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911 and PTSD: What you should know but probably won’t want to hear.

Neil Newton: Author of the novel “The Railroad”

Though we are close to the thirteenth anniversary of 911, I have just recently come to understand that many people are still unaware of its effects on those who survived; that while all this time I had thought people understood what had happened to me and others that day, many of them have clung to a very sanitized view of one of the greatest horrors in American history. This, despite all the patriotic protestations that “we will never forget”. Against my better judgment I find that I’m angry about this.

Logically, I know I shouldn’t be. People know what they know and see the world within a strict set of parameters based only on their experiences. Asking someone to understand something like 911, something incredibly far from their understanding, defies what we know of the way humans learn to see the world around them.

Two years ago I published a book. It is a mystery that incorporates the themes of 911 and child abuse. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, the first theme inspired the other. Child abuse became a metaphor for the complete loss of 911. I found myself imagining an existence where the very foundation of life had eroded. For some soldiers, war refugees and victims of abuse, the world is a place where no sane adaptations to an awful situation are possible. I will go so far to say that hope in life stems from our ability to adapt and internalize new realities. When those realities are nightmares and can’t be internalized and resolved, the mind often slips off its moorings to some extent. It has become popular to call this complete failure of the rational to guide our lives PTSD.

When 911 came, I was not in the towers or beneath them in the path trains. I spent half an hour in the subway less than two blocks from the World Trade Center.  During that half hour, the train I was in was motionless, unable to move ahead because the towers were in the process of collapsing.  Eventually the train made a history making move backwards into the station we had left half an hour before and I walked into the false night of the 911 dust cloud.

I found out the truth about people’s views of 911 by reading reviews of my book and, finally speaking to my wife. Without going too far into the plot of my book, The Railroad, I will tell you that the main character, Mike Dobbs, once a rising star on Wall Street, earning an astronomical salary and destined for officer status in an enormous financial firm, shares my half hour in the subway while the towers fall. With few changes. His experience in the subway is mine. And unlike me, Mike falls into a deep depression, running away from his job, his friends, and his life to live an isolated existence in a small house two hours north of New York City. As his depression grows, Mike becomes a full-fledged alcoholic.

In a few of the book’s reviews, Mike’s alcoholism is seen as outrageous and implausible. How, someone asked, could someone function for up to a year drinking heavily? Could that be possible? Would someone who had a traumatic experience be likely to fall into some kind of anti-social behavior and continue it for the foreseeable future? One person suggested that my protagonist might have been a better protagonist if he was “less” alcoholic.

While it seems unnecessary to state this, I will say that the book was never written with the intention of condoning self-destructive behavior at the level that Mike Dobbs practiced it. Alcoholism is an inherently controversial and destructive. What has set me off is something that is essentially constitutes a wall that I’ve discovered between people who have experienced major disasters and those that haven’t.

While I haven’t fallen into a deep depression like the protagonist on my book, there are parts of my 911 experiences that I have simply blocked out of my mind. My wife has told me several times that when I first moved to Tennessee I experienced respiratory problems which included some dark substance that I  coughed up for the first few months after I left New York; I have no memory of this, though I must have been aware of it at the time it happened. The point of saying this is that even I, who haven’t shown any overt signs of PTSD, have blocked elements of that day out of my mind. The bottom line for me is that experiencing mind-numbing events pushes people’s behavior past the bounds of sanity and can create strange and unpredictable behavior.

What angers me is not the lack of understanding of my experiences which I consider to be relatively mild. What frustrates me is the lack of understanding how a traumatic experience can set some people on an uncontrollable downward spiral. What was in my mind when writing “The Railroad” is the experiences of some of my friends and acquaintances; those few hours of hell have destroyed their peace of mind and, in some cases, their lives. If you add the trauma experienced by thousands of people that I’ve never met it becomes a disaster of epic proportions, something that, despite some people’s expectations, often creates disturbing and “improper” reactions.

I do realize that everyone who had trouble with the main character descending into alcoholism had trouble with a disturbing image of a man destroying himself. What frustrates me is that we live in a world full of people who need our help. For millions of people who have experienced war, abuse, and a laundry list of other soul crushing experiences, the skills to simply “suck it up” and make lemonade out of lemons is not available without intervention. This is not only a moral issue, based solely on the desire to help others; our country is plagued by a growing level of mental illness, a bourgeoning prison pollution and a pharmaceuticals industry that is  one of the fastest growing in our nation’s history. Treating such a large portion of our population as “nature’s mistakes” and as people of uncommon weakness is ill-advised at best. Failing to help people who are pushed past the point of sanity has a ripple effect of negative results, something we have been experienced and are continuing to experience in the form of crime, law enforcement costs, and cost of maintaining an overburdened prison system.

It is our lack of understanding of the damaged in our society that allows us to be condescending and expect “proper” behavior from people who are well past embracing it. In my view, being condescending to such people doesn’t raise the moral bar by being intolerant of distasteful behavior born of trauma; it lowers it by limiting our tendency toward mercy. And it flies in the face of our moral and religious traditions.

What is obvious to me about the after effects of 911 is related through stories of people I knew whose experience during 911 was much worse than mine. What is more than the point, their subsequent reaction to 911 was far more intense than mine and plagued them long after the towers fell.

I know of one person who was in a building just to the west of the towers. What some of you may know is that an unknown number of people stood in the windows of both towers with flames at their backs. Not willing to submit to a painful death by fire, they jumped, some alone, some together and holding hands. Certainly, as these images hit our television screens, our attention was fixed on these people and the unthinkable sight of falling bodies; who could look away? One of the award winning pictures of that year was a photo called “The falling Man”, a surreal and strangely peaceful view of a man giving himself over to his descent to death.

My friend watched for at least an hour as flames engulfed tower one. And he watched as people jumped. From across the street I doubt he missed much. When the second tower was hit, his fear of becoming collateral damage to the terrorist attacks was overcome by his fear of being trapped and never seeing his family again. He ran south down West street to take one of the last water taxis back to New Jersey.

Next we have my friend who had gambled on the American Dream and moved from the Dominican Republic to live in the New Jersey suburbs. His journey to being a full-fledged American was a series of financial setbacks, offset by finally landing a permanent position as a programmer, his life-long career.  On that day, I believe he took the final steps to becoming an American, experiencing the worst along with the rest of us, becoming a true New Yorker. He told me that as he got down to the bottom of the island, attempting to get a water taxi to take him home to New Jersey, the awful iconic grey cloud of dust swept through the area and blinded everyone. Like all those around him, he groped through the darkness screaming until he managed to get inside of a ferry building and waited out the worst. One of the refrains that appears in all the stories of 911 is a perception of the cloud of dust, the awful sounds of the towers falling, as the beginning of an apocalypse in which their world and their lives would come to an end.

In the weeks that followed 911, for my Dominican friend, any odd play of sunlight off the towering buildings around our office would set off a reaction, one of fear that the planes were returning and that he would be engulfed in a cloud of choking dust and be separated from his family forever.

Another friend who was on the 26th floor of my office building saw tower one dissolve only a few blocks away. She ran for the elevators and barely managed to make it to the trains that would take her to Brooklyn Heights right across the river. She described the sound of the tower collapsing as indescribable, like the world cracking open.

Then there’s the story of a man whose partner eerily managed to avoid the towers that day, having had what became a lifesaving dentist appointment. Though his partner was fine, the man went to his business partner in a small travel firm and told her he was leaving, that he wanted no part of New York and that he would settle with her later, hoping to sell his half of the business. Just then, he told her, he couldn’t stay. The near miss of losing his lifelong partner had taken all the courage from him. As far as I know he left New York shortly after.

And then there is the final story, one I have never confirmed completely. It tells of a woman who had to make her way up Church Street, after the towers have fallen, to get to the Brooklyn Bridge and home. Church Street is just east of World Trade Center complex. As she made her way northward, she stepped over and around the parts of bodies that had fallen from the high floors of the towers. I was told that her plan was to leave New York City forever.

911, child abuse, domestic abuse, combat; no one can know how someone will react to any of it. But not all the reactions of someone who’s been frightened past the point of sanity can be seen as weakness or “gross impropriety”. “Suck it up” does not cover every situation. From the vantage point of relative safety it’s too easy to judge.

I am realistic enough to admit the significance of the fact that Mike Dobbs, the protagonist in my book “The Railroad”, is not real and doesn’t require sympathy or understanding. I also know that the existence of people damaged in the same way as Mike Dobbs is a subject that most people don’t care to dwell on. But not for me and several thousands of my fellow New Yorkers.

Bottom line: There are people in our country who need our help. Most of us are brought up in a tradition where helping the broken is part of our reason for living. The weak, the impoverished, have always been the focus of our greatest religious and altruistic impulses. And there are dangers in ignoring PTSD; we’ve just recently become aware of the effects of PTSD in soldiers who can spend up to a year or more living through a daily 911; violence, drug addiction, and depression are part of reality for many returned serviceman.

Ignoring people who are broken, condemning their behavior, does not solve the problem and the problem is often extremely serious. I have seen the disgust and annoyance on the faces of people who hear me bring up the issue of child abuse. It’s beyond my understanding, especially since young children have no chance of “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” in the face of cruelty from people who they are supposed to trust.  Despite that people are often annoyed by the very mention of child abuse.

Something is wrong if we can make value judgments about basic discussions of the brutalization of children who need our help.

I suppose that knowing the truth about people’s attitudes is a useful revelation; it just shows that there is more work to do. And minds to change.

I could go on. But it has been said in ways far superior to my angry rambling. Here is one example of that wisdom: “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Mahatma Ghandi.

My best wishes to all of my homies in New York. And a special thanks to our biggest heroes, the first responders who took on the impossible and, in many cases, gave their lives.

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