thoughts on september 11 and trauma

** trigger warning:  this post is mostly talking about sept. 11, some dark dream content & trauma.  I don’t know if it rises to the level of triggering, but just in case**

Lo the long months of summer are over.  I haven’t written here for a long, long time.  And now, instead of updating you on my life, I am going to write a somewhat long meditation on the events of September 11, 2001, which will a) reveal a lot of personal history and b) bring a lot of google searchers to my blog.  Whatever.  I am not too concerned with anonymity here any more.  I’ve been looking at the NYT special report on Sept. 11 and it’s bringing up a lot of memories of that time in my life.

So.  July 2001.  M and I moved to CA, fresh out of undergrad, thinking we were going to break free of the ties that bound us (to our uncomfortable families, mostly, but we didn’t put it quite that way at the time) and start on our shiny new adult lives.  We had been joking about how people ‘settled…like sediment in a bottle’ and scoffed at their bourgeois aspirations of kids and houses and stable jobs.  Neither of us wanted that, at least I knew I didn’t want it at all.  I was watching high school friends & acquaintances make choices that seemed to emulate our parents’ lives, but I was certain that youth was for other things, like seeing the world & raising hell.

We just up and left Boston, to the dismay of family & what few friends & coworkers we had.  We traveled out west & found an apartment, got some jobs.  But once in CA, we didn’t do so well.  We got there & immediately faced some classic struggles:  our new bank put a two-week hold on a five figure cashier’s check that was our combined life savings (as a result, we bounced our first rent check), our rental agent tried to renege on the pet allowance (non negotiable, we had just driven our two beloved kitties from Boston to Berkeley by rental car), M’s new job was mind-numbingly boring, and my new coworkers decided I was a ‘stuck up east-coaster’ and shunned me.

By the time September rolled around, we were deep into a profound funk.  We didn’t have a car, so we started to look into buying one.  Neither of us realized how minimal the public transportation was in the Bay Area — in order to visit someone we knew in Napa, we either had to go into San Francisco & take a 2-hour bus, or ride the BART to the end of the line & get picked up & driven for another hour.  We were isolated.  Eventually all we ever did was cook massive dinners & drink copious amounts of beer or wine while eating them.

In the midst of this, I was planning a stressful visit from my mother.  The night of Sept. 10, I stood at the stove cooking eggplant parmesan, one of my specialties, in preparation for her arrival the next day.  I finished frying the eggplant & assembling the dish with a massive headache — I felt so unwell I sat on the bathroom floor for an hour, crying because my head hurt so bad & convinced I was going to throw up from headache-induced nausea.  I couldn’t figure out why I felt so terrible — was it the smoke from the frying?  Anticipatory stress from my mother’s visit?  The beets I had for dinner the night before?

So perhaps it’s not surprising that to me, the events of September 11 felt like a terrible blow to an already wounded body.  We woke up that morning to a phone call from M’s mother, telling us that something bad had happened & we should check the news.  She said she knew my mother was flying that day & was she okay.  I turned on the television (back when we had one) to see the first tower crumple.  I called my mother, who picked up the phone.  She was fine, they cancelled her flight, she was going to stay in town with my father at his place of work.  I watched the second tower crumple with M at my side.  I said, ‘oh…they’re showing it fall again.’  and she said ‘no.  that’s the other one.’  I think my mouth opened with shock.

Then we pulled ourselves together & went to work, only to find the city of San Francisco in total chaos.  After arriving at work to realize that nothing was going to get done that day, we walked toward each other from our offices & met up in what felt like an apocalyptic war zone.  We took the BART home amidst armed police & bomb-sniffing dogs.

***

My mother was lucky.  She had booked her flight through a travel agent (old school!) and had been given the option of two different flights to CA from Boston.  One was routed through Newark, flight 93 that crashed in PA.  The other was routed through Chicago.  She chose Chicago, and lived.

Needless to say I freaked out.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was 23, and my mother had just almost died.   My world was upside down.  No one around me seemed to care about me (remember the shunning?) and my family was worlds away, reachable only by rental car or amtrak.  I can see very clearly now that this was the beginning of the end of us living in CA.  After that our eyes were only focused on the east coast.

We had decided we would move back to the east coast within a year sometime either right before or right after the attacks.  Neither of us could stomach the vaunted easy living of the Bay Area.  We couldn’t figure out how to connect to the queer scene.  We had terrible awful jobs.  We were planning an agonizing trip back home over the holidays, a trip that involved two weeks and $2000 worth of Amtrak tickets.  I finally broke down & suggested we just move back permanently as soon as my winter break began, in the first week of December.  We hired more movers, they came & took our stuff, & we drove across the country for the second time in six months in a rented pickup truck.  Everywhere we looked we saw american flags.

***

The effects of Sept. 11 on my life were not only geographic.  Since my third year of college, I had been having terrible nightmares; ones that involved lots of scary bugs & rats infesting things.  But after Sept. 11 these dreams intensified.  One in particular was incredibly vivid & terrifying.  I entered a public bathroom, very dark & filled with creepy crawlies.  At the end of the hall, the first stall in a long bank of them had its door partly open.   It swung further open as I approached & seated on the toilet was a fully clothed man, staring at me.  He looked like a corpse, though he was still a little bit alive, and in that moment it came to me that he was filled with ground glass, that he was bleeding to death inside because he had swallowed it.  The image is still burned into my brain.  Versions of that dream haunted me for months afterward.

I wish I had known about trauma back then.  How it works, where it comes from, the effects it can have on lives.  I wish I had known that there were words to talk about it, that it was a whole field of study.  That dream was triggered by September 11, no question.  But it was really about my father, and the incredibly problematic relationship I had with him (details of which I will not go into here).

***

We moved back to Boston briefly, just long enough to get married & discover that the job market was less than hopping in Massachusetts.  Then we moved to Manhattan.

This might seem surprising, given everything that’s gone before in this narrative.  Sept. 11 scared me out of CA and back home to Boston.  Why on earth did we then move to the epicenter of doom?  Not even Brooklyn, but Manhattan?  But it didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  We joked about NY being safer than ever — what are the chances of two such catastrophes striking in a row?  But what I didn’t say, couldn’t yet say, was that the trauma of Sept. 11 was not the first horrible, life-changing, completely random & awful thing that happened in my life.  I already knew about trauma, already knew that horrible things happen to good people for no reason, & all we can do is survive & move forward.  I doubted that Manhattan was more dangerous than Berkeley or Boston because I knew that random senseless tragedy happens everywhere.  In a sense I was already in the place that many people got to after those events.  This is not meant to minimize the trauma & horror that people felt because of those events — I have often grappled with a sense of alienation about them, precisely because it all seemed so logical and inevitable to me.

This is not to say that moving to Manhattan was good for me.  Living in NY took its toll.  I was prepared for the huge attacks, the inevitable crises, but I wasn’t prepared for the day-to-day interpersonal disdain of NY.  The countless rude comments, the doors swung shut in my face, dozens of baby strollers rolled across my toes, the lack of ability to make friends and form intimate relationships with my peers — all of these things were an incredible drain on my sense of self.  I found myself becoming meaner, less caring, less tolerant of other people.  But when the blackout of 2003 rolled around, I was cool as a cucumber.  Our apartment was in an old tenement building on the first floor, so we had running water & our gas stove worked.  I cooked lighting the stove with a match & heated water for a bath, congratulating myself on my survival skills.

***

I don’t think that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 really changed my life that much.  We would have left CA regardless, I’m almost sure.  We would probably have moved to NYC.  At that time I worked in theatre and I doubt that I would have been satisfied before trying out the bright lights of Broadway.  Needless to say I found them sorely lacking, & changed careers so I could feel a sense of doing good in the world.  Just like all the other people my age that the Economist writes about.

Of all the things I regret about Sept. 11, 2001, the thing I have the most horror about is the US response to the attacks.  We have lost so much — I believe what we’ve lost as a country far outstrips whatever those people who flew those planes into those buildings imagined we would.  We lost our collective way.  Who remember the gorgeous summer of 2001?  The weather was beautiful.  We were worried about shark attacks.  Jobs were everywhere, for everyone.  I miss that time.  It wasn’t an innocent time — but it was a productive time.  Sept. 11 was supposed to bring us together, but it didn’t.  The gap between rich and poor has widened considerably since then.  Young people go into tremendous debt & graduate to no prospect of gainful employment.  Our credit rating slipped as a nation so badly that other superpowers no longer want to invest in our currency.

I know we will survive this, just like we survive everything.  But I wish that we could go back & do it over.  Tonight, I made eggplant parmesan for dinner as a sort of commemoration.  But also because eggplants and tomatoes are in season right now.  I will probably always make eggplant parmesan at this time of year, because it makes sense.  Over the past 10 years, I have made a lot of progress thinking through & recovering from the trauma in my life.  It’s an ongoing process, as different parts of my life come into better focus.  Time passes and I achieve distance from the hard stuff.  I hope that we as a society & culture start recovering from the trauma of Sept. 11 soon.

One response to “thoughts on september 11 and trauma

  1. It’s not that I like hearing about your pain. It’s that I really love your voice and ability to express your heart. Thanks for this.

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