20 years after 9/11: The state of my American soul

CW: emotional descriptions of 9/11, sexual assault recovery

Few of us will forget where we were

This week we will be commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I remember where I was. I was just starting my second year of law school, had just taken my first graduate public policy class for my masters the night before. I felt good about my life, I went to bed knowing exactly who I’d be in my life. That day I was going to go wedding dress shopping with my mom and my stepson-to-be. It was supposed to be an ideal day until my husband-to-be on his way back from Utah with his family called me from the road waking me telling me to turn on the news. The impossible was unfolding right before my eyes. I had barely a moment to process before I saw a second plane hit the towers. I sank back into bed, breathless, wordless with grief.

High contrast photo of numerous American flags. Covered by a transparent blue/red box the words in white writing that read "20 years after 9/11; The state of my American soul"

For the next four or so hours my family consumed some of the most horrific scenes we ever could have imagined. I couldn’t taste the coffee that grew cold in my hands. Nor could I remember all the words I spoke to my family that day. All I remember is escaping to take a shower and sobbing for thirty minutes feeling the soul shaking fear of the people stuck in those buildings, on those planes. I will never be able to fully erase the vicarious trauma of watching people escaping out of windows opting to take control over their fate as a dangerous inferno of the buildings threatened a cave-in. My empath heart couldn’t process the weight of what I had seen, what we all saw that day.

I couldn’t process that much human pain at once and I needed to reach for anything to help me feel normal, to help me feel alive. I was so full and empty all at once. Full of gratitude that my mom and my kid were with me and safe. Grateful my cousin and mother-in-law weren’t at the towers as they had been scheduled that day. But empty from the numbness that invaded my senses to protect my heart. We ventured out to go buy the wedding dress and do my first fitting. The world suddenly felt cold and numb. There was no music playing on the radio, no iPods to plug in to distract us. Anyone who was out was either in tears or desperately trying to avoid them. I had to grab joy where I could – I felt too much and too little all at once. The wedding dress was one of the few joys I had control over in that first week.

But then the traumas started to blur into one another

I thought that might be the last time I’d ever feel that way. But it happened again and again. Seeing one tragedy after another unfold in color on our screens. Each school shooting, each mass casualty tragedy only added more bricks in the wall I created on 9/11 to protect my heart.

Outdoor family photo with red & gold balloons and ornate garden in background. Foreground shows older man on right, Janet in doctorate cap and robes and small 5 year old to her left.
Photo of my dad, my son & I at my law school graduation in 2003.

And my social justice spirit needed that kind of protection as well. I had served on the board of the state ACLU at the time of 9/11 (I was president of the law school chapter) and we were worried about overreach with the Patriot Act as well as the hateful attacks on Muslims. And within a few years one of my lovers was deployed to first to Iraq and then to Afghanistan – a man I loved in a war that might never end. The internet was growing allowing conspiratorial thinking to surf the algorithms that would ensure misinformation got into the hands of those most likely to abuse it for their own political gain.

In 2000 I had walked into law school idealistic, but not at all ignorant about the world. I had encountered my share of sexual violence, mourned friends to gang shootings, lived to see my heroes fall (Gary Hart and Ben Nighthorse Campbell) and knew that the deck was stacked against my vision of love and harmony. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but wasn’t prepared for how much 9/11 would create a world that not only needed heart-centered relief but would be even more resistant to it.

Even my own tragedies were painting a story: the persuasive power of fear and superiority. The political signs all told me that we were feeling the winds blow in the stench of self-entitled violence – both the direct violence of guns and explosions and the indirect violence of silencing survivors or ignoring climate change. I could smell the toxic scent of decaying patriarchy corroding the world around me. I could see fear and greed creating a grid of red embers and black sewage, chewing up all the territory around it, like a demonic gentrification enveloping our collective soul. I could see the weeds of distrust and doubt curling around and choking off the good growth that was emerging. Growing inequality and continued voter suppression ensured that some voices are heard better than others, finishing off the job that white supremacy and misogyny started.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve learned some hard lessons about trauma and about the self-protective bubbles we try to create to prevent ourselves from ever looking at it again. But no matter how much I tried to deny it, I could always feel my trauma in my bones – my body remembering the sensations of helplessness, fear, loneliness, depression – all things that we felt during 9/11. The same things we are feeling right now during this Delta variant wave of the pandemic.

How many of us can relate to that feeling from of our own lives?

Much like my dad’s Depression Era generation, the toxic stress of constant fear, uncertainty, doubt, and lack has changed the trajectory of our lives. We are activated – both in healthy and unhealthy ways. And regardless of whether we have experienced PTSD, the constancy of the trauma in the world has gotten under our skin. It’s caused us to build up those brick walls around our hearts. And for some, the brick walls weren’t enough, they had to get into the business of weaponizing the bricks so we’d need a constant supply. They keep us busy constantly playing defense against the toxicity of systemic psychological warfare – we are gaslit into believing that what we feel is acceptable and that feeling anything about it makes us weak, insubstantial, and neurotic. Some have been convinced that their safety could only come at the expense of others’, waging a war of arbitrary power, dominance and control over others.

Our trajectories changed not because of what happened to us, but how the world chose to recover. For some, we’ve been open and honest about our vulnerabilities, advocating for a more loving world; but others, the majority, chose abusive, violent, harmful tactics. All to justify numbing themselves to the gravity of their actions, words, and beliefs.

Nurturing Good Growth

I flirt heavily with resentment these days, far more than I would like. I started the 2000’s as an eye toward being a Latina leader in the legislature or at least to be an advisor to influence policy. I was a big believer in the world that The West Wing showed us, so much so that I decided to go for a dual degree in public policy, my actual love. My first class was Sept. 10, 2001. By the following week, the world had shifted on its axis. Suddenly fear was real and we became more self-protective than ever.

Twenty years later we are watching the discouraging outcome of our war in Afghanistan, leaving many stranded with a government they never wanted. Twenty years later and we are still in denial about climate change. Twenty years later and we have exchanged Tea Party blubber for QAnon lies each one more dangerous than the rest. Twenty years later and we still have yet to figure out that black lives matter and continue to subject people to harm through policy and practice. Twenty years later and we have lost over 650,000+ Americans to COVID-19, more than American losses in the wars of the 20th and 21st century combined and yet, people are still picking fights over wearing a mask. Twenty years later and we can’t see ourselves as one people of one nation, much less one people of a whole world.

Teal  blue wooden background with cherry blossom flowers at the bottom. Floral flourishes in upper left and bottom right quandrants. White text reads: "rauma is exposure to one or more emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events the stress of which threatens one's sense of safety, security and personal bodily autonomy. The experience doesn't have to be "severe" to leave a lasting impact that person's physical, emotional, social, or spiritual or community well-being. @RoseConnections"

In my trauma informed care classes I say, “Trauma is exposure to one or more emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events the stress of which threatens one’s sense of safety, security and personal bodily autonomy leaving lasting adverse impacts to their physical, emotional, social, or spiritual or community well-being.” And among the lasting effects is this feeling of constantly being in survival mode, on edge with every little change, hyper-vigilant to reminders of that original threat. Our world was made unsafe and we reached for the only thing we know to avoid dealing with it: violence and control. And when we avoid dealing with our own shit, we stop empathizing and start undermining anyone who is trying to deal with theirs.

Instead of recognizing and more squarely dealing with the reverberations of the trauma we were enduring, we urged people to get back to work. Instead of dealing with vulnerable wounds we sustained, we applied vengeance as a irritant balm. We decided that it was more important to project strength than it was to heal. And this is the core wound of our resentful cynicism toward each other. We feed on the distrust that echoes deep within, justifying the greed of consumer culture and appropriation to quiet our minds. We hear the call of our better selves and stir up drama to drown them out. And for too many, we have ignored the messages of those who love us most and burrowed so into our vanity and self-pity that we’re fooled into thinking that superiority, domination and disassociation are the only ways out.

Empaths like me know that we have spent the last twenty years avoiding the collective traumas we’ve experienced, refusing to acknowledge how they have numbed us to the core, how the scary winds of change rattles us to our bones. We constantly feel alone and to make ourselves feel better we fetishized our individualism above any collective responsibility for healing our world together. We no longer believe in the heroic in one another because too many of us keep trying to burrow into their fractious, empty souls instead of facing the core wounds infecting this nation.

I might be honest, but I’m not harsh or cynical. There is evidence of a lot of positive growth happening. Everywhere, in the corners and cracks of the streets, the stoic cubicles of office buildings, the sanitized conversations between friends, little sprouts of authenticity are poking through. More of us are choosing to heal the wounds of our ancestors, soothe the cries of our inner children, forgive the resentments of the past. We are moving forward and onward without the burdens of our gloomy stories dragging us down like an albatross. Instead, we have found a way to transform our pain into wings, wings that help us soar above the games we play to see the way to a better world. And the more we share our stories, even twenty years later, the more we can help others do the same.

After twenty years, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that the growth we need to see in the world starts from within. The future is entirely up to how we choose to grow from here.

New Class: If you are interested in learning more about how being “trauma informed” could change the world, I invite you to sign up for my upcoming class on 10/14!

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