Health

I Remember 9/11 Every Day. – Juliet James

But this year, it hurts more than usual. I finally figured out why.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

I have never forgotten 9/11. It is with me every single day. Some days, it’s a fleeting thought. But others it’s more present. Anniversaries are, naturally, always a bit harder. Still, it’s been years since I’ve felt the need to write and share my story. It’s been years since I’ve felt so raw and vulnerable and scared around the anniversary. This year, however, I have struggled greatly.

I’ve been battling an epic round of clinical depression, so I thought perhaps that was why. Maybe it’s just because I am generally more raw and vulnerable right now. But that didn’t feel like the cause. Especially since this hit rather suddenly, just this weekend. Normally when I’ve felt especially sensitive to one of the anniversaries, there’s a lead up to it. I feel it for weeks beforehand. So I was kind of baffled.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with feeling very emotional about this anniversary, about my memories of that day. I’m not sorry to grieve what was lost that day (and in the days since, as a direct result), in terms of lives, freedom and a sense of security.

But I am an analytical person and when something feels different to me or elicits an unexpected or extreme emotional response, I want to know why. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I have to just accept that it simply does or is… which is tough, but I’m slowly learning to let go of that desire to know and understand in these situations.

In this case, however, it suddenly hit me why I was having such a difficult time, why I felt so raw. The answer is the news that broke over the weekend, that the president of this country — whose name I will not write in this piece, because I can think of no greater way to piss him off that to refuse to name him and give him the attention he so desperately craves— was planning to host members of the Taliban at Camp David… and he was planning to do so just before this anniversary.

The idea of this sickens me. In and of itself, it’s disgraceful. The Taliban are responsible for so much death and destruction, not just related to 9/11, but before and since. But when I add to it the reality that there are children and babies sitting in horrific conditions in “detention centers” because they’re too grave a risk to the safety and security of our country, that asylum seekers and refugees who’ve done nothing wrong and, who are within their rights to seek asylum, are denied safe entry to this country, it just disgusts me.

I am deeply, profoundly upset by the very idea that he was entertaining hosting members of this group on American soil. Admittedly, the man has done little but upset me since even before he was elected. I have never supported him and never would.

I very much want the war in Afghanistan to end… but I do not think bringing the Taliban onto American soil — especially the week of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — is at all appropriate.

But this, possibly more than anything he’s done, has cut me to the quick. I cannot stand to think that he’ll be re-elected and we’ll be faced with another four years of this (or more, if he gets his way and follows in the footsteps of his idol, Putin).

So, it is because of this that I am writing today. That I am sharing, for what feels like the 30th time but cannot possibly be, my 9/11 story… which, like every other 9/11 story is not just mine. They intertwine, these remembrances. My story involves the stories of others, too.

My life, and I am sure the lives of so many others, is firmly divided into two parts… before and after 9/11.

Since 2006 I have lived in Colorado, but for over six years before moving here I lived in NYC with my husband. So that’s where I was on 9/11/01. I walked our dog early in the morning and remember vividly what a flawless late summer’s day it was. The skies were crystal clear. The clouds were fluffy and white. The temperature was perfect. It felt idyllic.

I was a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, or BMCC as it’s better known. If I’d had a class that morning, I’d have been a few blocks away from Ground Zero when the planes struck the Towers. Instead, I was home getting ready for my afternoon Italian class. I was painting my nails a shimmery white color when I first got a call from my father about “kamikaze planes.” He was a goofball and I had no idea what he was on about and I just kind of laughed when I heard his message. Then my aunt called and was leaving a message (remember actual answering machines?)… and hers was not even slightly vague or unclear. They were worried because they knew I was going to school close to the World Trade Center. So I knew something truly terrible had happened. I picked up the phone before she could hang up and she gave me the details, or at least what was known at the time. I was on the phone with her when the second plane hit.

My husband (then my boyfriend) was at work, very near the Empire State Building. For a good while they thought there was another plane MIA and I was terrified that was the next target. Before long, however, he left work (everything was closing) and I felt a bit of relief. He had a broken toe at the time, but had no choice but to walk more than halfway home to our apartment on the Upper East Side from his office in Midtown. The buses were packed. I honestly don’t remember if cabs were running at that point, but even if they were, they’d have been scarce. He finally managed to crowd on to an MTA bus somewhere around the UN.

I called his office right after I hung up with my aunt. It was the last call I’d successfully make for a day. After that, I could not call anyone. The lines were overloaded. I couldn’t call him back, nor could I call my family in NJ or my dad in PA. Some calls got through to me, early on in the aftermath, but after that the phone was silent. We didn’t have cable, which in NYC means you don’t have tv (or did in 2001, anyway), so I couldn’t watch what was happening on the news. I had the internet, but it wasn’t what it is now 18 years ago. Getting news was slow and it was unreliable. I felt incredibly cut off, vulnerable and lonely. I also felt bizarrely guilty for being home and safe when so many were not, my husband included.

After several agonizing hours (for me waiting and for him walking on a broken toe), my husband returned home. I remember thinking to myself that so many people would not have this moment, and I was overwhelmed with heartache for them and guilt for my relief. But I was only 25 years old… we’d been together for less than three years and I knew he was it for me. The idea of losing him was (and remains) my greatest fear.

That afternoon we took our dog out. The streets were unusually empty by this point. I asked our doorman if anyone from our building was missing… he replied only one was unaccounted for. Our neighbor directly above our apartment hadn’t heard from her husband yet, and heartbreakingly, she wouldn’t. He was a firefighter, and one of the lost first responders. He was never found, like so many others.

A few hours later we smelled smoke and became concerned. We went down to ask the same doorman if he was aware of it. But by the time we got to the lobby from the 10th floor we’d figured it out… the winds had shifted. We were smelling the burning rubble, all the way uptown. We walked over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we’d had our first date. We sat on the steps and just… took in the eerie silence of a shocked city that’s not supposed to sleep.

I have often wondered how many others like her there were… victims who were not actually on site or on a plane, but who nevertheless would’ve lived had the attacks never happened.

The next day, when calls could get through to me again, I found out my grandmother was in the hospital, in the CCU (Cardiac Care Unit — the heart equivalent of the ICU). She had been in dialysis when the planes hit. She’d suffered permanent kidney damage as a result of multiple rounds of radiation over the course of a decade. The bladder cancer finally seemed in remission, but the treatment to save her life had done damage that could not be cured. My grandmother was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. She survived multiple recurrences of the bladder cancer, multiple heart attacks, the death of two husbands… she was in foster care as a child, her mother having died giving birth to her. The woman was built of fight. But watching the planes hit the Towers broke something inside of her. Something happened with her heart. Her pacemaker didn’t do what it was supposed to. The dialysis center had to call 911.

She was rushed to the hospital where someone mistakenly gave her nitroglycerin, not realizing she already wore a patch to disperse it. The overdose caused hallucinations, which led her to believe she and my uncles were on one of the planes. She had to be restraint because they were afraid she’d hurt herself during the hallucination. I do not know how much, if any of it, she remembered afterwards.

I think of her as an unnamed victim, and my heart hurts for anyone else who lost a loved one in this way.

I visited her as soon as I could (we couldn’t leave the city at first), but she was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her up. I wish I had, as it was the last time I’d see her. She was transferred after about a week to a long term care facility. She was physically stable, but not “bouncing back,” to use an expression I hate but that accurately describes her recovery from far too many brushes with death over the years. I called her the night of October 9th, probably around 8 pm. She was tired, she told me. We didn’t talk very long. I was the last family member to speak to her. She died in her sleep that night. In my mind she has always been another victim of the attack. I have often wondered how many others like her there were… people who were not actually on site or on a plane, but who nevertheless would’ve lived had the attacks never happened. I do not believe for a moment she is the only one. I think of her as an unnamed victim, and my heart hurts for anyone else who lost a loved one in this way.

…the tables of 9/11 “merch,” because yes, that was a thing, set on streets facing posters of the missing was a bit too much for me to take in the immediate aftermath.

I returned to school on October 1st. BMCC was used as a FEMA staging ground and the entire area was off-limits most of that time. Even when we reopened, things were not normal. The phone lines had been destroyed, so all new phones had to be installed. The pool had been damaged somehow, so it was empty (rumors circulated that this was somehow FEMA’s fault, but whether or not that’s true, who really knows?). The school had lost a building, one that had just undergone extensive renovations… but when Seven World Trade Center collapsed on the evening of 9/11, it came down against Fitterman Hall. The building would eventually have to be knocked down completely and rebuilt.

The air was thick with caustic smoke; the rubble still burning. Chambers street, where BMCC is, was pretty much the closest you could get Ground Zero if you weren’t with relief efforts. Everything was covered in toxic dust. Posters of the missing were plastered everywhere. Businesses were closed — many would not reopen in my remaining time at BMCC.

Within days, tourists would show up to take pictures. They got pushy and more than once I saw a cop pushing back against a tourist who tried to get into an area that was still off-limits. I took pictures, so part of me can’t begrudge them this today, but I did resent them at the time. My pictures were taken as someone who lived in the city, someone whose life was impacted daily for months as I watched them clear the rubble, as I watched barges take debris across the river, knowing that debris carried with it what remained of people never found who were lost on that horrible day. I felt I had to take photos. I never wanted to forget (as if I could) what I saw when I returned to school. But the tourists just seemed obnoxious to me at the time. It was too soon, too raw. 18 years later, I try to cut them some slack. I understand there’s a morbid fascination, not to mention a desire to understand and experience something so momentous.

Worse than the tourists were the hawkers who saw a business opportunity. Again, with 18 years of time to reflect I try to be more gracious about it. Many of these vendors were already selling stuff on Chambers Street before the attacks. I guess it was only natural that they try to make money however they could in the aftermath, especially given the weeks the area was closed when they undoubtedly were unable to make any money. I’m sure they had families to feed, too. But the tables of 9/11 “merch,” because yes, that was a thing, set on streets facing posters of the missing was a bit too much for me to take in the immediate aftermath. I was disgusted by it.

We were told repeatedly that it was safe to breathe the air. This was a lie, and I knew it. I knew that first day back that it wasn’t true, as I used my inhaler (a rare occurrence when I wasn’t sick) and struggled to breathe. I eventually put on the face mask I was handed by a Red Cross volunteer, realizing too late that I should definitely not be directly breathing the air if I could avoid it. But what was I going to do? I had classes to attend. I had a life to live… I was lucky in that respect, considering, I felt. I was also young and healthy, two things that tend to shield us from thinking about long term consequences.

My neighbor who lost her husband (the firefighter) showed me what strength and grace look like in the months that followed. She was just a few years older, about 28 — far too young to be a widow. We became closer and I spent a good bit of time talking to her, playing with the adorable puppy she’d adopted after losing her husband. She was living my worst nightmare (which I had the foresight not to blurt out, thankfully), but she wasn’t giving up on life. I was in awe of her, honestly — because I did not think I could be as strong if I were in her shoes. I’m still not sure I could.

I wish I had not lost touch with her, but she moved to NJ after six months or so, needing space from the pain of being in the city. Oddly enough, I ran into her about ten blocks away a few years later. She was walking her dog, and I was walking home from a meeting. She’d moved back, but it was too painful to be right in that particular neighborhood, she told me, so she’d moved a bit further uptown. She hadn’t even visited our building (many of the same doormen were still there at the time) because of it, which I understood as completely as anyone can understand something they’ve not gone through. However, I was just so happy to see her. She seemed content, and I hope she is happy today, wherever life has taken her. I think of her often. She is an inspiration to me, though she has no idea. But when I think of my worst fear — losing the man I love — which can trigger actual panic attacks for me if I don’t get a handle on it quickly, I think of her strength and perseverance and try to breathe. I try to remember that she found the will to continue and that I could, somehow, do the same, if I am ever faced with that awful reality.

My story doesn’t end here, though. Not with my grandmother’s death, returning to school or my neighbor’s strength. I still had my own health drama to go through.

I think part of my refusal to accept my illness was very much me clinging to the fantasy that when I found the perfect diet and got thin I’d be healthy again, when in reality, no amount of weight loss would ever cure me of fibro.

In November 2001 I began having trouble sleeping. I was constantly waking up, usually in a tremendous amount of pain. I’d always been a good sleeper. I fell asleep easily, slept soundly and rarely had dreams, though during times of great stress I did sometimes go through cycles of disrupted sleep. In those cases, I’d have vivid, strange dreams. This began happening. I figured, I just lost my grandmother. Like the entire city, country, world… I’m still figuring out what the “new normal” is after 9/11. Unfortunately, what I couldn’t know at that time is that this was my “new normal.” I had just begun displaying the first signs I had developed fibromyalgia. It would be seven years before I had a diagnosis, and even then it was only one I received because I pursued answers — eventually — for my chronic, widespread pain, constant fatigue, cognitive or “fibro fog” and sleep disturbances. For years, I believed it was what doctors said… I was fat, so I hurt. Nevermind that it was a sudden and extreme onset, and that prior to it I’d been fine. I was well trained to believe anything wrong with me (even strep throat) must be because I was fat.

So, I dismissed my symptoms, ignoring them until my husband developed the first symptom of what would be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. In researching his symptom, trying desperately to find answers, I came across information about fibromyalgia. While I refused to believe in its existence for myself, I suddenly found myself willing to research it for him… and realized it fit my symptoms perfectly. In that moment, I had to face the reality I’d denied. I could not just blame my fat, which when I think back to who I was at the time, was a rational way to both delegitimize my pain and to think I could magically fix it — I just had to finally, for once, lose all the weight and voila! I’d be better. I think part of my refusal to accept my illness was very much me clinging to the fantasy that when I found the perfect diet and got thin I’d be healthy again, when in reality, no amount of weight loss would ever cure me of fibro.

I absolutely believe the fibro was triggered by 9/11. Trauma is a known mechanism for developing fibromyalgia, but in 2001 many people, including doctors, didn’t even believe it was a real condition. I’m ashamed to admit I fell into that category, having read a rather biased piece about it in the late 90s/early aughts and thinking, this sounds made up. Joke is on me, I suppose. Nothing like finding out the hard way that no, no it is not made up.

My life, and I am sure the lives of so many others, is firmly divided into two parts… before and after 9/11. I will never be the same person I was prior. Not physically or mentally. But I’m alive, my husband is alive… no one I love died as a direct result, even if I still feel like my grandmother’s death is absolutely because of what she saw on the tv that horrific morning.

Given all of this, perhaps you can see why I am so disgusted by the actions of the president, a man who has repeatedly lied about his own 9/11 experiences (lies he again repeated today, apparently, when speaking about it). I very much want the war in Afghanistan to end and for our soldiers to return home to their loved ones. But I do not think bringing the Taliban onto American soil — especially the week of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — is at all appropriate. But then what about this particular president is ever really appropriate?

Today I am trying, desperately, not to waste too much of my emotional energy on the man. Instead, I am trying to save it for those who deserve it. Those who lost their lives that day, their families and loved ones, those who’ve died as a result of complications in the years since, those who, like me, lost someone indirectly because of the attacks… I am thinking of my grandmother. I am hugging my husband every single chance I get. I am grateful to the soldiers and their families for the sacrifices they’ve made and continue to make. I think of my neighbor and wonder where she is, how she is today and I wish I could hug her and tell her what a profound impact she made on my life. I wish I could thank her for letting me into her world, and I hope that my presence was helpful and not hurtful.

Today is about remembering and honoring. But tomorrow… tomorrow I’ll return to fighting for a better future, one with a different president… because I cannot just sit back and let this disgrace of one win again.


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