For me, memory has taken on a different quality in adulthood; time feels both stagnant and rapid simultaneously. 9/11 absolutely feels like yesterday to me, even though it certainly can’t be; it’s 20 years ago.
I was in Manhattan during the attacks, but thankfully far enough uptown to dodge direct exposure to the worst live visions of the day. A second-year psychiatry resident, I was post-call from an overnight shift at the Bronx VA. It had been unusually quiet that night; my beeper had been silent, and I’d even been able to sleep several hours. I’d been placidly sitting on the shuttle bus home driving along the Harlem River into upper Manhattan when planes were crashing into the towers. I remember even contemplating later going downtown to discount shop at Century 21, located right by the WTC, because I’d slept and could actually function on my post-call day off.
It wasn’t until I got to my apartment lobby that I noticed something was awry. One of the usually surly and quiet doormen was oddly animated, chatting loudly to another worker, something about planes, but I didn’t really understand what or why. I was wearing my white coat, which I only usually did while on call. As I waited for my elevator, a guy waiting beside me looked at me and said, “They’re going to need you now.”
I stared at him chilled and confused and was fatigued enough that I didn’t ask him to elaborate. But something in me rushed me to my room after and immediately turned on the TV set. The first couple channels I turned to were showing nothing but grey fuzz…which was also very odd since I had cable. Then the famous image, seared into all of our collective minds forever, appeared, silent except some vague helicopter sounds and sirens faintly audible in the background. No commentary, just a headline about the planes, the towers. The two towers with their hearts on fire. I fell to my knees.
That's why some of my channels weren't working; a major cable tower was atop one of the WTC buildings and had been cut off by the fire. Yet I was able to get through to my parents on my cell phone right after somehow, although I learned later that was highly unusual for most of the day, with many people unable to reach each other at all. I fretted and paced and decided, even though I technically had the day off, to walk back to the hospital. Some of us residents gathered in a room in our outpatient clinic by Central Park. One resident said he’d just watched a tower collapse in the distance from his window. Another was crying in another office because he thought his wife had a meeting in one of the towers and couldn’t reach her (later she turned out to be safe). The rest of us chatted in shock. Someone said the State Department was attacked. A plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I morbidly joked I wish I didn’t live in NYC or wasn’t from DC right now. Maybe somewhere completely nondescript like…Pittsburgh. Then I felt guilty and sick when I heard a plane had crashed near Pittsburgh.
We remained on vague standby and were told our uptown ER was ready and waiting for people as needed. But we soon realized after the collapse of the towers…you either lived or died. A few people went to some of the hospitals near Ground Zero, but that was it. No one else was coming.
I went back to my apartment and tried to nap fitfully with a splitting headache. That day, there was nothing else to do. Nothing else I could do.
The next few months in NYC flew by, the next few years flew by…I moved back to the DC area almost a decade after…and another decade since that time has also passed. The war in Afghanistan that started after 9/11 has just come to a tragic and bitter conclusion, with everyone feeling just as futile, helpless, and hopeless in its aftermath as we did on 9/11, but with 20 years of agony and lost lives in the meantime.
Trauma is known to affect our perception of time in strange ways. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is characterized by a disordered repetition of memory; the sentinel event revives as fresh as when it first occurred, but at unpredictable moments, and sometimes in a ruminative fashion.
While only a few people, mainly survivors, first responders and others directly affected, developed a level of clinical PTSD requiring professional treatment, I think as a society Americans had a milder collective form of PTSD after 9/11 with various difficult consequences. We went into hypervigilance mode, with terror alerts and shoes removed at airports, and no-fly lists. Hate crimes against entire groups who had nothing to do with radical terrorism rose exponentially.
We also started and continued damaging wars overseas, sadly resulting in the deaths and the traumatization of many idealistic young people who felt they wanted to help our country, to stand for something meaningful after 9/11. Because there’s a strong impulse to try to undo, to erase, to change, to control that awful memory that is still there by outdoing it. But sometimes only more trauma begets then from trauma instead.
In the meantime, in the civilian world, the rise of internet technology and social media became an addictive salve to numb ourselves and immerse in a novel realm. Stock market and real estate bubbles came and went. Capitalism became more overheated than ever, but so did our planet from all the conspicuous consumption. A shiny new Freedom Tower and gleaming dove-shaped mall rose from the somber ashes of the WTC site. Yet right beside the hope remained the gloom as well; the massive, funereal, intensely literal falling waters memorial and the semi-underground museum. While respectfully done, the museum was not easy for me to experience when I visited a few years ago. The chaotic intensity of the day came flooding back and left me shaking in tears. It made me realize that it was okay, even better to finally move on after guided reflection, and at least for me, to now leave the past behind, even if we also should “never forget.”
So it’s strange to look back at these 20 years, to wonder how so much time has already gone by, how much or how little has changed in the meantime. The best we can do is learn from the variably distant gaze of perspective, to appreciate the lives we have continued to live in the meantime, while honoring the memory of those lost that day and in the tragic fallout since then. Time will inevitably continue onward, and we can move onward as well.