Every traumatic event leaves an indelible scar on both the soul and psyche.
We humans fear being caught off guard and hate the helpless feeling of not having prevented a damaging circumstance. This is true whether one is involved in a fender-bender, criminally assaulted, fired from a job, served with divorce papers, or rocked by an earthquake.
When a sudden harmful event happens to an individual, it is normal to want to be better prepared for the next similar situation. We may buy a safer car, take karate lessons, choose self-employment, swear off marriage, or retro-fit our home with quake-proof features.
It's not as easy when the trauma is national in scope.
The Day Innocence Died
On Sept. 11, 2001, a small group of al-Qaeda terrorists attacked New York City and Washington DC, shattering any illusion of national invincibility and personal safety. Priorities in government spending changed dramatically, and ten years later we are still seeing the consequences of this experience.
Our economy is floundering, and too many soldiers have been killed or severely injured fighting abroad. Federal funding to domestic healthcare programs for the poor, elderly, and chronically ill has been slashed. Even government support for the arts has dried up.
I think it is fair to say that our nation and its people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the surprise deadly events of Sept. 11, 2001.*
For many, the initial response of helplessness, intense fear, and horror is painfully reawakened during the anniversary of the attack. For some, including those in the South Brunswick area, simply hearing the sound of a low-flying airplane or seeing dark smoke on the horizon causes sweating and an increase in heartbeat throughout the year.
PTSD Triggers: We Each Have Our Own
Depending upon where we were on Sept. 11, each of us connects that day with specific sights, sounds, and smells.
For me, the sound of the F-15s zooming immediately overhead and the feeling of the house vibrating are forever etched in my memory. The intense roar of the jets was a sound I had never experienced but intuitively knew wasn't good.
At first, when I stepped outside to see what was causing the noise, I saw nothing. It was only after turning on the television that I realized the fighter planes were patrolling the New York/New Jersey air space and simply traveling too fast for me to see them.
My heart is racing and my breathing rapid as I write these words. A flood of memories and feelings form a collage almost too intense to revisit. For a moment I relive the disbelief and terror I felt as the twin towers fell and the gritty white cloud rolled through the streets of Manhattan.
I realize how much this morning is like the one ten years ago. Clouds mix with sun and a gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the same large maple outside my window.
Best of Times, Worst of Times
Immediately after the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, we saw the best of community come forth in South Brunswick, when patriotism temporarily transcended race, geography, age, religion, and personal beliefs.
Bikers with long flowing hair beeped their motorcycle horns and waved to occupants in conservative sedans, pointing approval of the American flags prominently displayed on both vehicles. People talked with strangers on supermarket lines and while buying stamps at the post office.
There was also a shameful downside.
Discrimination based on physical appearance, clothing, and name occurred in this township as well as across America. Believers in Islam reportedly were taunted and physically threatened, even though they had been living in neighborhoods for years and attending community schools.
In the ensuing weeks, as the country catapulted into defense mode, sales of gas masks, iodine pills, duct tape, sheets of clear plastic, batteries, and portable radios soared. Articles on building and stocking home shelters filled the media.
It was also a time of noble sacrifice in this township and elsewhere.
Police, fire, first aid, and other first responders gave freely of their time and put their health on the line to engage in search and rescue work in Manhattan. Young men and women chose to put aside college and jobs to enlist in the military. Older people with established jobs put financial and personal security aside and entered the armed forces.
It has been ten years, and many of us are still in a fight mode. It's time for healing to begin.
Healing from Trauma
Trauma is a powerful teacher, and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, are no exception.
Eventually, after we exhaust every strategy for trying to control the people, places, and things in our environment, it becomes clear that it is not humanly possible to avoid or be totally prepared for all of life's sudden challenges.
We learn that all we can control is ourselves and how we define and react to traumatic situations. This is a powerful awareness that brings a combination of peace and the freedom to choose where we focus our time and energy.
As we embrace this perspective, the need to continue to invest in ineffective and costly hyper-vigilance loses power, and we can concentrate on changing the things we can change in order to live a healthy and productive life.
If you are still suffering PTSD from 9/11 or other events, I suggest you explore strategies such as meditation, spiritual philosophies (including Buddhism), 12-step recovery groups, and/or professional counseling from a specialist in this disorder.
* For a medical discussion of the signs and symptoms of PTSD, see http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/DS00246