My Struggle With Anxiety and Depression After September 11th

I’m often asked by people, “How do you have such a positive attitude all the time?”


I’m quick to correct them. “No one has a positive attitude all the time. But I try to have a positive attitude most of the time, and that’s enough to make a difference in my overall well-being.”


The truth is, I have battled anxiety and depression in the past. I’m not immune. Probably no one is.


It started, as I suspect it did for many people, on September 11th, 2001. I had been out of college for a whopping four months, working my first job in downtown Manhattan. I walked to the subway that morning in my denim skirt, feeling ready for fall. As I got off the subway and walked to my office, I glanced down 6th Avenue, as I often did on that walk, to catch a glimpse of the World Trade Center to my right. Some time between that last look and the moment I arrived in my office, the entire world changed.


I don’t need to tell you what happened that day. You know. My colleagues and I stood on the street until the cops told us to get away, to head north away from the dust and debris that was blowing toward us. I walked for almost an hour to get back to where I lived. I couldn’t reach my best friend on the phone for 7 hours.


But it’s what happened a few weeks later that really started to worry me.


I was taking a morning walk in Fort Tryon Park, in the furthest north part of Manhattan. My mind started wondering to what would happen if my parents passed away, since my sister was only 12. She would come to New York and live with me, I decided. I could probably get her enrolled in an arts school. She would like that. Would all her credits transfer? How long would it take me to clean out their house? Could I sell all that furniture? I would probably need to get a new job to support a 12 year old. Where would I move?


All through October and November, that’s how my mind worked. I thought of something terrible that could happen, and then I thought about it more and more. No matter what I did, I couldn’t stop until I thought through all the contingencies and planned for the worst. For about 10 weeks, my brain was filled with thoughts of what would happen if the subway crashed, or I lost my job (which I did!), or another attack happened in Manhattan.


It wasn’t until the day I had my parents’ funerals fully planned in my head that stopped. What was I doing?!?! I was planning the funeral of two healthy people! And I had been, for weeks!


I sought the help of a professional counselor, and used cognitive behavioral therapy to stop the endless loop of fatalistic thoughts in my brain. I hadn’t even realized, until she said it, that my thoughts were an expression of my anxiety over the powerlessness I felt.


Fall of 2001 was the first time I felt truly helpless. But it wasn’t the last. We all feel the ground ripped out from underneath us sometimes, and it is totally normal to feel depressed, anxious, or hopeless. I want to be clear: I’m not always positive. But now I know what it’s like to be in that spiral, and I know I can get out of it.