Friday, September 12, 2014

On 9/11 and PTSD, Pt 2

Here are some snapshots from one of my favorite writers (a paragraph of her unfiltered, confessionally honest wit, and her refreshingly researched and resonant views, similar experiences except she's better at everything, and you who know me will know that I adore her. Penelope can we be friends?)

Penelope Trunk, who survived 9/11, and a host of other crazy shit, is a traveling friend and a credible witness. She blogs about PTSD every year on 9/11.

Because she has allowed herself to heal through storytelling, through reframing (which is an important marker of therapeutic rather than ruminative narrative), and observed her own healing.

On therapeutic vs. ruminative writing -- I am reading Pennebaker's social psychology findings through computational linguistics research -- this is a whole other post on how to heal through writing. Well, this whole blog is an attempt at health and help through writing.

I don't have a roadmap to the wilderness. No one does, that's what makes it wild. There are a few signposts though, corroborated by many who have gone the pilgrim route before us.


1. Walk together. Let's be generous and hospitable. You can afford to be human.
Written for Time Magazine, the week of 9/11/2001.

There was no one around. White everywhere. The four of us had nowhere to go. I couldn't remember where I was. I walked toward the water. Police directed everyone north. I asked a woman next to me, "Where are we going?" She said, "I don't know." She had no dust. She looked so steady. I followed her. This was the beginning of her long protection.

She said, "You can walk home with me. You need a shower." I coughed. She asked why I was carrying a wastebasket. I said, "In case there's another bomb." She held onto my arm as we made our way next to the river. In Chinatown, she bought me shoes. At the Bowery we finally found a payphone that didn't have a line of people. So she called her husband and I sat down next to my wastebasket. It was the first time I sat down, and I started crying.

2. Let's hold hands. Let's give each other dignity.
Written for Time Magazine, the week of 9/11/2001.
I remembered one more moment under the rubble. When I couldn't breathe. When I couldn't see. In the middle of the dead quiet was a voice. He said, "Is there anyone here? Can someone hold my hand?" I reached out to the voice, and held his hand. It was shaking and the skin was old. I squeezed and then I let go.

3. God shows grace and mercy toward humanity. Accept that you are human and there was no way you could have rewalked that valley perfectly.
8 years later.
Over the years, what that upsets me the most about 9/11 has changed. In the beginning, I was most upset about how when I saw danger, I walked toward the building, to see what was happening, rather than getting back on the train and going home. Later I learned that most of Wall St. responded the same way, so I was beating myself up for what was simple human nature.

Later, the thing that most upset me was that I needed so much help from people, but I did not offer help. For example, someone else broke a window, I don't know how, but I pulled myself into a building with breathable air just as I was preparing to accept death. I made my way to a bathroom that was clean and had running water.

Our mouths were so coated with debris that we couldn't really breathe without first swallowing water. There were men fighting over who could drink out of the toilet first. The fighting men scared me and my instinct was to lock the door—I just wanted to be safe.

Later I realized that most people around me were being selfish. It is another natural instinct that you never read about in the newspaper. Who wants to tell a reporter about their selfishness on the anniversary of 9/11?

This year, I realized that my most upsetting moment has changed again. It was the moment where I accepted that I was going to die. I had just married my husband, and I was so disappointed that I would not see how our lives unfolded. I realized that the greatest joy in life is simply watching the lives of people you love unfold in their very own way.
4. Let's tell our stories. Then transcend them. Let's listen well to each other.
Oh yeah, and duh, let's accept the premise: we all could use therapy.
This excerpt is from 2 years later, in 2003.
The way to deal with post-traumatic stress is to tell your story over and over again. The theory is that when you are in the moment of trauma, you have to turn off all your emotions to get yourself through it. After the fact, in order to stop having nightmares and panic attacks, you have to experience the emotions you missed.

So I told my story over and over again. And each time, the story was a little different. (I still tell the story, although to be honest, most people are sick of it. Even my brother said, “That just took 25 minutes. Maybe you need an abridged version.”)

When I began telling my story I saw myself as an imbecile — for staying at work after the first plane hit, for standing so close to the building, for not trying to help anyone but myself. Later, my story focused on how I was a lucky person to have come out alive. And I was a lucky person to have a moment where I thought I was going to die and saw exactly what I cared about in my life.

This is the process of reframing. How we frame our stories determines how we see ourselves. It's the glass half-empty/half-full thing: The trauma of 9/11 taught me to frame my life as half-full.
5. Be patient with yourself, healing takes time. Go slow. Take the space and time that you can.
She writes 7 years later, that it didn't change her overnight though sometimes she wishes that it had.

The slowest moment in my whole life was the time between when the World Trade Center fell next to me. . . In my memory this time span is about fifteen minutes. But from the historical record, I know it was about one minute.

I have been writing for seven years about how the World Trade Center changed me.

And I have been writing, too, about how much I want to change. Sometimes it’s about productivity, sometimes it’s about compassion, sometimes it’s managing my own money. I always want to change something.

I always thought that my success is due to my fast pace. My quick thinking, quick delivery, quick judgment, quick shift. I tell myself that I can get what I want if I try hard enough. And then I translate that to a faster pace.

Don’t tell me about meditation, and yoga, and being present. I’ve done all that. The problem is that a fast-paced overachiever can undermine even those being-present techniques. For example, I am sure that I’m better at Ashtanga yoga than you are: See. That’s how the mind of the fast-paced works.

There is the step you take where you change what your body is doing, and then there is the second step, where you change what you believe. So I have had a hard time believing that I’d be okay with a slower pace.

But this year, I tried going slower. I tried to trust that I’d change the most by changing my pace.

Changing my pace has been about trusting that good things will come from being slow, just as they do from being fast. It’s hard to trust in that, because if you’ve been fast your whole life, you don’t know what you’ll get from slow. Instead, you only see what you cut out of the fast life to make room for the slow life. You know what you lose but not what you’ll gain.

Some of you know what I mean. Others of you are sitting in your chair, smugly thinking that you are great at slow. But those of you who hate a fast pace, you still have a pace problem, it’s just the opposite: Speed makes you anxious. You might miss something. You might do something wrong. You might get lost. These are the worries of slow people that are foreign to the fast.

Pace matters. It opens doors if you use it well. I am not sure if I would be able to change my pace if I had not had an inescapable, defining moment that forced me to try slow. So today I am taking a moment to have gratitude to all the lessons I learned, during my slowest moment..
6. Let's stop when it's time to get on with the day, the point of integrating that old pain into the present, is to be present.
Time to stop reflecting and start shining. But, if you can't--if you're not there yet--first, that's okay--second, make sure the voices you listen to are the ones that know. Read Penelope, for example. 13 years out, you can believe her when you look at her life.

The world is riddled with the same stories, many role reprisals. Just stay in the Story. Abide.

I wanted to eventually get to some arbitrarily numbered point to say, if you make it through this valley, you will have no fear left. But I also now want to just stop reading, and plug back into propelling life forward.

But this post was for you. You know who you are. Go read Penelope. Go read the Bible. You are going to be okay.

So, that's for today--the mental diarrhea that anniversaries draw out of me.


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