Saturday, September 10, 2011

PTSD and 9/11

I originally posted this in 2008. I see little need to change it now, but there will probably be some "9/11 + 10" comments at the end. I did some minor editing for corrections and to shrink the discussion on PTSD in 2016.

Everyone has their "Where were you on 9/11?" narrative, and I'll get to mine in a minute. First, however, I want to take a moment to discuss post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because I believe it is relevant to what happened to me--and much of the United States--that day. The Department of Veterans Affairs describes it as follows:
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something horrible and scary that you see or that happens to you. During this type of event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening.

All people with PTSD have lived through a traumatic event that caused them to fear for their lives, see horrible things, and feel helpless. Strong emotions caused by the event create changes in the brain that may result in PTSD. Most people who go through a traumatic event have some symptoms at the beginning. Yet only some will develop PTSD. It isn't clear why some people develop PTSD and others don't. How likely you are to get PTSD depends on many things. These include:

  • How intense the trauma was or how long it lasted
  • If you lost someone you were close to or were hurt
  • How close you were to the event
  • How strong your reaction was
  • How much you felt in control of events
  • How much help and support you got after the event
Soldiers are not the only ones who have experienced PTSD through history. It probably goes back to the Black Death, or civilians enduring sacks by the Huns and Visigoths. And PTSD need not be experienced directly, or only in acts of war (as seen above). How many people were traumatized in the '30s or '40s by radio broadcasts? And then came 9/11, probably the largest purposely induced case of PTSD inflicted via television.

"So Where Were You on 9/11?"
I'm treating this as my "definitive" essay on 9/11, so I won't have to write this again. I was not in any particular danger, I just want to explain my particular sensitivity to this event.

I was flying that day.

My friend Tim's dad had celebrated his 60th birthday that weekend (BTW, happy belated birthday, Dale!), and Tim, Gwen (his wife) and I were flying back to Orlando from Cleveland. We had a stopover in Nashville, which landed at 8:30 a.m. We landed, no problem, and hauled our overweight butts over to our second plane. Then things sort of slowed down and got weird. The staff at the gate dithered as the crowds got bigger.

Gwen wandered over to the bar next door. It was closed, but the TV was on. She came back and said, "I think I know why we aren't going anywhere," and directed me toward the TV set. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire and the folks around the TV said a plane (a Cessna?) had hit it. I commented that that was a lot of smoke for a Cessna, and went back to sit next to Tim. I explained to him what was happening, and then quipped, quoting a Snickers commercial, "Not going anywhere for awhile?"

I had two books in my carryon: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (it was neither), and Voyage, an alternate history of the space program that was not inspiring me. I reread the same paragraphs several times, getting nowhere, but figured I'd try again until the airlines figured out what they were going to do.

Gwen, being a news junkie, went back to watching the TV. The next time she came back, her eyes were wide and alarmed. "Just come see this." She wouldn't talk about it, and I quickly understood why. A second plane. It was deliberate. Jesus.

My next comment, after repeating the Snickers commercial, was to say to Tim, "This won't end until some part of the world is turned into green glass."

Tim and I went into male analysis mode, trying to figure out who could've financed an operation capable of taking over and crashing a couple commercial airliners. Our guesses ranged from Saudi Arabia and Iran to Russia and China. News was sketchy and chaotic, and would remain for the next couple of days, so we were free to speculate.

Finally, after enough people had gotten freaked out by what was on the TV, the line at the counter started getting longer and a little raucous. Tim, Gwen, and I, dedicated travelers that we were, waited until the "I'm not flying anywhere, give me a refund" people got out of the way. I was about the last person in line for the flight. I told the agent to take a breath, relax, I wasn't going to yell at her, and said she was doing a great job. She managed a smile, and I asked what Southwest was doing about this.

"We've booked some rooms at the Clarion. We'll get you on a shuttle. You won't have to pay for that." I presumed she meant the shuttle, but SWA was willing to pay for the room as well. Bully for them. The young lady at the desk (Heather) gave me my vouchers and sent me on my way. She got a compliment letter from me when I got home. The best compliment I could offer for SWA's people that day was that they were "very Disney" under pressure.

I passed the TV once more, seeing the WTC looking much the worse, and thought seriously about going to church.

I've read where passengers and sailors have grown the most panicked at sea, not during the shipwreck, but afterward, when rescue is in sight and they are awaiting their turn. That sort of captures the atmosphere at Nashville's baggage claim area that day. We had already seen all the planes get rolled back, away from the jetways, lest anyone else get the bright idea to slam-dunk a 757.

TVs were going in baggage claim, and the thing that set off the waiting-for-the-lifeboats feeling was the collapse of the two towers. As cartoonist Art Spiegelman put it, "The Lord's name was taken in vain a lot that day."

I don't know exactly what we expected to happen to us (drowning was unlikely), though the police obviously did: all the cars, trucks, and vans were moved 100 yards away from the terminal, in anticipation of a bombing. I'd never been around such a large group of freaked out people in my life, and I wanted, like the rest of them, to get the hell out.

It's difficult to describe my mental state at the time, but I'll give it a shot. Numbness. Panic. Ohmygodohmygod. A sudden realization that I had family and friends in DC and New York that would need to be checked on. And I was absolutely, scorchingly p!$$ed off. I wanted some part of the world turned into green glass--very hot and very quickly.

Loud sounds began to alarm me: dropped china, engine backfires, slamming doors. I got to the hotel, checked in, explaining that I was one of the Southwest refugees and had no idea how long I'd be staying. The clerk understood, did her thing, and gave me a key. Tim and Gwen went to their room.

I got to the room, closed the door, and threw my suitcase across the room. I bellowed. I cried. I was not sane for about five minutes, though it felt longer. I finally went to the bathroom to wash my face, and my eyes were watery, weak, and scared. This was what terrorism was about, and the bastards had succeeded: I was terrified.

Not needing to pay for the hotel room, I racked up phone charges with a clear conscience. I called who I could, voice shaky, but talking a mile a minute, simultaneously seeking and offering comfort. I asked about my aunt and uncle in NYC; no word at the time, but they turned out to be fine. I asked about Kate, my buddy up in DC. Fine. I called the office (Disney University at the time) and asked for the only person whose name I could remember. I explained where I was and that I obviously wouldn't be coming in to work that day. Talking was clearing my head, but making things worse. The more I thought about things, the more scared I got. I was close to fubar, so I thanked my cohort for passing on the message. She told me to take care, and I hung up.

Finally I called home and briefly chatted with my roommate at the time, Jonathan. I cannot recall now what I said, though he did tell me to check my voice mail because "someone from the National Space Society called."

"Somebody" turned out to be Chris Pancratz, who was VP of Public Affairs at the time. He said my friend Cliff had recommended me as a writer and wanted to know if I'd be interested in writing a presentation "to help sell space to normal people." I laughed at the "normal people" line. I needed it, and appreciated Chris's gruff good humor, given the circumstances. Naturally I took the job, if only to get my mind off things. I thought of a title ("Now More Than Ever") on my way out of the room. I truly appreciated that life raft.

I met Tim and Gwen at the bar and filled my eyes and mind with eight to ten hours of saturation-bombing news coverage. The beers kept flowing, but the real numbness we sought wouldn't come. Tension and adrenaline wrestled with the alcohol, and tension won. I think I was full before I got drunk. The hotel brought out some chafing dishes filled with whatever was left over from the kitchen. It could've been filet mignon for all we cared. Eating was something to move our jaws around that didn't involve talking.

I remember getting back to my room that first night and having vivid, ugly, and startling dreams about worse attacks on the TV. The dream that woke me up involved a nearby nuclear explosion blasting in the glass of my hotel window. Imaginative people are bad candidates for PTSD. It sends our imaginations in strange directions.

I couldn't sleep, so I turned on the TV, and found a Star Trek: The Next Generation rerun going. That simmered me down and allowed me to sleep through the night. If they were running reruns, not the Emergency Warning System alarm tone, I figured the world would last another day.

Getting out of Nashville proved problematic, of course, for us and everyone else. Again, dedicated campers that we were, Tim, Gwen, and I kept trying to rebook for our flight home. When it became clear that the airborne silence over our heads was likely to continue for awhile, we began calling the car rental places. After about the third call, we managed to get the last car out of the Hertz lot by the simple luck that it was a Florida-based car and needed to be ferried back there anyway.

The car from Hertz was great: a Volvo convertible with GPS navigation system and leather seats. Too bad none of us were quite in the mood to appreciate it. As bad as it is was for our mental health, we kept listening to the news, hoping perhaps that some semblance of order might arise. In between updates, we must've heard Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" and Alicia Keyes' "Fallin'" about 20 times each. Those were the two songs that stuck with me from those days. I noticed that a lot of the schlock and '90s-type angst music (e.g. Alanis Morrisette, Meredith Brooks) disappeared. Maybe people just didn't want to hear that stuff anymore.

We arrived back in Orlando around 6 a.m., in the midst of a tropical storm (lovely timing). We all promised to touch base at Hooters the following evening.

That was one hell of a two-day stretch. I was damn glad I had Tim and Gwen with me through all that. My parting thought as we dropped off the car was, "I love you guys, but don't let's do this ever again."
Life Post-9/11
Of course the trip home didn't really end 9/11 for me (or anyone else). The jumpiness continued for a couple years, as did the reluctance to enter large buildings. I had a few months there in '01 where I had to leave the office just to get some fresh air. I imagined aircraft slamming into the Magic Kingdom, or Epcot. My brain would not shut up.

I got my only two B's out of an otherwise straight-A average in grad school that autumn. Partly this was because of my mental state, and partially because of the class content. One class was boring to me (Medical Writing), and one was awash in anti-American, anti-logical cr@p (Rhetorical Theory?).

When the war drums started, I was behind them. Behind the invasion of Afghanistan, hands down. Behind Iraq because at the time I didn't want anyone messing with my country. We knew what sorts of things could happen by that point, and we knew that Saddam Hussein had a history of bad actions. And yeah, we were still hopped up on adrenaline from 9/11. I'm convinced that the Iraq war was the result of a collective case of PTSD. I calmed down eventually. Time heals most things, even PTSD.

We've now had seven years without another 9/11. You can thank whoever or whatever you want for that: God, luck, George W. Bush, or the American Armed Forces (I'll take all of the above). Sanity has returned for me, but not forgetfulness. I'm not likely to "get over" 9/11, if by "getting over it," that means I no longer wish al-Qaeda destroyed. I'm not likely to forget, nor am I likely to forgive. However I have gotten over the idea that we'll be able to remake the world in our image. I call myself an "Eisenhower conservative," not a "neoconservative."
I have never subscribed to the "inside job" conspiracy theory, any more than I bought into the drug running, alleged "hits" on political enemies, or secret airstrips in Mena, Arkansas, during the Clinton Administration. I also refuse to accept that "America had it coming." If I felt that way, I'd stop living here.

And no, I'm not thrilled with everything Bush has done in response to 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security--particularly the Transportation Security Administration--has reduced my enjoyment of air travel without (IMHO) greatly improving my safety. I will wind up this essay by returning to one of the greatest films ever (The Lord of the Rings), and one which couldn't have come at a better time. Frodo Baggins is lamenting the dangerous adventure he has become part of, and Gandalf counsels him:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’
--The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2
I've already decided. I exist, for now, at the sufferance of the Lord. I will think and I will do good with such time as is given me. That, 9/11 hasn't and won't change.


Thoughts about 9/11 ten years on...

As Sir Lancelot said in Excalibur, "It is the old wound, my lord. It has never truly healed." I was blessed not to be on a plane that was hijacked, and not to have lost anyone I knew even second- or third-hand on That Day. Perhaps it's best to leave it at that and count my blessings.


lin said...

Dick Tiger was a professional boxer. He was born in Nigeria and moved first to England and then to the US. He had wide scars across his chest and abdomen that were the result of being cut with a red-hot knife in an adolescent rite of passage. He was asked by a sports writer whether it hurt. His response was that an Igbo tribesman would not allow it to hurt.

I remember being asked whether I needed permission to withdraw from classes because of the trauma of 9-11. Tiger’s response came to me. There was no way that I would let those cowards or their supporters see me hurting. I stayed in class, drank too much, and prayed for revenge. It came; bin Laden sleeps with the fishes.

Phyllis said...

Well done, Bart. Although I Don't think we've exacted enough revenge for what happened.