learning what we lost

BY REBECCA HEILWEIL



I have a detailed process to prepare for a flight.

My packing is usually last-minute, and only in the final seconds of leaving home do I likely remember the book I wanted to read during my layover. I forgo a snack for an overpriced airport latte; I forget to bring a properly sized water-bottle.

Still, my flight is perfectly planned. I know the routine perfectly.

The evening before, I have a panic attack. I’ve learned to expect this, as the symptoms are reliable. On the outside, I begin to tap my fingers in a furious frustration, rhythmic and manic. I tear up a bit, and part from my normally loud, effusive self, soon replaced with a zoned-out, wary silence. If I am with people, I suspect they notice. But maybe they just assume I’m thinking quietly, for once.

Inside my head, everything is tumbling. There is a fire in my mind, and nausea in my stomach. I lose my appetite. I feel fat and gross; I notice all the space I consume.

I’ve considered taking medication, or something to make me drowsy. But the idea of swallowing anything sedating makes me sick to my stomach. I worry that I will need to be on full-alert, in case there is a terrorist attack. Should I need to use a parachute to leave the aircraft, I fear that I will not land properly because I am “all drugged up.” I wonder if I have a potentially deadly reaction to the medication, there won’t be a doctor on-board to save my life.

I stay up late, and try to exhaust myself out of my anxiety. I blast comedy on my Spotify, and music that celebrates life. Some upbeat Billy Joel, snippets from Into the Woods, “Bang Bang” by Jessie J. I hope that maybe, I will fall asleep on the plane, and I can sneak past the terror. It doesn’t happen.

As my fears get worse, I become simultaneously scared of dying and scared of staying alive.

Then, I begin planning.

I have already decided, that if I die tomorrow, my best friend will be fully capable of running this magazine. I am afraid that she will accept pieces I don’t like, but other than that, I’m happy.

I do worry about my family getting the deposit back on my summer apartment. I tragically hypothesize how my father will take my death. He will be heartbroken. I want him to know I care about him so much.

By the time I get to the airport, I am usually delirious. Once, I forgot how old I was when the a TSA agent asked me. He was a six-foot-three Australian man, with a charming smile and crispy red-blonde hair, and I looked like a teenage girl who effectively have none of her life together. As I struggled to convincingly tell him my birthday, and handed him my government-issued identification, he giggled about how I had clearly had a “rough night.”

He was right, I suppose. Maybe anxiety can be like a hangover. But I’ve never experienced the latter, while the former makes me feel so sick.

As the plane is taxied to the runway, I will text my family members, impressing that I love them. I will apologize for my most recent transgressions. I delete any scandalous text messages, should they find my phone after the attack or crash-landing.

I will then, as the plane ascends into the sky, begin to cry. I will likely continue to do so, until the flying capsule has landed. Every mechanic sound reverberates loudly, and I question whether the pilot knows what he or she is doing. Then, I wonder about the education of the back-up pilot. Finally, I fear there is no pilot. We are are only on auto-pilot, set on a course to crash.

I try to find a song to best encapsulate my feelings, taking off. I wait and wait and wait.

This is the reality of living with an anxiety disorder, at least, my anxiety disorder. It is more than stress, it is existential panic, and then complete existential irreverence. Over the course of an evening, I will prepare for the absolute worse, fear it and all its consequences.

Nine-eleven is a peculiar thing to remember.

When it happened, I was living where I have always lived: New York. Manhattan.

As a little kid, the city seems a lot bigger, and a lot farther away. Your understanding of the “city,” some communal metropolis, is far from formed. My world, at the time, were the few blocks that separated my apartment, the park I frequented, and the recreation center. Every block was like a mile, and taking a subway trip seemed like an adventure to another place.

On that day, my world was growing just a little bigger. It was the first full day of public school for kindergarteners. I was just getting comfortable in the crowded classroom, which housed new, diverse faces. My new classmates.  On our dying days, we would be the oldest people to remember. For everyone younger than us, nine-eleven would be a story, a recollection. For us, it was a reality with a significance and impact we had yet to learn.

At one point, our teachers spontaneously decided to change our assignment. Suddenly, we were asked to design placements, as new adults I could not recognize flooded in and out of our room.

I remember happily receiving the only pink piece of construction paper. We were only given a few crayons, but I was proud to have been the luckiest girl in the class. The student next to me, Andrea, angrily eyed me.

Still, I wrote my name in dark blue, in the corner of the page. R-E-B-E-C-C-A. I began, slowly, to color and draw. I was a perfectionist, and I was the chosen one.

Yet, minutes into the activity, I was pulled out of the classroom. My father was here to take me home, and I was quickly hustled to him. Before I had the chance to put my paper in newly assigned cubby, Andrea had grabbed my paper, and written her name over mine. I could do nothing.

That was the first thing I lost on nine-eleven. The rest I had to learn.

Nine-eleven:

I don’t know what it is. It is a day, and a number, but also a terrorist attack. It is a symbol of terrifying and horrendous things, but it is also a reality. Nine-eleven is an event that has happened to us. It is no longer happening, but is still around me, and it knows how to suffocate me. It knows how to suffocate so many of the people around me. It converges and expands, but nine-eleven will always be an indestructible fixation in my brain. It makes me scared and will continue to do so until I am put to rest.

There are remnants everywhere. There is a memorial stone in the small, patchwork of garden in front of my apartment building, with the name of a local firefighter who died on that day. We are living in this apartment building because after the attacks, getting out of the city was too hard. There are cops with random bag inspections in the subway on my morning commute. I am reminded to always be suspicious, to always be scared.

Sometimes, I think that all of it happened to New York, while the country thinks it happened to America. Sometimes, I think it only happened to me.  It is still happening, and I can’t make it stop. I try to pause my solipsistic paranoia; I don’t know if I am making up bad memories. I’m not sure if I have a right to feel so frightened.

But I’m not scared of the attacks, I’m so incredibly afraid of all I think is to come.

Every time I hear thunder, I believe it is the sound of a bomb going off in my city. Every time I see lightning, I believe God has turned on flash, and taken the final snapshot of my life.

In 2011, the New York Times ran a piece, “10 Years and a Diagnosis Later, 9/11 Demons Haunt Thousands.” There was a shocking number: 10,000 firefighters, police officers, and civilians exposed to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center have been found to have post-traumatic stress disorder.

The author interviewed doctors and witnesses, gauging the impacts of terrorist attacks, a decade later. Those combating PSTD were found to “replay the disaster in their minds, or in their nightmares,” and “have trouble concentrating.”

I am nervous to think that I don’t remember enough to claim this trauma. I remember, but I don’t imagine 9/11, like they do.  I construct and fear every future possibility my mind can possibly spin. Creativity becomes my tragic enemy.

Ultimately, I cannot escape my fervent belief that every time I step on a plane, that I will die. I am convinced to the bone that someone is trying to destroy me.

It is irrational; I know this well. Every plane I have entered I have also exited. Every bout of turbulence has ended. Every silent tear has been dried by a cheap napkin. There are reasons I should be optimistic.

Still, I’m writing this because so much of myself honestly believes that it will be the last thing I ever type.
Rebecca Heilweil is the editor-in-chief of Beautiful Minds Magazine. Photography by Rebecca Heilweil.

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