When the planes hit the Towers on 9/11, I was over the Atlantic Ocean, in a plane bound for New York City.
Our flight from Prague that morning had been uneventful, but as we neared the halfway point, the pilot made an announcement—in Czech—that sent concerned murmurs through the Europeans on board. When he repeated it in English, we understood why: U. S. airspace was closed, and we were turning around.
What could close U. S. airspace? There were a few obvious answers, none of them good. But the flight attendants wheeled out the beverage carts, and the cabin was soon abuzz with strangers sharing theories.
I wish I knew exactly what time we hit the ground in Prague. 3:00 p.m. New York time? Maybe 4:00? When we debarked from the plane—knowing nothing—each passenger was handed this printout from CNN.com:
Maybe one day, when I’m a better writer, I’ll tell you what it was like to watch our fellow passengers—especially the New Yorkers—gape at that paper in their hand and crumple to the ground.
The next few days are kind of a blur.
That night, the airline shuttled us to a hotel straight out of the twilight zone. We dumped our bags, washed our faces in the rust-colored water, and waited in a long, long line in the hotel lobby to call home. Many of the New Yorkers couldn’t get their calls to go through: the phone service to much of Manhattan had been taken out with the towers.
The next morning, we booked tickets home for Friday, September 14, contingent on American air space reopening. It opened—but only to domestic flights. We couldn’t get tickets out for ten more days.
Since we had time to kill, we decided to head for Germany. It felt like a bonus (and bittersweet) European vacation, except for the anxiety and candlelight vigils and hours of CNN in the evenings.
But then in Nurnberg I got stung by a bee. That’s not usually a big deal, but I’m allergic to bee stings. I’d had a reaction a few years before and carried an epipen for a few years, just in case, but I didn’t have my epipen in Europe. Long story short, I ended up in the Nurnberg ER, trying to tell the staff—in German—that I was having an allergic reaction.
But it wasn’t an allergic reaction. It was a panic attack.
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The rest of our trip was uneventful (save the jaw-dropping security for the tense flight home). It was a lot of fun, actually. But when we got back to the States, I started having panic attacks in my sleep. I can’t describe how horrible they were. The first time, I literally thought I was dying.
I went to my doctor after that first one back home. He said my experience was classic: my stress levels were running really high after 9/11, which made me susceptible to a full-blown panic attack with the bee sting. He said we needed to squelch them, and fast, because panic attacks lead to more panic attacks: with each one I was etching grooves in my nervous system that would make it that much easier to have another. So he prescribed anxiety and blood pressure meds and sent me on my way.
(My doctor didn’t suggest counseling, and I didn’t seek it. I never considered it: my circumstances didn’t seem to merit it, compared to the other events of 9/11.)
But my health went downhill, fast. I had always been in great shape, but I was suddenly running a resting heart rate of 96. I looked ashen, and shaky. I didn’t feel safe to drive. I didn’t want to be by myself. I was 23. I was a wreck.
This went on for months. The turning point came when I realized the blood pressure drugs that were supposed to help me were actually making me sick. I cut them out, then I tentatively started driving again, then running. The panic attacks started tapering off, and I started feeling like a normal twenty-something again. Mostly.
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More than ten years later, I still have the occasional panic attack, maybe once or twice a year, tops. I dug deep grooves back in 2001, and they’re easy to follow. I will always be more susceptible to them than I was before September 2001.
For a long time, I was embarrassed that I had this scar, of sorts, from 9/11. Nobody likes to talk about anxiety, to start with. But it also seemed unfair to complain about this comparatively small mark, when so many people lost so much that day.
I wish I’d known then that comparing losses doesn’t help, and often hurts, like it did in my case. I didn’t seek help because my loss seemed “comparatively” small, and because of my reluctance, I walked around with undiagnosed PTSD for a long time.
(Even now, I feel silly typing out those four official-sounding letters.)
I wonder how many people there are, like me, who lost something precious on 9/11, but don’t speak of it, because the loss seems so small—in comparison.
I don’t even know what to ask you about this one. Feel free to share thoughts about 9/11, anxiety, or comparing losses in comments.