PTSD After 9/11: An Interview with Helaina Hovitz
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Where were you on September 11, 2001?
For anyone who lived through it, it is a day that became frozen in time. We all remember where we were. We all remember how the day unfolded.
On September 11, 2001, I had just left my apartment in the New York’s East Village. I was at the bus stop with my husband when a homeless man told us that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
Crackhead, I thought.
After a few minutes, we started to wonder why the bus was taking so long. Could it be true what that man had said? No smartphones existed to check the news. My husband and I hurried home and turned on the TV. Then we headed up to the roof of our building, where we remained rooted for the following hours, watching the towers burn and then collapse.
I will carry that morning with me for the rest of my life.
Journalist Helaina Hovitz was a 12-year-old girl living in Lower Manhattan in September 2001. The 11th was her second day of seventh grade at I.S. 89, a school two blocks north of the Twin Towers.
The floor shuddered and the shelves rattled.
Then, there was silence.
Everyone looked around wide-eyed, more with curiosity and surprise than fear. I thought maybe it was a tire truck popping, and looked over at Devin, who was almost smirking. Behind him, the clock read 8:46 a.m.
A bomb squad arrived at the school just before the second plane hit, and frantic parents began arriving soon after. Hovitz’s home was a twenty-minute walk away—past the Twin Towers. She spent the next hour racing through the chaotic streets of lower Manhattan with her classmate and his mom, surrounded by ash, bleeding bodies and the ghastly sound of those jumping from the burning buildings, trying desperately to get to her home in the Seaport District.
September 11, 2001 froze in time for Hovitz too.
Old enough to understand what was going on, yet not old enough to process the tragedy with the perspective of an adult, Hovitz’s emotional development froze as well.
A war was already waging inside of me, where an invisible little girl had taken up a home, acting in a constant state of defense and offense, of paranoia, trying to predict where and when the next attack would come from.
The emotional baggage that Hovitz carried after the September 11th attacks was too heavy to bear. After years of therapy and medication, Hovitz was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and started to put her life back together. She shares her story in After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning, and discusses her book and experience with Bookwitty.
What was your motivation for writing a memoir?
There were so many reasons. I had spent years going to all these different professionals trying to figure out what was ‘wrong’ with me, and all these medications and diagnoses and therapy, and nothing was working, it was just getting worse. When I finally got the PTSD diagnosis and got the right therapy and started to really get better, and I had some recovery under my belt, it was my senior year of college. I had to write a senior thesis, which I decided would be a collection of essays about what my New York looked like almost 10 years after 9/11. I also had to do an independent study. Someone said, “I wonder what happened to your other classmates, and if they had similar experiences.” So, I started reaching out to my former classmates, and I interviewed almost 20 parents and kids about what their lives had been like, and I heard so much of my story and my experience in theirs.
Some of them hadn’t even heard of PTSD, some of them had never been to therapy. But they had been living with these things –were afraid to leave home, didn’t want to be away from their parents, people isolated themselves and didn’t want to do anything anymore, they wanted to stay locked in their rooms… and then there were the ones that acted out, would throw furniture at their parents. And I get goosebumps while I talk about this, because it’s so upsetting to me, that they just thought that this was how they were, that this was how their lives were now. And they all said to me, you’re the first one who asked me my story, and that’s when I knew that it was going to be an entire book.
I did so much research and realized—I think the statistic is twenty-five percent of adults will go through something traumatic, and one out of every two kids. [The American Psychological Association estimates two out of every three kids.] Look at Hurricane Harvey now, those families are definitely going to be suffering from some trauma. There are natural disasters, medical trauma, cancer in a family, accidents, domestic abuse, crime in a neighborhood –so many things lead to trauma. We really need more awareness around how complex it can be, because there are so many misdiagnoses, especially because the symptoms change over time as new stressors come into your life. So, I wanted to write a book that connected the dots for people. You might not see a connection between a girl screaming and clinging to her boyfriend on the street and having a crazy reaction to a fight in public and trauma, but I can connect the dots all the way there for you. I wanted to use my experience to help young people who are struggling, and also to help adults with my experience.
You wrote about staying in New York as a young adult in order to have the support of your parents and to be near your grandmother. What continues to keep you in New York?
I knew I wanted to be a journalist from when I was like four years old—I would write stories and stick them under my neighbors’ doors. Where else are you going to go be a journalist? That’s part of it. The other is that I really have built a life here. I know my neighbors and my neighborhood, and there’s a lot of really cool changes down here as well.
I think that so much of who I am is tied up in the neighborhood. I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve always thought after a week, “okay, I’m good to go home.” I can’t imagine needing to get in my car to go pick up milk. I can’t imagine not having the choice of one of like five pizza places to order from in a ten-block radius. I can’t imagine not knowing that when one subway line breaks down, that I can’t immediately walk to another stop and take another one.
And the other part of it is that I really do want to stay close to my parents. My family is a very close-knit group. We obviously had a very difficult relationship [growing up] and now it’s a very lovely one, so that’s nice, and I appreciate them a lot.
What are your plans for this September 11?
I’m having an event at the Seaport, and it’s for the community. More than just a reading and a question and answer, it’s meant to raise awareness for this neighborhood. The Seaport District is being built up now, and it’s the new “it” place – there are trendy stores and restaurants. When people come down here for the new Jean-Georges restaurant that they’re opening, or for the new mall that they’re opening, and they glance over at the Freedom Tower, I think it’s really important they’re conscious of the fact that for people who live here, there will always be a bit of sadness and grief, and I think a sense of ownership because we were here, in what was literally a war zone.
And the other thing I’ll be doing this year for the anniversary is I’ll be speaking at some local high school and middle schools about the week.
Interview edited for length and clarity.