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Thoughts On My Way To Ground Zero: A Memoir from the Days After 9/11.

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I wrote this almost 8 years ago shortly after the attack on theTwinTowers, but the
events are as fresh as ever. I offer it in honor of the bravest men and women I have
ever worked with. This article appeared in slightly edited version in Women's News.

I am on the 10:15 express from Tarrytown to Ground Zero. In my mind, I am 15 years younger, on my way to work in the city from Croton, snaking along the shores of the Hudson River, marveling at the city skyline as it grew closer. But this time, there are no twin towers. They're gone. This skyline is filled with smoke.

Words escape me. Thoughts are elusive. For the last few days I have been a churning mass of contradictory body sensations--both empty and full, hot with rage and trembling with the chill of death, wanting to close my eyes and sleep, yet unable to change the channel away from the carnage, transfixed to the horror, and urged to keep moving. There has been an unyielding fluttering in my chest.

The last fifteen minutes have given me the first taste of calm that comes with having something to do, something concrete, helpful, loving. I am finally on my way to the Federal Reserve Building, two blocks from where the rescue workers are scrambling through mountains of wreckage and human remains, where we--volunteer peer support officers of POPPA (Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance) of the NYPD and clinicians--have set up a stress-management site.

The people on the train are strangely quiet. We look at each other from time to time, nod, and return to the privacy of our thoughts.

I don't know what I'll see there. I've spoken to my friends and clients, who only barely escaped by running through the black cloud of glass and soot as hundreds of stories of concrete engulfed the lower tip of Manhattan. They cried as they told me how they had to jump over heads and arms detached from torsos, leap to avoid falling bodies, how they were able to catch their breaths and step zombie-like north. Keep going north. Keep going north.

As we wind our way past the northern tip of Manhattan, I wonder, "Have they found anyone alive yet?"

I don't know what I'll hear there. The stories, the sobbing, the torching of steel. Will it be as quiet as this train?

I don't know what I'll feel there. It's different than any other critical inciden t in our history. This is all of ours. There's no distancing from this.

At Ground Zero

I'm finally here and I'm standing at the edge of a gaping wound. The newspapers and video reports can't begin to communicate the magnitude of this, the utter fragility of all things material, the unbearable loss and pain, the selfless determination and bravery of these men and women around me.

We are working both inside, on level 1 of the Federal Reserve, offering relief to rescue workers, and outside, at the remains of the WorldTradeCenter, going up to those who are taking breaks to let them know we are available to them. We all are anxious to help. We all want to be doing something concrete, something active. For some of the PSO's, being inactive is torturous. They want to pick up a shovel and a pail. They want to work until their muscles give out. They want to comfort the men and women who have been hurt or traumatized by it all. They so badly want to make it better.

You can't push healing, however. Pushing the expression of feelings, for these officers and firefighters who are on-site, in rescue-mode is not a good idea. And these officers know it. They approach people with great care, even tenderness. Their clinical skills, their sincerity and approachability are like nothing I've ever seen.

They know from their own experience that there's a tremendous value to denial in situations like this. They need to turn off the grief and horror to continue picking through the rubble. Even in the clinical work, where everything is about a person's feelings and thoughts, we have to get centered, which means, at least for the moment, turning down the volume in our own minds, so that we can attune to someone else.

Twelve of us sit around in a circle. There is one other clinician and 10 PSO's. The facilitating PSO asks a question in the defusing process: "When did you stop being on autopilot?" I think to myself: It's a great question, really. It accepts the reality and need for an autopilot state, yet implies that it has already ended and that the individual can begin to feel again"at least for a little while.

Later on, after the debriefing, one of the clinical volunteers suggests that we talk to first responders on site about "letting off steam" instead of asking them about how they "feel" because, as I had said to him earlier, rescue workers often associate "feeling" and "psychobabble" with "breaking down" and "disability." Our emphasis always has to be on returning them to work, where they can continue to contribute.

Contributing is the key, isn't it--especially in something like this, something that threatens to overwhelm. Being a part of the helping process, a part of something bigger than the pain, is healing in and of itself. Being isolated, cut off from the "action," away from both family members and fellow officers is one of the toughest obstacles for a lot of the men and women we see. I understand it. As soon as the initial shock dissipated and I knew we were not going to be evacuated up here, I called the Clinical Director of NYPD's peer support program, POPPA, and put myself on 24-hour call. I wanted to be with the PSO's. I wanted to be working. I needed to get down there. One fellow, who just came off a twelve-hour tour and was chomping at the bit to volunteer his time as a peer counselor, seethed, "How can they ask me to spend 12 hours in an office when this is going on?"

"I feel useless" is said more times than I can count here. It is so terribly poignant and so horribly real.

"He came down, arms and legs flapping, opened wide, y'know, like a sky diver. And I was so shocked, I couldn't move. Then our eyes met"" one officer choked out. "I couldn't do anything. I couldn't do anything. I felt so useless."

Another officer put his hand out in support and understanding and said, "Powerless, but never useless. We were all powerless."

In this ocean of Dante-esque horror, there was an undertow of miracles that kept pulling me back to center and up to God. Like when one officer came in and shared a story about a guy who came up to him and asked where he could put a truckload of socks and garments. The officer asked him where he got them from and the fellow answered, "I bought them."

In Connecticut, a radio station opened a booth by the side of the road. Children emptied their piggy banks, men and women stopped to write checks, elderly people on pensions handed over their cash. They raised $660,000 in an afternoon!

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Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)
 

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