10 years. And counting.

Each year, the tears start on their own, and each year I wonder why.  I cant name it.  I look around and assign blame for my sadness.  I point fingers and mislabel my pain.  

Eventually, the clarity presents itself suddenly.  I write the date and remember it is early september.  My soul knows long before my brain.  I am in mourning again.  And every year, I am surprised by the strength of it.  I reach out and asked loved ones to be patient, to understand that I am in a crisis state of mind.  I am in mourning.  And the only way past it is through it.  Re-live it.  Hold it in my heart and hear it’s soft, determined humming.

10 years ago – how can it be that long?  I was in New York City with my husband, my mother, my brother, and NY family.  We were gathered for my grandmother’s funeral.  She had finally passed away after years of dementia and deterioration. The actual funeral events were over and we were planning to all meet in Brooklyn the next day to clean out Nanny Rose’s home of 40-something years. – Like we could accomplish that in a few days.  

My family was spread out all over Manhattan for lodging.  My mother was on the upper East side at her sister’s apartment, my brother and stepfather had taken the late night flight home to Los Angeles.  My husband and I were staying in Chelsea – lower Manhattan, with his brother & sister in law.  Our plan was to take the subway into Brooklyn early the next morning, September 11, 2001.  

My tendency to absorb and  hold emotions for others has long been clear to me.  It’s the reason I can be a dynamic psychologist.  It’s also one reason I quit being a therapist.  I seem to have lost the ability to flush my system of the emotions that don’t belong to me.  (I would make a terrible jury member.)

On that early morning in September I awoke to screams of, “TURN ON THE TV!” Something about the acute terror in that voice led us to do just that, without question.  We stood barefoot, on the cold concrete floor,  barely awake, and watched live as the second plane hit.  Three miles away.  

Sometimes events occur that seem so unreal, so out of your belief system, that your brain will not accept what it knows to be true.  You disbelieve in order to retain your feeling of sanity.

The sequence of events following that moment are unclear to me.  Eventually, dust and ash began to trickle into the eighth-floor walk-up windows.  It made me think of  acid rain entering my lungs.  We gathered together and contemplated how my brother in law had been inside the World Trade Center yesterday morning.  We threw out random guesses about what was happening.  We learned the pentagon was hit.  I thought of my brother who flew out of JFK the night before.  I thought of my kitties curled up on my bed 3000 miles away.  I wondered if we were at war and if we should somehow prepare for more violence.  I wanted to go home.  

We couldn’t go home.  No airports, no bridges, no trains were running.  Escape from New York popped into my mind.  We went out into the streets.  We walked toward ground zero.  As we got closer the random debris got weirder.  Papers, briefcases, office supplies, fax machines… and so much dust.  We saw people wandering around with dazed eyes, soot on their clothes and faces.  Sirens… I didn’t want to be there.  I was afraid of the unknown to come.  But I was the only one among us who thought viewing the scene was a bad idea; and I didn’t want to be alone. (I would be a horrible Survivor cast member.)   

We eventually got in touch with my mom on the upper east side.  She asked my husband and I to come to her.  The streets were packed with people and cars at a stand still.  Bomb threats were being called in in various parts of the city.  So office buildings midtown were evacuated.  Police and paramedics were everywhere.  There were people standing around in crowds not knowing what to do or where to go.  I had blips of conversation with random men and women-hearing their stories. “I missed my bus and was late for my job in tower two…” “I haven’t heard from my wife…” “The police wont let me into my apartment, but I need to check on my dog…” 

My internal anxiety meter was way in the red.  People were either on high alert or in a stoney sort of haze.  My senses became more intense.  Hearing random words among the crowds, searching the sky for planes, and smelling imaginary scents.  I wanted Xanax.  I wanted to close my eyes and go to my happy place.  But I needed to cross the city.  On foot.   

Twenty-four hours later I had had enough.  I needed out.  (I would make a terrible spy and clearly could never hold up under torture.)  I began calling car rental agencies, unconcerned with the hit it would take on my bank account.  Both my husband and mother said I was insane.  We should just wait it out and fly home when we could.  Fuck that.  I would never fly again.  I was driving home.  Who was with me?  So, practically shrugging and rolling their eyes, they agreed to join me.

I can’t say I recommend driving across country with your spouse and your mother.  But the nice part was that I was with two of the people who care most about me in this world, and I them.  This became key for me when we drove through an electrical storm in St. Louis.  An L.A. girl at heart, I had never seen anything like it.  I was sure bombs were dropping.  I curled up in the back seat, certain we were driving into a holocaust.  My companions just tripped out on how weird it all was.

We stopped in Pennsylvania which had more beauty than I had imagined.  We stopped in Indiana where my “vegetarian” dinner consisted of a baked potato with bacon bits.  We stopped in Illinois – the only time I have ever returned to the state of my birth.  We stopped in Kansas where we found a Walmart to buy clean underwear.  It was the first time I ever bought some of the smallest size available.  (Note to self – shopping in Kansas is good for the body image, shopping in Los Angeles is not.)  Four days later, we returned home.  My husband and mother returned to life as usual.  But I still couldn’t return to my center.

For at least a year I had panic attacks in crowded places and movie theaters.  I searched for exit signs.  I quit my job after calling my boss a bitch for expecting me to return to work sooner.  I cried unexpectedly.

Today, ten years later, a friend mentioned a theory that some people serve as emotional empaths within our society.  The idea is that acting as an emotional sponge soaks up the energy that most people cant tolerate.  So, in this regard, I feel like I am being of service to a greater good.  But I also can find myself feeling a little jealous of the ways in which others can be so duck-like and let the shit roll off their backs.  

And yet, I also know that at times I experience myself absorbing positive emotions, moments of amazement, and all that is beautiful.  It floods me in a way in which I doubt ducks can even imagine.  And for this, I am grateful.  Its the yin & yang of life.  There is no shadow unless there is light.  

~ With love (you’re soaking in it), jrb

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2 Responses to 10 years. And counting.

  1. jennbenn18 says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience Gayle. I think you are right, it can feel like both. I try to keep in mind that either way, it just is. Its just a part of what makes us deeply human. ❤

  2. gayle says:

    i, too, must be an emotional empath.

    while i sat in my beautiful home in ojai, with my dogs around me, i looked ridiculous. . .tv going, headset on to NOT miss the telephone, internet going. . all trying to reach my (then 18 year old) daughter who i knew to be near ground zero. ) she, thankfully, is alive and well and here in ojai today. but that day i could not reach her for over 8 hours . . . no cell phone working. . .etc. and she was able to send a terse note via internet that she was scared but ok. . i cried for months and months and could never “get” why people around me went on with their lives seeming hardly touched by the immensity of it. . . .guess it is that “emotional empath” thing. . .blessing or curse.

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