*Note: Woman Wednesday is a part of our blog. Each Woman Wednesday post will feature a woman who would like to share information in the hopes of inspiring and motivating other women. Comments are welcome below.
Helaina Hovitz from New York, New York
Helaina Hovitz was twelve and in middle school three blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.
“I started trying to put myself back together—first, in 12-step programs, where I learned to stop relying on substances to quiet the chatter in my mind.”
Anyone who has survived a horrific event knows that just because a body remains in motion does not mean everything will simply “go back to normal.” The chemistry of the brain and the body changes, impacting our relationships, our choices, and how we experience the world around us. Yet, we rarely find out what actually happens to people as they try to move on from a life-threatening experience—especially children, who are just beginning to develop an understanding of the world around them.
You remember where you were on September 11, 2001. We all do. For me, it was the second day of seventh grade at I.S. 89, the middle school just three blocks from the World Trade Center. My first-period teacher, Mr. H., was beginning a lesson when what sounded like a giant whirring motor interrupted him. Moments later a teacher knocked on the door and told us that someone had bombed the World Trade Center. We were quickly ushered to the cafeteria.
No one at the school knew what had really happened, but shortly after the second plane hit the South Tower, the bomb squad burst in and announced that we had to evacuate. Droves of hysterical parents arrived to take their kids. My mom and dad were stuck at their offices, but I spotted my neighbor Ann and her son Charles, whom I walked to school with every day. I wanted to go home. They could get me there. Through the oppressive smoke and ash, we tried to make it back, but police blocked our usual route. The street under us rumbled. Shards of glass and concrete screeched down all around. “Cover your faces!” Ann shouted. “Don’t look back, and run!”
At 22, I identified as an alcoholic and was often the youngest one in many of the 12-step meeting rooms (I didn’t need to go to rehab). I never picked up a drink again. Life became more fun than it had ever really been because my feelings were real. Girls my own age wanted to be friends and hang out with me, do things like go to the movies or have brunch. There was plenty to do that didn’t involve drinking when you knew where to look for it, and about two years into sobriety, when I had worked on myself, not just through CBT, DBT, meditation, and the steps, I had rebuilt the life and identity I never had the chance to when my world came crashing down at age 12. Like the woman I had only imagined, I would be my wildest fantasies—calm, patient, clever, understanding, selfless, and rational—I began to build a life and welcome people into it who made me feel happy.
Most of all, these tools made me feel safe in the world again, and safe in my own skin. Safe in my own ability to be “okay” no matter how painful or stressful things got. Changing my perspective and expectations for “fun” also changed the game—when I started thinking about what I could bring to or contribute to a situation, how I could help someone else laugh or feel happy, rather than what I could “get from it.”
A wise teacher once told me that before you can feel happy, or loved, or give love or make someone else happy, you have to feel safe. And that was when life became fun: because I had the capacity to feel it.
Through meditation, I found peace between my thoughts. Through yoga, which can still be a challenge, I began to focus on the moment. Now, when the subway stops suddenly, my adrenaline doesn’t surge. I distract myself with emails, listen to my favorite song, or think about what’s for dinner. Panic wants to creep in, but its seduction doesn’t work anymore. I can let it go. [Eighteen years ago] today, more than 3,000 people died and more than 6,000 were injured. Thousands more survived but were forever changed—myself among them. But today, I’m finally able to move on. I’ve learned the best way to work through my fear is simply to stay still. No more reaching, no more fighting. And no more running.
I have shared my story with the world.
In many ways, After 9/11 is the story of an entire generation growing up in the aftermath of America’s darkest day. It is the story of a group of children who directly survived September 11th, 2001, and bore its invisible scars for the rest of their lives. And, for one young woman, it is the story of a survivor who, after witnessing the end, got to make a new beginning.
The events and experiences that are now common knowledge to everyone were a very real part of Helaina’s life, and are still as vivid in her memory today: the sickening thud of falling bodies hitting cars, the crumbling towers, running for her life as she tried to get home, her universe engulfed literally in a cloud. Hundreds, including Helaina, were stranded in the neighborhood, also just blocks from the fiery remains of the Towers, without phones or electricity or anyone to help. For fear of subsequent attacks, not to mention the toxic substances in the air, everyone was urged to stay inside their debris-filled apartments.
Thank you for reading. What’s your experience or memory of 9/11?