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9/11 Survivor Shares Her Story of Addiction and Recovery

Helaina Hovitz’s memoir “After 9/11” details living through the September 11 terrorist attacks as a child and the emotional aftermath she suffered.

9/11 survivor story

Most of us will never forget Sept. 11, 2001.

We think of it from time to time, perhaps when September rolls around, or whenever terrorism strikes around the world.

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However, for those who saw firsthand the terrorist attacks that day, the events of 9/11 remain present and sometimes constant.

So constant, in fact, that they can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

9/11 survivor trauma

So was the case for Helaina Hovitz, who was attending 7th grade at a school just three blocks from the World Trade Center in New York when the Twin Towers were struck.

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Hovitz found herself battling her way home with a neighbor and his mother.

“We turned and ran without looking back. People everywhere were doing the same. Middle-aged men ran alongside 7-year-olds and toddlers, all screaming and crying in unison. My entire body was throbbing, my feet, my face, my stomach, one huge pulse,” Hovitz wrote in her memoir “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning,” which is being released on Sept. 6.

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I was scared of loud noises and didn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t as terrified as I was of having another attack.
Helaina Hovitz, Sept. 11 attack survivor

While Hovitz eventually made it home safely, the terror of that day stayed with her throughout her adolescence and young adulthood.

The trauma caused her to experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, and in her late teens she turned to alcohol and marijuana to cope.

“The first time I went to therapy was in 2002. The Red Cross said they’d cover 12 weeks of therapy. After the 12 weeks, me and my mom thought I’d be better,” Hovitz told Healthline. “I continued to have anxiety, sleeplessness, and sensitives. When I went to high school it got worse. I now had severe depression, emotional overreaction, and flashbacks. I was scared of loud noises and didn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t as terrified as I was of having another attack. I was living my life through fear and panic.”

Read more: Why rheumatoid arthritis is plaguing 9/11 first responders »

Long road to discovery, recovery

During her teens, Hovitz saw nearly 10 different mental health professionals, and was misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder and bipolar disorder.

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She also was prescribed medications that didn’t help and made her sick.

Hovitz says when she reached college, she finally found a therapist with whom she connected.

The therapist practiced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

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Those therapies focus on helping people understand their thoughts and behaviors, and instruct people on how to change patterns of unhealthy behavior, such as self-harm, suicidal tendencies, and substance abuse.

“She validated my experiences, and she told me there was a way to do differently and think differently if I was willing to do the work. That was the first time that concept was introduced to me,” said Hovitz. “In the back of her mind, she was treating me for PTSD, but she never said that to me until later.”

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Still, during this time, Hovitz began drinking heavily and smoking marijuana.

I could never quite get drunk enough not to worry about what happened when the drunkenness faded.
Helaina Hovitz, Sept. 11 attack survivor

“This [type of therapy] was a lot of work and challenging, and it forced me to confront more,” said Hovitz.

She found herself in an abusive relationship, waking up in strangers’ homes, having suicidal thoughts. She ended up in the hospital several times with alcohol poisoning.

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Realizing she was living dangerously, Hovitz attempted to stop drinking on her own for weeks and months at a time with success, but then ended up back at it.

“Until the very moment I got drunk, I lived in, and cringed at, the past, and was terrified of the future. The slight nausea that came like clockwork after four drinks temporarily blotted it all out and was easily remedied by a cigarette and some fresh air,” Hovitz wrote in her memoir.

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“I wouldn’t like what it did the next day, but that didn’t matter. It was the closest to being unconscious as I could get, even though I could never quite get drunk enough not to worry about what happened when the drunkenness faded,” she added.

Eventually Hovitz listened to the pleas of the people in her life, and realized she needed help with her addiction. She asked her therapist to direct her to a 12-step program for alcoholics.

“I knew my life could be better without drinking. I just needed to learn how. I had that solid foundation of therapy and doing work towards it, which naturally lends itself to step work. I also already knew I had PTSD by this time,” Hovitz said.

However, in her memoir she states that it wasn’t easy.

“My first year was chaotic — being fully present and awake, with pores all open, was painful. That scared, invisible girl emerged with full force, with stronger panic attacks, throwing bigger tantrums, creating bigger fears, and there was no pacifier. I was saturated in reality.”

Only a few of my former classmates had tried therapy, and those who did became lost in the same labyrinth of misdiagnosis and prescription pills.
Helaina Hovitz, Sept. 11 attack survivor

After 90 days in the program, Hovitz says the cravings subsided and over time she learned to stay present in situations that were uncomfortable, even though the urge to drink was strong.

The genetic component in Hovitz’s family also encouraged her to work toward sobriety. She knew her grandfather was an alcoholic and that her dad had been sober since she was a baby.

She also found comfort reconnecting with 16 of her middle school classmates who shared similar stories of struggles with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and addiction. In her memoir, she wrote:

“Only a few of my former classmates had tried therapy, and those who did became lost in the same labyrinth of misdiagnosis and prescription pills,” Hovitz said. “Some had become shut-ins, some became addicts, but whatever their story, normal teen angst seemed to be amplified, and their parents — caring, supportive — watched helplessly as the happy children they loved receded into a dark place nobody could reach.”

Read more: PTSD can last for years in people who witness traumas »

Living sober with the memories

While Hovitz has been sober since November 2011, she says she is still in recovery, and maintains a 12-step sponsor.

She believes it's possible to recover from alcoholism and PTSD, but they will always be part of her past. 

“I feel as close to recovered as possible. My life is better than I ever thought it could be, but our stories are always continuing. I don’t think we can ever say we’re completely recovered from being an addict. There are always triggers,” she said.

9/11 trauma survivor
Image Source: Justin McCallum

The same goes for coping with memories of 9/11.

Hovitz says she continues to see a therapist monthly to check in no matter how far she has come.

“There hasn’t been a day that goes by that in some form or another I don’t think of 9/11. It’s such a huge part of my life and growing up. I still get startled if a firework show goes off and I don’t know about it,” she said. “There is this belief that we are all over [9/11], but you’d be surprised how many people are still affected by that day.”

Read more: Mass shootings and the fear of being a victim »

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