In September 2001, I was thrilled to be living again in New York City after a few months away. The city was booming. I rode the subway and walked through Central Park alone, feeling more confident and comfortable than when I first arrived in 1993 as an idealistic 23-year-old from Florida.
Barely past our first anniversary, my new husband and I had just settled into a new apartment, six blocks from the World Trade Center. As I stood on my twenty-fourth-floor terrace and gazed out at the bustling city, I knew all my dreams of success and an exciting life were finally coming true.
But those dreams came crashing down around me when Brian and I stood on that terrace and watched a passenger jet fly directly into the South Tower on the morning of September 11. The impact blew us back inside our apartment and frightened us so badly that we ran down 24 flights of stairs, still in our pajamas. I didn’t even stop to put on my shoes.
We sought refuge in Battery Park at the tip of the island of Manhattan, but the area turned out to be anything but safe when the Twin Towers collapsed, smothering us with dust and debris. All around us, panicked people were running haphazardly, searching for an escape from the chaos and devastation. Brian and I took cover by an old fort. Thinking we might not survive, I held Brian’s hands and began to pray, hoping God would spare our lives. Although I had always considered myself a Christian, I knew I had never made Jesus the center of my life. Why would He answer me now?
But God did answer, and we did survive. We escaped Manhattan by boat, and friends — and strangers — offered us shelter when we couldn’t return to our apartment. We were homeless for a couple of weeks and unemployed for much longer. The uncertainty stretched into weeks, and then months.
Immediately after the attacks, we started exhibiting signs of PTSD. Everything felt dark and oppressive. Brian spent his days sleeping. His body responded to the stress by shutting down and shutting off.
My body, however, reacted by going into a constant “high alert” zone. I was hyper, loud, and couldn’t quit talking. Totally manic, I could hardly sleep. I was in a constant funk, affecting my relationships with friends and family. Aware of my increased anger and edginess, I disconnected and isolated myself from everyone and turned inward for a sense of protection. Even Brian and I communicated less, limiting our conversations to our agenda for the day.
As more and more facts about the attacks were revealed in news updates, I agonized over what I discovered. I scanned the papers daily for pictures and profiles of the dead and missing. The median age of those who died was 35-39 years — only a few years older than me.
I learned about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and those they left behind. Employees of 430 companies from 28 countries were doomed. Many of these people remained unharmed in their offices, even until the very end. They radioed for help; they called their loved ones. They used their Blackberry devices to ask family members what they were hearing on CNN.
They sent faxes and emails. They walked to the windows and looked out, talked on the phone, and turned to their fellow employees for comfort before finally succumbing to the growing flames, smoke inhalation, or the building’s implosion. They fought to live the entire time while the towers were slowly dying.
I couldn’t imagine the fear and anguish they must have felt in the long minutes between the attack and the demise of the towers — 56 minutes and 102 minutes. What a painfully long time to know you were doomed. Even a minute contemplating my own death seems too long.
As more information emerged, I began to over-identify with those who died, and obsessed over the horror of their fate. It pushed me further into the dark hole I had already climbed into.
Never one to look at injustice or cataclysmic events and feel compelled to blame God, I still felt surprisingly detached from Him. In my struggle, I turned often to Psalm 116 and connected with the psalmist’s experience: “The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came over me; I was overcome by distress and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘Lord, save me!’” (vv. 3, 4).
I wasn’t thinking in terms of how the Lord could help me personally in and through this crisis. I felt detached in general. I just couldn’t ponder anything deeper than issues like where I would pick up donations that day and what we were going to eat for dinner that night.
Since I was having such a hard time expressing myself during this period, I felt I couldn’t expose my vulnerability in therapy sessions. However, I slowly became aware that I needed help. A Christian friend from my hometown was also a therapist, and I felt safe being myself with her. I contacted Carmela and set up a phone session. Once I started talking, I couldn’t stop.
She told me that 20 percent of people living within a one-mile radius of the Twin Towers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, including me. I was shocked. I thought PTSD affected just soldiers returning from war.
“The attacks of 9/11 threw a wrench in your worldview and sense of safety,” my friend/therapist explained. “It tore the fabric of your daily lives. It’s not like you witnessed a traumatic event in another country. It’s where you live. It’s where you go shopping and walk your dog and take tourist groups. Places you see everyday. Your mind is having a hard time accepting.”
I continued our therapy sessions to address my PTSD, but Carmela had a spiritual checklist of things she wanted me to do as well. She encouraged me to open my Bible and meditate on Scripture, pray daily, and attend church so I could grow in my faith and become a part of a faith community.
Trusting her judgment, I followed her instructions. As I healed and my faith grew stronger, I discovered a change in myself. The suffering and pain I’d experienced after the tragic events of 9/11 gave me compassion for others who were going through difficult times.
Most profoundly, Jesus met me at my darkest point, restored me, and started me on a new path in life. Through my new hope in Christ and with help from a therapist, I was able to grapple with personal issues stemming from the attacks and other burdens I’d long been carrying around. I was forced to look inside myself and face the past. That journey brought me to a place of peace when I learned that I could build my foundation on Christ and His promises.
Broken and blessed
As I look back on the last twenty years, I am more aware than ever of the lasting effects 9/11 has had on my life. But while facing life-changing challenges, I learned more about who I am with Christ, and who I’m not. When I faced my hardest test on my own, I had no bedrock to keep me standing and no strength to endure.
I truly believe good things can come from extremely difficult circumstances. As I write this, I’m going on a year of unemployment due to the pandemic, and I am suffering long-haul syndrome from battling a case of COVID-19 that hospitalized me twice and threatened my life. But I know I can face these new challenges with a strength and an awareness I didn’t have before.
If I had not been caught up in the destruction of 9/11, I might not be where I am today, and I might not be who I am today. Because of that experience, I was molded more into Christ’s image, as Paul expresses in Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
I enjoy a deeper relationship with Christ. I have freedom to give away in increasing measure to others as a result of my trauma that day.
I now live with the assurance that through faith in Christ, I don’t have to fear anything. My brokenness is where He meets me in His strength so that I may offer His strength to others.
Christina Ray Stanton writes from Tallahassee, FL. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.