Helaina Hovitz was a 12-year-old middle school student attending I.S. 289 on September 11th, 2001. The events and experiences that are part of collective memory for Lower Manhattan residents were a very real part of Helaina’s life, and are still vivid in her memory today: the sickening thud of falling bodies hitting cars, the crumbling towers, running for her life as she tried to get home, her world engulfed literally in a cloud. Hundreds, including Helaina, were stranded in the neighborhood, also just blocks from the fiery remains of the Towers, without phones or electricity or anyone to help. For fear of subsequent attacks, not to mention the toxic substances in the air, everyone was urged to stay inside their debris-filled apartments.
Fifteen years later, her memoir, “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning,” encapsulates the odyssey of a child growing up in Lower Manhattan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronicles its lingering effects on a young girl at the threshold of adolescence, following her as she spirals into addiction and rebellion, chaos and confusion.
As many Lower Manhattan residents can attest, surviving trauma does not mean that life afterward will, “go back to normal.” The aftermath, both physical and psychological, is a process rather than a result. As Ms. Hovitz relates, the chemistry of the brain and the body change, impacting relationships, life choices, and the ways in which we experience the world around us. One of the central insights contained in Ms. Hovitz’s book is that few outsiders ever fully grasp what actually happens to people as they try to move on from a life-threatening experience. This is especially true for children, who are just beginning to develop an understanding of the world around them.
In the wake of last weekend’s bombing in Chelsea, the Broadsheet spoke with Hovitz how much has changed for her, and what remains the same.
Broadsheet: What was your first thought when you heard about the bombing?
HH: It’s taken me years to retrain my brain not to have a complete panic response, but to say that I didn’t still feel fear and sadness would be untrue. The implications of “what’s next” are something that haunted us all, especially Downtown, for years. Unfortunately, we still live in a not-if-but-when world. And while certain people speak publicly about how New Yorkers will not be changed or deterred, the aftermath is a very real thing, no matter how brave we all want to be. Being brave and carrying on with our lives doesn’t mean that we can’t still worry about the safety of our loved ones and our own community.
Broadsheet: Do you think the media has a responsibility to cover these events differently?
HH: I think the media is very quick to pack up and go once all of the facts have appeared and the speculation or repercussions of the immediate aftermath die down. But for the survivors and their families, and for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers still living with PTSD related to 9/11 in varying degrees, this will have an impact that reverberates for far longer than this week.
Broadsheet: What should we do if we think news like this is triggering a PTSD reaction?
HH: The symptoms of PTSD can be complex, and they can sometimes take years, even decades, to surface. But if you notice that something isn’t right, I would suggest finding a therapist to talk to who specializes in trauma and PTSD here in New York City. The most effective forms for me have been Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
Broadsheet: As parents, how should we talk to our children about something like this?
HH: I think it’s up to every parent and teacher to determine, based on the child’s age, sensitives, and existing knowledge base, how much information is appropriate. The one thing we must be consistent with is sticking to the facts. We have a responsibility to tell our children the truth, and to allow them the chance, as they grow older, to draw their own conclusions. But we also have a chance at raising a generation of kids who can make a better world than the one we live in now. So it’s not only important to keep them informed, but to keep our own biases, anger, and agendas to ourselves. That being said, if your child has their own feelings and thoughts around the issue, it’s crucial that parents leave themselves open to receiving that information and responding in the way they see fit.
Broadsheet: Is it fair to assume that people who were here in Lower Manhattan 15 years ago may be having a stronger reaction than people in other parts of the City?
HH: When your community, specifically, is the target of such a horrific and large-scale attack, it’s fair to say that your reaction will be slightly more vigilant and powerful than, say, someone who lives 200 blocks uptown. We were displaced, we lived in a war zone, we didn’t have food or transportation for weeks, months. Many of us observed the rest of the City getting back to normal as our lives continued to be chaotic. With that being said, people across the City have very strong ties to 9/11, having been survivors themselves, or having lost friends or family members. So many people in this city have an unfortunately strong connection to that day, and anyone who was here on 9/11 would be understandably shaken right now.
Broadsheet: Is there a positive takeaway in all of this?
HH: Despite how we may be feeling now, it’s important to remember how resilient we have all been. We did not move away. We did not give up. We rebuilt, together. We are stronger because of what we’ve been through and exquisitely sensitive to how the victims, their families, and those living nearby must be feeling now. Don’t be afraid to reach out.