confucius and Mencius think murdering an evil ruler is legitimate. That is plainly a current topic, so perhaps my class and I can cook this dry bone into a rich soup.

Norm is a decent and honest fellow, but he has a very low tolerance for complaints by anyone he judges "privileged", as indeed he considers himself to be. Faced with his strong opinion, I see that I consider everyone's suffering legitimate, and I think that to listen in sympathy is the right way to help people - to help everyone who isn't actually causing that hurt to themselves through self-destructive or self-indulgent actions. It is a question of humility and compassion. Shell shock is, after all, a form of mental illness, and who am I to judge other people's mental illness?

It seems to me that we would be silly to pretend there will be no more attacks - my feeling since the first day has been that this is how warfare will be conducted from now on - and if that turns out to be true, then listening to other people's fears will be a valuable gift in our new way of life. It is a skill that I can improve at through practice, and one that I hope will protect me from relapsing into my own fears.

last day-log entry: July 6, 2002 | next entry: October 15, 2002