PTSD: A New Perspective

About a month ago, I had a 45-minute phone call with the nationwide World Trade Center Health program. The call consisted of a series of questions concerning my health over the last year that would be a result of the 9-11 tragedy. I hadn’t seen a physician about the WTC events since leaving New York, and had not been aware of any concerns – until the call.

I did have medical tests done when applying for disability last Spring. I had a spirometry test, which entails blowing into a tube about an inch in diameter as long and as hard as possible multiple times. After this test, I had bronchial coughs for a week and felt miserable. Months later, a WTC program representative told me I had to do another spirometry test. But when I got to the lab, I refused to do it. A week of bronchitis was not worth it.

During the call, I had to think carefully about the questions. I had not been not aware of my own symptoms. Allergy-type symptoms can become so regular, one doesn’t notice them anymore. But I remembered the results of that springtime spirometry test.

“Do you cough every day?” the interviewer asked.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t noticed.” Though now I realize that I do cough every day.

“Do you avoid talking about the events that happened as a result of the World Trade Center disaster on September 11, 2001?”

“Yes.”

There were a few dozen other questions, which I can not recall. The only thing I remember clearly was how sad I felt after hanging up. Then my mind went into a fog – again.

I had not been foggy for a while. At least several weeks. In fact, things were going so well that for a few brief weeks I felt like I did back in early 2001 when I was trying to build a furniture design business and working a job full-time on the side. Full of energy, a full schedule, making time for friends, turning strangers into acquaintances and encouraging transients on the street, and thinking about the future.

But then the phone call happened and the world came crashing down again. Only this time, my armor was primed.

Priming is a nonconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects. It refers to activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task. For example, a person who sees the word ‘yellow’ will be slightly faster to recognize the word ‘banana.’ This happens because the words ‘yellow’ and ‘banana’ are closely associated in memory. Additionally, priming can also refer to a technique in psychology used to train a person’s memory in both positive and negative ways. –Psychology Today

Down at the bottom of this dip in the PTSD roller-coaster was not as low as life was a year ago. A year ago, I could not work. I could barely shop for food. I felt hopeless and wanted to die. But this time I still felt hope. In fact, I felt happy. I feel happy. It is as if I’ve come to accept PTSD as part of me. I’ve learned to see the positive side of tragedies. People close to me still don’t understand what PTSD is, or why I get irritable for no apparent reason, or why I cry sometimes at the drop of a dime.

I’ve also come to realize that my PTSD might never go away. The trauma of 9-11 and the years following will always be a part of me. But the experience doesn’t have to dictate my life. It doesn’t have to affect my choices or cause bitterness or resentment. Yes, I will have down days. I will get foggy, forgetful, and have trouble connecting dots. My catecholamine levels might get high and cause my pupils to constrict or make me jumpy. But that doesn’t have to lead to belligerence or anxiety.

The world today is different because of 9-11. New Yorkers are living all over the world to escape the memories. New York is different. Not better or worse, just different. I am different, but better. Less critical, more understanding, more patient. The cost was too high to pay. But instead of feeling the debt of loss, I will spend my life figuring out how to pay it forward.

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