A sick feeling of familiarity gripped me the morning of September 11, 2001. Having grown up in Jerusalem, I was no stranger to terror attacks and I found myself falling into habits I had hoped were safely in my past.
I quickly started calling friends and loved ones to make sure they were unharmed. I sent out mass emails to let people know I was safe. And I rushed down to the local emergency room to volunteer my services as a mental health professional.
The scene that greeted me on the street as I made my way downtown to St. Vincent's Hospital was surreal. Hundreds of ash and dust covered New Yorkers all walked uptown in complete silence. The horror I had just witnessed on television were etched in each of their dust covered faces, evident in each step of their labored gait, visible in eyes that stared straight ahead while still replaying scenes they would never forget . The smell and taste of burning rubber (and worse) pervaded the air and assailed the senses. For weeks and months to come it would be impossible to take a breath without reliving the attacks, without smelling death in the air.
I reached St. Vincent's expecting to see hallways crowded with the injured but there were none. There were only doctors and nurses standing around, waiting for people to be pulled from the rubble, waiting for patients that would never come. It was then I first realized these attacks were on a scale I had never experienced, that the dead would massively outnumber the injured. I joined the ash-covered masses and headed back uptown.
I arrived home, called my office and began ticking off the names of patients who had left messages to notify me they were okay. Thankfully, many had. I then started the long task of calling patients I had not yet heard from in person or indirectly. By the afternoon, I had made contact with all but a handful of names on my list. It would be several days before I learned one of them died when the first plane hit the tower. Several others had been injured, a couple of them severely, but all were expected to recover.
My first day back in the office was the following Monday. Very few of my patients discussed anything but the attacks and their aftermath. Everyone had a story of what they went through that day, where they were, what they did and who they knew among the dead. And so it was the next day and the next.
Then the Anthrax attacks began...
The shock and horror that gripped the city quickly became overshadowed by a palpable sense of fear. What my patients seemed to need from me most was reassurance. Some expressed it subtly and some asked for it outright, begging me to tell them that they and their families would be okay, that the attacks were not just the first of many to come, that New York City would not turn into an international battleground.
One young woman sat in my office, her newborn child in her arms, sobbing as she implored me to tell her whether her child would be safe. She was not asking me to sooth her anxieties. She truly wanted to know if I believed it was prudent for her to remain in Manhattan. The urgency of her questioning confused me.
"Are you asking me as a therapist" I said, "or as a New Yorker?"
"Neither!" she said, exasperated. "I'm asking you as an Israeli!" She started to sob "I just don't know what to do! The thought of something happening to my baby..." She collected herself and continued, "You've been through these things before. I love New York more than anything but I need you to be honest with me. Will my child be safe if we stay?"
The woman was the first of many to ask the same question in one form or another. Indeed, in the days following the attacks, I went from being a psychologist in my patients' eyes to being an Israeli, an ex-Jerusalemite whose life experiences rendered him an expert of an entirely different kind.
I decided to respond to my patients' questions in the spirit in which they were asked, not as a psychologist but as someone who had already experienced their city being attacked by terrorists. I simply gave them my honest opinion. No, I did not think there would be further attacks, at least not for a good while. Yes, New York City was probably safer than it had been in years. And yes, although I could not know for certain, I had no reason to think they, their children or their families would be in any way unsafe if they stayed.
Ironically, answering my patients' questions as a civilian rather than as a therapist made me a psychologist again in their eyes. The directness of my response gave them the reassurance they sought. It allowed them to put their anxieties aside, at least somewhat, and get back to the work of emotional healing that would dominate my practice as it would the city and the nation, for months and years to come.
It was also the last time any of my patients referred to me as "an Israeli". My American citizenship notwithstanding, working as a psychotherapist in New York City during and after the events of September 11, 2001 overshadowed any earlier experiences I had growing up in Jerusalem in my patient's eyes, and perhaps most importantly, in my own.
Copyright 2011 Guy Winch
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