BY SAMANTHA PAIGE ROSEN
Seven months after the attacks, I found myself nauseated in the third row of our minivan, about to pass Ground Zero. Dad’s own obsession led us there, while in the city for Easter weekend.
“Don’t worry, it’ll just be dirt and trash and rubble,” he assured me and my two younger sisters.
Tall buildings surrounded an enormous hole filled with piles of dirt, concrete, and scraps of metal, sectioned off by plastic orange construction gates.
Then, much quieter, Dad said, “It’s like it was never even there.”
It was just rubble, but it terrified me. I was only 11, but I knew underneath were the obliterated bodies of those who jumped or fell from 1,100 feet above ground at 125 miles per hour, the scorched skin and exposed bone of those who burned, the bloodshot eyes of those who asphyxiated. I felt like I would get pulled into the heap if I got too close.
We lingered for a minute until Mom said, “Stu, that’s enough.”
On the way to our midtown hotel, the Omni Berkshire Place, Dad took a long route so we could see the streets of New York City. It was crowded compared to my hometown of Philadelphia, but less so than usual since the attacks—that’s how we could afford to stay at a hotel like the Omni Berkshire Place. People were afraid to visit. New York wasn’t safe anymore.
Looking out my window I said, “This is dirty.”
The steam rising from the manholes and the scattered trash on the sidewalks reminded me of the smoke and debris I had seen on TV and at Ground Zero a few minutes before.
My only other memory of New York City before this visit was a weekend my family spent in 1998, going to the Museum of Natural History, listening to a man play Don McLean’s “American Pie” by the swan boats in Central Park, and being dragged to Ellis Island to see how my great-grandmother came to America. That and the footage from September 11th.
Math has always been my least favorite subject. I never understood it. I asked my teachers why one step in an equation preceded or followed another. Why was it parentheses, exponent, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction (something I only still know because of the acronym: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” and I actually have an Aunt Sally)?
“It just is,” they sighed. But I couldn’t memorize the steps if I didn’t understand them, and I couldn’t understand them until I knew why we were supposed to do them. I couldn’t understand anything—not fully—unless I figured out the why I believed should follow the how. I still can’t.
Perhaps my need to know why stems from my anxiety, which I’ve had for as long as I can remember. We live in a world in which a horrific tragedy can occur at any moment, without warning or reason. It is this constant uncertainty that feeds anxiety. Death, even from old age, has always disturbed me.
When I was four, my grandfather died.
Lying in my parents’ bed in the days following his death, watching the credits to The Wizard of Oz roll I asked my mom, “Why do people have to die?”
“Your body is a machine,” she explained for the first of many times. “Eventually the machine gets tired and doesn’t work well anymore. When your time is up, the machine turns off and you go to sleep. That’s all.”
She intended this response to be comforting, but it never was. I couldn’t accept this as a legitimate why. Death still seemed senseless.
On a Tuesday in September 2001, Mom kept me company while I got dressed for my afternoon dance class. Usually she was downstairs making dinner or cleaning up after my sisters, but today she spent time with me. Through the mirror, I watched her watch me put long, thick bobby pins in my hair. I asked her why people would hijack planes and fly them into buildings.
“The people who did this want us to be afraid,” she said. “But we have to keep on living, or else they control us and they win. We can’t let them win. We can’t live in fear.”
I couldn’t accept this either. I was already afraid.
As we pulled up to our hotel, my sister Liz saw someone check for explosives under our car with a metal detector before parking it in the hotel’s underground lot. I was too busy sobbing and hyperventilating to notice. I knew the city and the crowds were making me cry, we shouldn’t have driven by Ground Zero, and I was scared. But that was the extent of my analysis. I trailed my parents closely in the lobby, stifling my tears long enough to reach our suite. I kept my eyes on the floor. I didn’t want to see anyone, and I didn’t want anyone to look at me. Alone in our unit of five, I started crying again, clinging to my mom, and repeating how uncomfortable I was. Mom suggested I go watch TV. 4:30—wasn’t 7th Heaven on right about now? I turned the TV to The WB channel, but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t relax.
An hour later, when my parents mentioned going out for dinner, I burst into hysterics and refused.
I paced around the room, shaking my head, repeating, “I can’t go, I just can’t. I’m too scared.”
I knew I was ruining our trip, but I couldn’t help it. I had to stay put. I didn’t feel safe on the streets of New York.
“What do you mean you can’t go?” Dad shouted. “It’s just dinner! We’re in New York for Christ’s sakes!”
Mom was concerned. She placed an emergency call to my psychiatrist, Dr. Reber, whom I had seen for anxiety and depression in elementary school and returned to around November. Dr. Reber told my parents to give in and stay at the hotel for the night. We ordered a pizza and I curled into a ball on my parents’ bed, while my sisters watched the Disney Channel in the adjoining room. I took a shower, but emerged the same girl I was before; I couldn’t wash off the fear. I was surprised by how fragile I was capable of feeling, and disturbed I couldn’t be comforted by my parents’ presence.
The next day, my family coaxed me out into the city. I don’t remember how. Perhaps a good night’s sleep had calmed me a little. Still, I felt disembodied as I walked into FAO Schwarz. Why was everything so oversized? A giant bear at the entrance, a giant piano, a giant moon face clock. Everything in New York was overwhelming. The buildings were too tall, the streets were too busy, the subways too claustrophobic. For the rest of the trip, I physically moved through the city, but my head was so clouded with fear I can’t remember anything we did. I didn’t feel safe again until I had been home for a few days. And this feeling didn’t last long.
My family seldom talked news or politics at the dinner table, a practice both of my parents learned from their parents. I knew we went to war in the Middle East, for example, but I didn’t know where or why or how until my senior year of high school, when I decided to teach myself about recent history and politics. But their decision not to discuss 9/11, I know, was a conscious one. This was an opportunity to protect what remained of our innocence. I’m still not sure whether knowing the details would have made me more or less afraid.
My dad watched the footage of the attacks over and over on TV. My mom says he had a sick interest in it. But he never let on to us kids. I don’t remember speaking at all with Dad about 9/11.
In a way, I had a sick interest in it, too. I already knew things that shouldn’t happen—horrible things—do happen. Like the plane that crashed into my local elementary school, killing two children and five pilots, including Senator John Heinz. I was only a year old at the time, but I read about the crash when I was eight, in a magazine retrospective that gave me nightmares for a month. 9/11 was this crash, heightened by thousands more deaths and malicious intentions. While it didn’t cause my anxiety, it expanded my growing list of reasons to be afraid of the world, further confirmed my right to have anxiety, and awakened my dormant fears. Now death and terror had a setting and a number—2,996 people—I couldn’t have imagined before 9/11.
In the months following the attacks, I became afraid of the dark again. I stopped singing in the shower. I looked over my shoulder whenever I walked home from school. I wouldn’t use an elevator, convinced I would get squished to death between the doors. Nor would I answer the phone or make a call. What if a terrorist posing as a pizza delivery guy was on the other end? What if a terrorist was tracing my phone? By the summer I was afraid of choking, and stopped eating most foods except cereal and peanut butter and jelly. I considered these safe foods.
Depending on the day, I might have been afraid to go outside. I imagined being hit by a car or getting kidnapped or struck by lightning. I convinced myself it was too dangerous to leave the house. Mom tried to explain that anything could happen at any time, even at home, so I shouldn’t be afraid of the outside world. She told me a story about a boy who was killed by a falling tree while playing in his backyard. Instead of taking her point—that it’s impossible to try to outsmart death—I stopped going in my backyard.
Shortly after 9/11, I saw a news story about an NYPD officer named John Perry. On the morning of the attacks, he was on his way out of his precinct after filing his retirement papers. He planned to start a new career as a medical malpractice lawyer, but ran to the scene when he heard about the first tower. Before entering the building, he helped a woman who fainted. The south tower collapsed with him in it.
For years, I ruminated over this story. How close this man came to making it through the physical danger he faced daily in his career. How close he was to enjoying retirement after years of hard work (at the time, I didn’t know he was moving on to a career in law). And he just died. The same day he retired. I understood his impulse to run to the scene to help, but I was—and remain—baffled by how cruel fate could be.
Officer Perry’s story gave me an idea for a kind of preventative game. At least once a day I asked myself, if our house went up in flames, who would I try to save first? I didn’t simply wonder; I put myself in the middle of the scene, imagining every detail. I would save Liz, the youngest and most helpless. I would run to wherever she was, tell her to grab onto my neck like a monkey and not let go, and we would jump out of the second-floor window together.
But how could I abandon Mom, Dad, and Jen left inside? How could I reach the fire department outside, without a phone? What if I had to raise Liz on my own after the rest of my family perished in the fire? What if it was winter and we had to wait outside for too long and froze to death? Would I rather freeze to death waiting outside or burn to death inside? Burn or freeze? Burn or freeze? I chose burn every time because I hate being cold. Now I know to choose freeze. At least I would die numb.
I became paralyzed even considering entering into a situation where I couldn’t control my own safety in the event of an emergency. Since there’s always a chance something could go wrong in any situation—a plane can come from anywhere and crash into anywhere, for example—I felt perpetually trapped and incapacitated. Every experience seemed to have a dark underbelly.
Dr. Reber and I spent sessions riding the elevator together up and down, out through the doors and back in again. We made phone calls to Dakota Pizza, Delancey Street Bagels, and our local Borders bookstore. It’s not that I thought anything specifically bad would result from calling people on the phone, but my anxiety was so out of hand that one fear spiraled into another. Fear of terrorists became fear of strangers became fear of answering the phone when a stranger called became fear of answering the phone when anyone called became fear of calling anyone on the phone. In the brain of someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, it all connects.
He also challenged me to reintroduce the foods I had deemed unsafe, since the antidote to anxiety is evidence. I began to see after several months I could ride the elevator, make a phone call, answer the phone, or eat a slice of pizza without a disastrous result. There’s always a 1 percent chance something catastrophic could happen, but most of the time, it doesn’t. It’s possible but not probable, as my third-grade teacher Mrs. van Hollander used to say. That was an equation I could understand. I gradually learned to dial the possibility down to background noise. Now I had choice phrases, relaxation techniques, and safe experiences to draw on when my what if voice grew too loud.
While I have never again experienced such a prolonged period of debilitating anxiety, my anxiety will never go away. At 26, I still work with a therapist on things I can say to remind myself to see reason in anxious moments. My mantras include (but are in no way limited to), “Don’t think so much,” “Don’t torture yourself,” “Don’t imagine the worst case scenario,” “Don’t try to protect yourself by worrying about things you can’t control,” “Don’t let emotions get in the way of priorities,” “One day at a time,” “Whatever is thrown your way, you can handle,” “You are resilient,” “Tolerate uncertainty until things become more certain,” “Thoughts aren’t facts. Observe them and let them go before having an emotional reaction,” “Accept the randomness of the world instead of trying to predict and control it,” and “You might be in a great place that’s also terrifying, and that’s okay.”
I’m still working on not looking over my shoulder at all times. I’m a young woman who is mostly alone and constantly on guard. I move places by myself—Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York (state, not city). The alone part isn’t necessarily by choice; it just seems to happen that way. No one waits up to make sure I get home safely. Each night, upon locking myself into my apartment, I’m in slight disbelief I actually did it. I actually kept myself out of harm’s way.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought a swollen lymph node was a tumor. I read about someone with an illness, and I immediately see myself afflicted, no matter how rare. An exhaustive list of my phobias to date is as follows. Some I’ve gotten over, and some I never will: Dying; family dying; pets dying; any animals ever dying; movies where animals die and/or face obstacles and/or look like my cats; Alzheimer’s; cancer; aging; guns; any weapons; kidnapping; sexual assault; any kind of assault; house fires; stove burners; choking; eating (greater possibility for choking); elevators; telephones; trees; lightning; flying/airplanes; driving/cars/highways; public transportation, especially subway tracks (don’t you envision someone falling in front of a speeding train every time you wait for the subway?); vomiting; illness; reptiles; men; cities; high-rises; crowds; nightmares; scary movies; darkness; loud noises; walking alone; banks (greater potential for robbery, thus gun violence, thus death); extreme cold; mountaineering; germs; dogs (see: loud noises); cruise ships; the ocean.
A few of these fears continue to infiltrate my brain, although I’m better at recognizing and subduing them before they cycle into a tornado. Last night I was driving on the highway around midnight when a familiar thought plagued me. What if my car drifts into the guardrail or into another lane while a car is passing? What if another car drifts and hits me? In a few seconds, I could kill myself by making one tiny mistake. I could do it on purpose right now. I could do it by accident. For a second, I wondered how it would feel. I have a morbid curiosity, my sister says. Like my dad. And that’s where I stop the thoughts. Now I can stop the thoughts.
Occasionally I will hear someone say, looking in my direction, “…for those of us who are old enough to remember 9/11…”
The problem with this remark is I was old enough to see and remember the attacks and the aftermath. As a child watching what truly did seem like the end of the world, fear became built into my consciousness. Being so young meant I internalized the fear of a nation when my own identity was still forming. All the children who were around my age did. In this sense, we are our own generation, defined by fear.
I will never forget asking my mom, as I watched her watch me on the afternoon of the attacks, whether we were going to have World War III.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t think anyone knows.”
With this response, I understood I was growing up in a fundamentally unsafe world. We couldn’t play in our front yard unsupervised. For a while, we couldn’t open the mail. Unlike the adults of 2001, my country’s fear developed with me, in me. No matter where I go, no matter the context, there’s always a possibility for terror, in my mind. I saw it that day with my own 11-year-old eyes.
This piece has been updated. Here is a note from the author:
Samantha is a New York-based writer behind Samantha Paige Rosen Writing & Research. She contributes to The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Week, and other publications. Samantha is earning her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College’s Creative Writing, Nonfiction program, where she wrote this essay. Follow her on Twitter: @samanthaprosen.