Of all the essays I’ve written about 9/11, this is the first one that has wanted to move out into the public sphere. It’s not one of my best, but it’s the one calling to be free. I’ve worked for weeks on it and I know it goes back and forth in tense and it may be confusing as hell, but if I’m going to post it at all, I’ve got to let all that go and just do it.
I don’t remember most of the last ten years. While I was in New York City, working on 9/11 at the medical examiner’s office, I wasn’t laying down normal memories. There was no time, no capacity, no need. My memories of that time and the subsequent attempt to recover from being there are not grounded in narrative, instead appearing like dreams with no context provided. My memory, never that great to begin with, has been damaged by my experiences and impedes my attempts to process and understand my own story.
I’ve written tens of thousands of words about 9/11 but still have failed to capture even a glimpse of the totality of the experience. Here’s the short version: I spent 3 ½ years in New York working on 9/11 at the medical examiner’s office. I then moved to my home town of to Richmond, Virginia where I embarked on a 6 ½ year journey of healing from those 3 ½ years that is sadly, not over yet. I’m ashamed that I’m still not well and at the same time scared I never will be.
After 9/11, specifically on September 22, 2001 I flew to New York from Portland, Oregon for a two week rotation as part of a federal disaster team. I didn’t leave until May of 2005. I was always in the process of leaving – two more weeks, three more months – I did not commit all at once, I did it piece meal. I stayed through the production of thousands of affidavit-based death certificates for those not identified. I stayed through the entire identification project which attempted to identify the 20,000 human remains brought from Ground Zero. I stayed even though I worked up the street from the refrigerated trailers that held the remains. I stayed through the years when the only identifications being made were by DNA. I stayed through meeting with family members telling them what parts of their loved one had been identified by our office – there were few whole bodies, most were body parts or even just fragments of soft tissue. I stayed during the Wednesday morning tours of our operations I gave to World Trade Center Families, and I stayed until we sent a letter to the families telling them that we had done all we could using current DNA technology. Only then did I leave.
The letter telling family’s we had completed the process to that point given current DNA technology had been my holy grail. Thousands of them went out. I ceremoniously put the first one in the mailbox on First Avenue outside the medical examiner’s office, turned around and went inside to resign. My husband (who flew back and forth between Portland and New York while I was there) and I had made the decision not to return to Oregon when I was done. I had wanted to move back to the east coast anyway, and Portland felt completely alien by then, so we flew back and moved out of our home over a weekend, getting rid of almost everything, shipping boxes of things to keep to my parents’ house in Richmond.
I was happy to be moving to Richmond and I remember thinking (and actually believing!) that given what I’d been through, the rest of my life was going to feel like one big vacation. Nothing would ever be truly hard again. I was wrong.
I once read that being an alcoholic is like speeding down the highway in a station wagon. Everything that happens, every bad choice, every lost relationship gets thrown in the back and you just keep driving. Getting sober involves putting the brakes on and stopping the car. The problem is that everything you’ve tossed behind you comes screaming forward. And so it was.
I woke up the first day in Virginia, plastered in a state of horror and anxiety. I had not known that it was humanly possible to feel so bad and yet keep living, keep existing. The station wagon had stopped. My brain was a grasping splash of softened goo unable to do much except writhe in post traumatic agony. Then came the depression. The anvil of sorrow that blacked out everything except the pain. Then the multitude of therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. The drugs. The ECT (no friend to memory). Again, who wants to remember and even if I did, the memory machine remains off line – I think it might never come back. After all, it’s been more than six years since I left New York. Almost ten years since 9/11. I’m not feeling particularly hopeful.
There are upsides to having a bad memory. I can watch movies multiple times without knowing it. I don’t remember slights or mistakes. I don’t have a legible story for how I got to where I am – in some ways I can sort of just be. There are, of course, more downsides. I run into people who know me and I don’t recognize them. My husband reminds me of things and I have zero recall. Last night we drove by a storefront that has held a variety of restaurants – apparently I’ve been to each incarnation - but I see dark blankness when I try to remember. Also, as a college teacher, I’ve learned to be careful with my online students. I can tell them one thing, like I’ll accept a paper late, and then lecture them about my late work policy when they try to turn it in. I’ve begun to append emails with something along the lines of, “Unless I’m missing something,” or “Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything.”
I believe my lack of a comprehensive narrative is the reason I haven’t had to deal with flashbacks and intrusive dreams, phenomena common to PTSD, which I’ve been diagnosed with over and over again. I’ve had some dreams, mainly about trying to leave New York when we were done with the identification process. But I also have mental photographs of moments of great intensity and despair. These are times when the world stopped and a camera’s flash went off, taking a picture of the transition between the me that existed before that moment and who I was after.
For example, a lot of my time in New York was spent going over files with family members after there had been an identification of remains. Families would want to know what specifically had been found and it was my job (along with others) to tell them. Sometimes this was done over the phone. Once I had to tell a woman we’d identified her husband’s testicle. I still remember sitting in front of the phone in that moment of before, trying to recapture my voice which was crawling down into my throat. The camera goes off, capturing me in between worlds. I find my breath and start, “I don’t know how to tell you this,” I said, “so I’m just going to say it.” But these moments, however horrible, are not intrusive; I generally have to pull them up. Until this week.
On Wednesday I took my daughter to camp and came home and fell asleep. While I slept I dreamed of conducting a tour of our office for family members, a regular Wednesday event in my work life. But dream wasn’t really the word. I was there. I could feel the stress; I could see the family members moving about. I was trying to get everyone together to go on the tour but people were spreading out everywhere and more of them kept appearing. I was full of despair, worry and horror. How was I going to do this? How could I get everyone together? Where were the files I would need to review with them? Where was everyone else?
Back in my bedroom, just waking up from the dream, I came to my feet, stood for a moment feeling the fear and anxiety in my body, then immediately began looking for relief. I went to the kitchen and ate a bowl of Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries – this month’s childhood food I’m using to try and drug my feelings away. I went to the porch and smoked (sorry, M, I started again). I sat down at my computer and began jumping around the internet. Nothing helped. The feelings electrified my nerve endings. I was caught in a storm, horrified by the dream, but also horrified to realize that these things were true. I actually had done family tours every Wednesday and they actually were scary and sad and overwhelming. Sometimes I look back to New York in wonder – how did I do those things without screaming? How did the family members not scream? Why weren’t we all just carried off to Bellevue (conveniently located next door to the medical examiner’s office).
After the dream I was full of rage. I wanted to grab someone by the shoulders and shake them violently screaming, “DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT WAS? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA?” I wanted to smash someone’s face in with my fist, their teeth sucked out of their sockets by the power of my hand. I would pound them over and over screaming, “YOU WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH PAIN CAN BE CRAMMED INTO ONE ENDLESS SECOND.”
The anger surprised me. I’d gotten an email in May from a friend I’d worked with in New York. She said, “‘I just have these extraordinary bouts of rage and sometimes I look at the people around me, family/colleagues, and think, ‘You have no fucking clue.’ Does that happen to you?” and my response, although I hadn’t sent it, had been no. I was even kind of confused – why would she be so angry? Now I understand why it’s taken me so long to respond to her email – I was waiting for the dream to unleash my own anger.
Up until recently I’ve been horrifically depressed, now, thanks to Latuda (The Drug with The Stupid NameTM) I no longer feel William Styron depressed. I feel like a normal person with normal depression. This kind of depression I can work on: I’m reading books about cognitive behavioral therapy, taking walks. But now, after the dream, I wonder if the severe form of the depression was holding up barriers, walls that are now coming down.
“I think you’re processing. Do you think that might be what’s going on?” my husband asks when I tell him about the dream and the subsequent horrible day. While sympathetic to the suffering, he sees it as a mainly positive thing and maybe it is. But it reminds me of how things went in New York: in the beginning everything was running at full speed. I worked as much as I possibly could, I worked to complete capacity. I was underwater with just a straw sticking up, giving me only enough air to keep struggling against the tsunami of what needed to be done. As the water line went down, I was completely exhausted so even with less work I was still at my capacity.
It was the same after I left New York, I struggled with horrible depression and PTSD for years and even as I got better, I was still working to capacity because I was more and more tired. It’s tiring to be depressed. My psychiatrist told me that 25% of our aerobic output is used by the brain. So, when you’re depressed and your brain is in a dark place, it’s exhausting. My husband’s comment about processing haunted me. What if that’s what’s happening now – I worked on 9/11 for 3 ½ years, I’ve struggled in the aftermath for 6 ½ years, now I’m going to start metabolizing the experience? I don’t think I have it in me.
People might be surprised to know that I rarely think of 9/11 during my day-to-day life (except now, when the anniversary is in sight – I hate the anniversary). It’s almost like New York was a horrible car accident I’ve spent the last six plus years recovering from. I’ve done the physical therapy, had the surgeries, taken the medications and I’m just starting to walk normally. Now, I fear, I’m going to start re-living the accident.
I read an article in the New York Times this week about medication being used to treat PTSD in soldiers and how it is no more effective than a placebo. They were speaking specifically of antipsychotics, like Seroquel, the one I take to go to sleep and Latuda, TDWTSNTM. At the end of the article there was a line that said. “Time, too, should be taken into consideration; recent research has revealed that about 24 months after a one-year deployment is about enough for the body to reset itself physiologically.” Given that, I’ve got six months until I’ve given two years of recovery for each year in action. Maybe there’s hope. But I doubt it.
This morning I went to breakfast with my husband and daughter. The place we went, 821 Café, was full. The only tables left were in the middle of the small restaurant’s main (and only) dining room. Having my back exposed in a loud room is never a good idea, despite the fact that the PTSD is almost asleep most of the time. As the room got louder and louder, I became more and more activated. Then someone decided to put on some punk rock, because I wasn’t freaking out enough already. My daughter had a short curtain rod she was using as a sword and it kept flashing past me, reactivating my super fit, hyper-active, over-responsive amygdala.
Honestly, though, this wouldn’t have normally happened. In this case I was already activated because I was thinking about this essay, knowing I was going to try and write about the rage that came over me last Wednesday. I didn’t want to write about it, but today, Sunday, is my writing group and in all the years we’ve met, I’ve yet to show up without something.
In the lead up time to writing an essay I mull it over a great deal. While I walk, while I’m getting ready to go to sleep. I imagine beginnings and endings, the flow of the piece, certain turns of phrase I want to use. Before I sit down, a lot of the work is already done.
The part below refers to the particular day I first wrote a full draft of this essay. It was a few weeks ago.
So this morning, after breakfast, my daughter and husband went to Richmond’s annual Watermelon Festival and I came home to face the computer. I had written the first paragraph of this essay in the grips of the terror, but it was all I had when I sat down this morning. Generally when I write I put down a paragraph and then go do something to get away from the mass of feelings that arise when I write about 9/11. I’ll read an article online, go have a cigarette.
Today, just now, in a move to distract myself, I went to the Washington Post’s web site and of course there was an article about a Maryland family whose 27-year-old daughter was murdered in Macon, Georgia where she’d just finished law school. Her body had been dismembered and the only thing found was her torso in an outdoor trashcan. One of the detectives had to sit down and tell her father, who’d driven all day from Maryland to get to Georgia.
The officials beat around the bush for a while.
Chief Mike Burns, a 37-year veteran of police work in his home town, looked at the anguished father on the sofa, wondering how to tell him the truth. “There’s no good way to do it,” the chief says now. He waited quietly while Maj. Charles Stone and the detectives gently questioned Bill [Giddings] about his daughter.…[Mr. Giddings] knew there was something more there than we were telling him,” Burns says. And there was: “Everybody was really struggling with how to tell him what happened to his daughter and how we found her.
Burns, 59, who has a son Lauren’s age and three adult daughters, decided, “I wanted to talk to him father to father.” He asked most of those present to leave the room.
And then Chief Burns told Mr. Giddings. Later he says:
I don’t know if you can ever fully prepare yourself,” Burns says. “You know, it’s hard to tell somebody, ‘Your daughter’s been dismembered, and her torso was thrown in a trash can.’ You know? It’s hard.
And I think about all the conversations I had and wonder what they did to me and if it can ever be undone and that the telling was only one part of my job, there were many other facets. So I write the essay, and I’m tired, and when I get to the end I’m wondering if I need to go back and explain what a family tour was. Do my writing group members know? If they don’t, I worry this essay isn’t going to make much sense. I struggle against the blankness to try and get to the information, but I can’t find it. I have no idea what I’ve told them and what I haven’t. I just can’t remember.
And so I leave things as they are. I print the essay and drive to my group. I go first. I read it out loud and then I begin to cry, something I rarely do at all, certainly not it front of other people. Maybe it’s progress. I don’t know. I don’t have the manual for this experience and it’s hard to learn lessons when my life keeps receding into the dark hole of no memory.
If you want to know more about what went on at the medical examiner's office after 9/11 you can go here.