My Triple Crown of Sadness

I’ve been known to make jokes about things that make me sad or that are incredibly painful for me. This is why it should come as no surprise that I refer to this week as, “My Triple Crown of Sadness”. Because, let’s be honest, as far as weeks go, this one is pretty jammed packed with emotions. As with the story of my house fire, I find myself asking if I really want to share such personal thoughts with the World Wide Web. Again, I am reminded of two things:

1. Each time I tell my story, I find that I heal just a little bit.

2. I know that I am not alone when I refer to my “Three Crowns” and I hope that by reading my story, someone else will heal just a little bit too.

My First Crown was awarded to me on September 10th, 26 years ago when I suddenly, and unexpectedly, lost my father. While losing my father has shaped my life in more ways that I can even name, it is also a loss that is undeniably intertwined with the stories of my family and, for that reason; I will not elaborate any further.

My Second Crown was awarded to me when I, with the American Red Cross Disaster Action Team, responded to the attacks of September 11th. I started out in a service center where I would talk with each client as they came in, assess their needs, and help them in whatever way possible. Cut and dry, right? At least that’s what I thought going into it. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that, more than anything else, people needed to tell their story to someone. They needed to tell every single horrific detail. They needed to say the words and feel the shape of the words in their mouths so that they could let a piece of their story go. They needed someone to listen who wouldn’t come back with their own story of watching the towers fall. It didn’t matter that I was a 19 year old kid, or that my only real training was in how to properly fill out a form. It didn’t matter that I excused myself from the table, more than once, while they were telling their story, to go to the bathroom and throw up. It didn’t matter that I failed at my efforts to not cry as they sobbed openly before me.

No amount of training could have prepared me for what to say to a crying mother whose husband was killed in the towers and whose son was still missing, two months later. Or how to comfort the man who came in with one leg when he had two legs on September 10th. Or how to hold a child in my lap as they watched their parents struggle to shield them from their overwhelming emotions, the same way that they struggled to shield them from the falling debris. No amount of training….

All I could do was fill out forms and listen, so that’s exactly what I did, for 12 hours a day. I listened. I listened as they told me their stories in English. I listened as they told me their stories in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Italian. And then I listened again as their stories were translated into English. It was strange how listening to their stories in their native languages was somehow more emotional for me than when I heard a story in English. It was almost as if I heard a second story when I listened to a language that I could not understand. While they were speaking, I was listening to the inflections in their voice and the way their voice would catch in their throat when they mentioned the name of a loved one, and I knew that person was no longer with us. I would watch the rise and fall of their chest, or the way their chest wouldn’t move at all when they got to a particularly hard part of the story and were finding it difficult to even breathe. I would feel the shaking of the table or the chair as they fidgeted constantly, as if they were afraid to stay still because, if they stayed still for even a moment, the rest of the world would come crashing down. I would taste the saltiness of my own tears as I would suddenly realize that I had been crying without even realizing it. These were the stories that always seemed to last the longest. It was after each one of these stories that I would tell myself that it was okay to admit that I couldn’t handle this; it was okay to say that I wanted to go home. And then I would lead another client to my table and start all over again.

I managed to do this job for two weeks. This seems like no time at all in my current world but, in that world, each day was a lifetime. Throughout the course of each day we would get updates telling us the new cross roads that made up our territory of people we could provide aide to. As each day progressed, the line of our territory seemed to move further and further north and more and more clients would come in. One day I lead a gentleman who was only a few years older than me to my table. He looked completely crestfallen as he told me that he didn’t know if I could help him but he also didn’t know where else to go or what to do. I looked at his address and told him that he was one street north of the territory but that we could start filling out a form just in case things changed. An hour and a half later I took his file to a supervisor and asked if we could give him some assistance.

She gave me a dirty look and said, “Don’t you pay attention in the meetings?! We are only giving assistance to people who live SOUTH of that street?!”

I said, calmly and politely, “I understand that but the line keeps moving further north every hour and I can’t see turning someone away, who was embarrassed to ask for help in the first place, when you know there is a 90% chance that we will be able to help him in an hour. I’m just asking you to keep his file out.”

At this point she threw a stack of files on her desk and said, “I don’t need some bitchy little know-it-all kid trying to tell me how to do MY job!”

To which I replied, “Well, I don’t need some old fascist pig trying to be the lone spokesperson for the American Red Cross!”

I then stormed out of the room and sent my client home before I ran into the bathroom and had a total meltdown. When the manager came and found me I was sure that he was going to put me on the first plane home. Instead he said, “First off, I just want to say that I have worked seven disasters with that woman and she has treated people the same way at every single one. You are the first, and only, person who has every stood up to her and put her in her place, so for that I would like to thank you. However, we try not to walk around calling people “fascist pigs”. While you have been doing a great job, usually an outburst like that means that you’re getting burnt out, so how about we move you to a different department?”

I agreed that it was probably best for me to do something else as well. As he walked out the door he said, “Oh, and you might want to call your last client back. We just got the call that they moved the line north and we can assist him now. Keep up the good work and try not to tell her that you told her so.”

I finished the rest of my time in NYC working in the Duplication of Benefits department, where I would check each file to see that we gave each client as much assistance as possible without duplicating the assistance at multiple service centers.

My basic MO while I was in New York City was to avoid the pain at all costs. I kept telling myself that I was there to do a job and that I would have plenty of time to decompress when I got home. I think most of the people I was there with felt the same way. We would finish our day at work and then go straight to the bar and start drinking, sometimes without ever even eating dinner. We would drink until we could barely even make it to the subway; the whole time talking about anything other than what we experienced that day. We would get back to our hotel rooms, pass out, and then wake up and do it all again the next day.

When I eventually did make it home I realized that the rest of the world wanted to move on. They had been so inundated with 24 hour coverage of the attacks that, the last thing they wanted was to listen to my story. To be fair to them though, I don’t know that I would have been able to tell my story even if they were able to listen. To them I looked okay, so they just wanted things to get back to normal, and that’s what I wanted too. So I went back to my old job and went about my day to day life as if everything inside me hadn’t changed. I moved into my own apartment, mistakenly telling myself that I needed my own space. In truth, I wanted solitude, someplace to hide, someplace to escape to. I would go out to dinner with my friends but then catch myself as I completely zoned out of their conversations for unknown lengths of time. I would spend time with my family but feel like I was constantly on auto-pilot and simply going through the motions. I would find myself crying in the shower over nothing and everything all at once. I would make myself dinner and then stare at the food for an hour before simply throwing it away and going to bed. But going to bed was the worst part of all. I would struggle to go to sleep, only to wake up crying hysterically an hour or so later. I would find myself, a bold and brazen girl, screaming if I heard a sound in the middle of the night. It got to the point that I was actually afraid to go to sleep. So I got two additional jobs and would spend as much time occupied as possible. When I was home I would paint an old coffee table that I had. There was no design to it; I would simply paint it over and over and over again because I found the brush strokes to be very soothing. I felt like it was symbolic in that I could paint over it again and again and I was the only one who knew what was underneath each layer, or even how many layers there were.

After months of getting little to no sleep, I decided that it might help if I drank before bed. It did and it didn’t. I was able to sleep through most of the night but then I felt entirely miserable through the next day, until I would come home and do it all again. This lifestyle, if you can call it that, lasted for about a year, at which point it became apparent to my friends and family that I was not okay. With their love and support I was finally able to get the professional help that I needed. At my first doctor’s appointment I told him everything that was going on. He looked at me and said, very matter-of-factly, “Erin, you’re not crazy. You’re suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

We argued back and forth as I told him that that couldn’t be the case. I wasn’t in the buildings; I wasn’t even in NYC when it happened. I wasn’t a fire fighter or police officer or someone who had even lost someone in the attacks. He explained to me that none of those things mattered. There were people who suffered from PTSD simply from watching all of the news coverage. If they were experiencing it, why couldn’t I believe that my significant role in the disaster relief efforts would cause me to suffer from it as well? As he read me the signs and symptoms of PTSD I realized that I fit or experienced almost every single one. I can’t even explain to you the relief that washed over me that day.

I won’t say that my road back was easy because it was anything but. However, it was actually much faster than I ever thought it could be. Within a matter of months I felt like I was, more often than not, “back to my old self”. And it was real, I wasn’t pretending for anyone else. I still remember the first morning I woke up after having slept through the entire night. I was so relaxed and refreshed and I simply lay in my bed and cried because I didn’t realize, until that moment, how incredibly emotionally and physically exhausted I really was.

By the end of that year I felt like I had regained control of my life. I moved back in with my parents and admitted to myself that the stability and support that they offered was exactly what I needed. Each year, as the anniversary of the attacks approaches, I still find myself becoming increasingly anxious. I will avoid any news coverage from the actual day as I’m sure, like most people, I will always remember those images without having to actually see them again. And I will usually find myself crying for all that was lost that day, but that’s okay. I know that how I feel now is simply a normal part of the healing process and it is okay to feel this way.

This is the first time, in eleven years, that I have ever shared this much detail about this part of my life with anyone other than my doctor. And I choose to do it on the Internet. Ha. Go big or go home, I guess. I wasn’t planning on sharing this much when I first started writing tonight. In fact, I don’t even know when I made that turn. What I do know is that everything in my heart is telling me that it is time. There are so many people walking by us in our daily lives who are suffering silently with PTSD. There are people who I served with in New York City who I know are still dealing with the symptoms today. There are people who experienced their own personal tragedies, tragedies that had nothing to do with September 11th, who have PTSD that is going untreated. And I’m sure it is going untreated for some of the same reasons that mine did for a year. I was so ashamed of how weak I felt. I kept telling myself that I should have been better than that. I had no business going to NYC in the first place if I couldn’t handle what I was going to be confronted with there. These were the last lies that I told to myself, and I hope that they are the last lies that you will tell to yourself as well.

You are not alone!

You are not weak!

You are not a failure!

You have experienced something outside of your control and it is normal to feel helpless but, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

Today when I think of that day eleven years ago and cry, I know that some of those tears will be for myself, and the year of my life that I gave up because I didn’t know how to ask for help. Don’t give up another day of your life. Write an email, send a letter, scream it out of your bedroom window, but tell someone that you’re hurting. September 11th changed my life. But the day that I finally asked for help? Well, that changed my life too, for the better!

(I know that there was mention of a Third Crown but, after this epic post tonight, I don’t think I have the energy to delve into that one as well.  Perhaps I will save that for another night.  Perhaps I will save that for another year.  Who’s to say, really?)

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