Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan
Richmond, Virginia, USA
November 09
I'm a mom, wife, college teacher, and writer.


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Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 8, 2011 1:41PM

Happy Anniversary

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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.

Katie Sullivan

If you want to know more about what went on at the medical examiner's office after 9/11 you can go here.

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What a stunning experience y ou lived and wrote so beautifuly about it !!! Im very touched.
What a stunning, sad, well-written article. This is a side of what happened that most people do not know about or think about. The hours and days and months and years of painstaking work involving intellect, interaction with other agencies, interaction with families and personal challenges…work that touches on pretty much every facet of a person's private and public life. And life as a citizen, too. No wonder you are still on this journey of "processing" if that is what it is. I sense that our country has failed in some aspect. In our attempt to hurry out and punish those responsible for 9/11, we have ignored those who need support, even if that support is simply recognition of a difficult job carefully and well done.

Thank you for the work that you did, for working compassionately and caring so much. For putting up with being away from home, away from your spouse. For working in a sad and difficult environment. For choosing to look closer and work harder and do your best when many of us would have said "no way" and run in the other direction to easier choices.

I know you didn't write this to garner thanks, but I wanted to offer it anyway.

I love the beautiful way you write about ugly things. I can imagine how frustrating the memory loss must be, but what I am seeing here is what remains, and it is a lot of something. I hope you will continue to share with us.
You have PTSD. You are deeply traumatized. The worst part of this powerful story is that others don't immediately know this...if you (as you must) know the many symptoms of PTSD, rage is one of them. I've written about this and interviewed Edna Foa, who works with female military veterans to help them.

I'm sorry this has had such an effect on you, but it is to be expected. I am sorry you were not given enough support, then or now, to cope. Not that there is much that could, quite likely.
Oh. My. God. This is the most powerful essay I have ever read about 9/11. About depression. About PTSD. About how the most difficult things done are often the things most easily taken for granted. Who knew what the people at the other end of this horrible event were going through? Who even imagined?

Trust me, it was not confusing. You've told a painful, poignant, terrible story in the only honest way such a story could be told - from the heart. Thank you for the work you did, the sacrifices you've made. And thank you for telling us.

I wish you peace.
Nothing is much harder than this for ordinary folks and you have shared with grace and heart felt emotion. Good things for you 4 tomorrow and 4ever.
(what janicephelpswilliams said).
First, don't apologize for your tone of writing. Far from being "down," your writing is honest. What is more, I believe writing will help you deal with the emotions that still bubble to the surface and take the form of rage, anger and depression. Second, your work in the aftermath of 9/11 helped a great many families deal with the tragedy and find closure. You were not responsible for what happened, and it took enormous courage and compassion to sort through the remains. Be strong and look to the living as you continue on your road to recovery.
Thank you- for this brutally honest aspect of 9/11 that I have thought about, but have not read about until now. Thanks for your courage, for your compassion and for being brave enough to share your experiences, both personal and professional, with others.
Thank you- for this brutally honest aspect of 9/11 that I have thought about, but have not read about until now. Thanks for your courage, for your compassion and for being brave enough to share your experiences, both personal and professional, with others.
Thoroughly engrossing. Horrifying even at this distance for me from your experience. This brutal tour of your nightmare is written with such frantically honest eloquence I feel both embarrassed to have read it and honored for the privilege. Lordy, but I hope it helps for you to have shared these ghastly memories with us. If ever there were a good place to unload, though, this may be it. Open Salon for many of us has the healing power of a loving family. Welcome.
I avoided this (and other 9/11 pieces) all day. I appreciate Kathy and Matt both posting on FB: "If you read nothing else..." and "a must read." They were right. This is stunning and unforgettable. ~r
Everyone is right, your emotions are not only valid in writing, your sharing them is vital to you. I don't suffer from PTSD, my diagnosis is severe major depression, recurrent. I recognized evey symptom you described and easily able to identify with each description in a deep way. I could feel your panic in the restaurant and how it felt to hold that in without exploding.

In 1994, I endured a month-long series of ECT treatments, my memories are coming back from the fog created around that space in time. My children were still in elementary school, I am working hard to remember. I don't think I would want to if I could avoid it with the cache you need to forget, if they return let them out on the page.

I cannot ever begin to imagine what you are going through, but I do know you will be better for writing this and writing more that can pour out of you once the fountain has opened. Have a memory, write a memory. Have a nightmare, write a nightmare. It may not cure, but it will certainly ease.

janicephelpswilliams did say it far more eloquently than I could and I want to repeat it here. She is right that you did not write this for accolades, but you need and deserve them:

"Thank you for the work that you did, for working compassionately and caring so much. For putting up with being away from home, away from your spouse. For working in a sad and difficult environment. For choosing to look closer and work harder and do your best when many of us would have said "no way" and run in the other direction to easier choices."
Congratulations on the Editor's Pick!
Kate, I saw the Gustav Klimt painting first. Then I read the piece. My heart goes out to you. I recognize what you did for all of those people who desperately need some kind of closure and what you did for the dead. I don't know how I know, but they thank you, they really do. If you can feel anything, I hope that it is love, respect and gratitude. I send you my deep appreciation for all the work you did that in fact, really a labor of love. You have given so many people the opportunity to move on, perhaps you can now too. My best to you.
I have no understanding of what you've been through, and I'm glad of that. All I can do is hope that you, and others like you, will find a way to not just survive, but live again.
I was part of a Red Cross team working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Part of the assignment was in the Lower Ninth Ward where we daily talked to people who had literally just found the bodies of their family members and friends in their smashed houses. I was a complete wreck after 3 weeks of that. My god, I can't even imagine 3.5 years...

I have also volunteered several times at the September 11 name-reading ceremony at the World Trade Center site (including yesterday) and have often seen the family members wearing the medical examiner credential tags but have read very little about the people who worked there and what they did. It's an important part of the whole story of September 11 and yet those who did such incredibly difficult work are rarely acknowledged.

Thank you for writing this and I hope you continue to write about your experience. I appreciate the directness and honesty with which you discuss both the job and the consequences to you and your family. I hope the writing will start to relieve some of the nightmares and depression. You made it through another anniversary -- may the days ahead be peaceful.
Thank you all for your comments. I keep trying to post a thank you and it keeps not appearing, so I'm trying again. It means a lot to me that you took the time to write a comment. The comments have all been so gracious and kind. Somehow having this out in the world has made things easier. The 11th was hard, but not as hard as it's been the last few years. Each time someone reads my essay it feels like it lifts some part of it from me. So thank you.
@ixxidust. Part of my job while I was in New York was to create the list that was read on 9/11. The medical examiner's office had what was considered to be the master list of names. I did the work each year with one of our programmers. The first anniversay was really hard - I was so scared to make a mistake. I saw part of the reading on the anniversary on CNN (I never went to Ground Zero) and wanted to throw up knowing I was responsible for it.
nice post, fyi I included it in an open salon essay collection/compilation and my own 911 analysis commentary here
You've got to be kidding me.
Katie, You are a beautiful and articulate writer. You are one of the heros who have done the most difficult work of 9/11, and you have survived. You are continuing to do the most difficult work of your life. You are doing what has to be done to heal. I understand. I have been in the dark place day after day, trying to believe that it won't last forever. I prayed to any god that would listen the same words over and over. I deliberately and mechanically made myself do the things that would keep me alive...eating, sleeping, calling people. I couldn't stand any television or radio, any newpapers, or most music. I tried to watch a movie, and had to turn it off because it felt like my mind was being pulled over a field of glass shards. I sat and stared and chanted and meditated (sort of). I can't believe how long this went on...and my trauma was nothing compared to yours...nothing. I allowed myself time to heal. But my children were grown, my husband left. You have a lot to live for, and your mind is amazing as is the light within your heart. Namaste. Good night.
Dear Katie,
I can have no conception of the work you have done. Living in the Midwest, 9/11 seemed almost unreal to me. Ten years after the fact, you have helped me see what happened. I applaud your bravery in the work you have done (for which you could never be adequately compensated) and in continuing life, having a child. Thank you.
It's amazing and horrible what the human mind can go through - and how it will process it later. Sending healing thoughts your way.