People often assume that writing a memoir is cathartic. That reliving the painful and traumatic moments of our past, and telling our stories to try and help others, is indeed a healing journey. And in many ways, they’re right.
But writers who take on the enormous task of chronicling the challenges they faced also risk opening doors to dark places they didn’t know still lived within them. For me, the process allowed me to see how far I’d come and to deepen my understanding of what I’d been through.
When it happened
On September 11, 2001, I was a 12-year-old in middle school, three blocks away from the World Trade Center, separated only by a highway and a few sidewalks.
I was in first period science class when the first plane hit, and by the time the second plane hit, we’d been evacuated down to the cafeteria. Rumors were swirling — there had been a bombing, there had been a plane crash — but nobody knew for sure.
When the bomb squad burst through the doors, along with droves of hysterical parents crying and screaming, so did my neighbor, Ann, and her son, Charles. I walked to and from school with them every day, normally a 10 to 15 minute stroll across town from our apartments, which were also just several blocks away from the towers.
Outside the school building, the burning smell instantly stung our eyes and nostrils, as the buildings expelled paper and debris and people. We saw people jumping from the towers and others, bleeding and covered in ash, being loaded into ambulances.
The crowds on the sidewalk were almost impossible to move through, but we had one objective: Get home to the East Side, to our neighborhood.
Soon, we were running from a giant cloud of smoke and debris that Ann told us not to look at. “Just cover your faces, don't look back, and run!”
The scene for the next hour, as we tried every possible way into our own neighborhood, was the stuff that nightmares are made of. Bleeding bodies, people covered in debris, and piercing, bloodcurdling cries and screams. I was covered in debris and kept forgetting to pull my shirt over my face to protect it. We spent an hour navigating the horror, trying to get home, but police blocked every possible way in.
We found ourselves in a war zone
Once we finally made it back to our apartment, I was reunited with my grandparents, who also lived in the building. My mother was finally able to access our neighborhood by sneaking in another way the cops couldn’t block, and my father was able to do the same the next morning. The second we arrived home, though, we found our neighborhood had become a war zone, and it would only get worse in the days to come.
The National Guard showed up. The sound of a plane sent me into a hysterical panic. I wasn't sleeping. I was always worried, paranoid, ready to take off at the next attack, having nightmares and flashbacks. I felt like a sitting duck waiting to die.
While the rest of New York City above Canal Street, and the rest of the world resumed “life as normal,” it became very clear to me that because of what was happening in my brain and my body, and what continued to happen outside my front door, nothing would ever be normal again.
Outside my grandmother’s window, all I saw was black smoke. By the time the power went out, it was 4:00 p.m.
We decided to see if, by some small miracle, the payphone across the street still worked so we could speak to my dad, who was still in Staten Island. We grabbed our pink bath towels and wrapped them around our heads, so that only our eyes were peeking out.
When we emerged from the lobby, the streets were empty. The front desk people had gone, and so had security. We stood in the tornado of ash that still blew down Fulton Street toward the East River, the only two people on the entire block. What was left of the towers was still on fire.
Why isn’t anyone around? Where are the police? The firemen? The medical workers?
It may as well have been 3:00 a.m. There was nothing but white and darkness at once, the sky black, the air white. We stood in this blizzard, holding kerchiefs over our faces, but it didn’t do any good. The wind whipped the dirt around our faces, into our nostrils, mouths, and ears. The smell was similar to cooking meat, sweet and acrid, musty and suffocating.
The payphone, miraculously, worked long enough for us to call my father, who told us that the Verrazano Bridge was closed and that he wouldn’t be able to get home. “The police keep insisting that you’ve all been evacuated and brought to holding shelters,” he said.
How could the police have told everyone we’d all been evacuated when we hadn’t been? That’s why nobody was there. Less than a minute into the call, the payphone powered off for good, ceasing to work as inexplicably as it had started working in the first place.
I looked through partially shielded eyes at the silhouettes of steel that still resembled buildings. The skeleton of the World Trade Center was still partially intact, but caving in and crumbling by the minute. They were still on fire, floors upon floors all ablaze.
A good deal of Manhattan had left the city, including half of our apartment complex, but hundreds of us couldn’t. We were alone, scattered behind closed doors. Senior citizens, people with asthma, the disabled, children, infants — alone and yet together, as the fires continued to burn.
Reaching out, again and again
The next years of my life were spent coming of age with undiagnosed — then misdiagnosed and incorrectly medicated — symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that turned my teenage life into a living nightmare. I’d always been a fun-loving kid, but that Helaina was disappearing. My parents started searching for someone who could help me.
There are a lot of reasons PTSD goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in young adults and grown women:
- the psychologist or therapist hasn’t been trained and is not a specialist
- they’re doing the best with whatever symptoms are presenting themselves primarily
- they’re standard talk therapists or psychologists who don’t have the time or resources — or, in some cases, emotional capacity or attention to detail — to go deep enough into your story and relive it with you
I was diagnosed with depression, was medicated for it, and didn’t get better. In fact, it got worse. I couldn’t get out of bed in the mornings to go to school. I thought about jumping in front of the train. Another psychotherapist decided that my inability to concentrate in class, my sleeplessness, and my rapid and unstoppable flood of negative thoughts was due to ADHD. I was medicated for that, too. But still no relief.
I was diagnosed as bipolar because of my episodes of emotional volatility coupled with my ability to also feel extreme happiness — same results there. A ton of medications that made me sick and did nothing else.
The more I reached out for help and retold my story, the worse things seemed to get. At 18, I felt ready to take my own life because it seemed like life would always feel like a living hell more often than it didn’t, and that nobody could fix me. So I reached out for help one last time, from one last therapist.
That email saved my life, and I spent years recovering through various forms of therapy, programs, and support.
Putting the words down
When I first started writing my book, I was 21 years old and it was an independent study with a professor whom I admired very much. I told him I wanted to write about what had happened to me that day as a piece of work that incorporated poetry and narrative — but it quickly became much more.
I realized that I had a whole lot of story to tell, and that there had to be other people out there who had experienced the same thing, including my former classmates.
While working furiously toward my deadlines and simultaneously telling my story to the media over and over, I noticed things were happening to my mind and body that scared me. The chronic migraines I’d been living with for years increased. My stomach issues flared up. My insomnia got worse.
I reached out to Jasmin Lee Cori, MS, LPC, the trauma expert who provided the foreword to my book, and told her what was happening. She wrote me back almost immediately and observed that, while I’d come a long way in treating my anxiety and PTSD through my work with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), there was still something lingering within me waiting to be woken up.
That’s because those therapies didn’t target the way my body experienced and held onto the trauma itself. My trauma was still being stored not only in my mind, but in my body — in subconscious and complex ways. Even though I felt calm, and talking and writing about it didn’t upset me, my body and parts of my brain were sounding alarm bells, triggering muscle memory and hormone response systems.
At Dr. Cori’s recommendation, I embarked on a new journey to healing with another therapist who specializes in eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) and somatic experiencing. These forms of targeted trauma therapy utilize eye movement, tappers that vibrate, sounds, and other resourcing tools to help activate both sides of the brain and make more information associated with the traumatic memories available to work with.
I was a bit skeptical at first, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from at least seeing what it was about. Through those sessions I was able to tune into what triggered me. I caught body responses I didn’t consciously feel until I focused on them in that room — intense discomfort in the stomach, head, shoulders, chills, and tightness in the neck.
As we connected the dots, we unpacked painful memories that needed to be healed, and I spent some weeks feeling pretty uncomfortable as my nervous system worked out the residual kinks. Within a few months, I could think about those memories, talk about them, and feel neutral.
I was eventually able to share what I’d learned with the world when my book, “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning,” was published in September 2016. Years after the tragedy, I now find myself answering questions like:
- “How did they miss it?”
- “What took so long?”
- “How could it not have been obvious that the diagnosis was PTSD?”
We all walk around with invisible scars, and sometimes our past is woken up in ways we aren't prepared for. I don’t know if or when my path would have landed me in that office if I hadn’t written this memoir. But because it did, I was able to further my own understanding of how trauma manifests in the body.
As memoirists, as writers, and as humans — and even as a nation — our stories are never over. When you write a book like this one, you just have to decide where to stop. There’s no real ending.
In a world full of things we can’t control, there’s one thing we always can: keeping hope alive, and always being willing to learn, rather than to write only what we initially set out to write.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, writer, and author of the memoir “After 9/11.” She’s written for the New York Times, Salon, Newsweek, Glamour, Forbes, Women's Health, VICE, and many others. She’s currently the editor of content collaborations at Upworthy/GOOD. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.