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Queens pays high human cost for 9/11 trauma

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On an overcast morning, you might go down to the beach and stand beneath the heavy sky and look out at the ocean — follow it with your eyes to where the horizon ought to lie.

You might, as you stand there, suspend for a brief moment your rational self and decline to pinpoint the horizon exactly as if in the momentary merge of ongoing sea into sky, you could invite a feeling of utter endlessness, a feeling of ongoing, incomprehensible endlessness, and no end in sight.

Who knew, upon waking into the Tuesday, blue-sky morning of Sept. 11 that we — all of us — would be torn from the shore of our regular lives and brought, even for a short while, to the edge of endless, ongoing terror?

It has been pointed out that we are familiar with hijackings and crash landings and even mid-air collisions. We know of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, forest fires and hurricanes. We have an understanding of the roles of victims and of rescuers.

We place the events into a context which enables us to consider cause and effect. The internal narrative may differ from person to person, but every disaster script always moves toward a clear and identifiable ending. We locate the dead or body parts, conduct burial rituals, rebuild and move on. The disaster lives in traumatic memory for some, but fades for the culture. Life can continue.

In the apocalypse, on the other hand, there is no such ending. Instead there is unbearable endlessness without context or definition. There is no meaning, and no integrity. There is no possible narrative to encompass and contain it within human understanding. There is no horizon.

Trauma. The human cost of traumatic events is enormous. Such events call into question basic relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friends, love and community. They shatter the construction of self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They violate the victims’ faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis. Traumatic events destroy the victims’ assumptions about the safety of the world, the positive self, and the meaningful order or creation.

Of course, it matters how close you were to Ground Zero. It matters whether you felt the planes bearing down upon the towers, whether you saw the flames, the people jumping to their deaths; whether you ran from the collapsing buildings, the flying debris, the smoke a mile thick. It matters if you were personally linked to someone trapped inside, or to someone whose life would be greatly defined by their last act of heroism.

While we were stripped of language, we agreed upon one thing. “Ground Zero,” the once technical term used to describe the central point of destruction by nuclear weapon. “Ground Zero” denotes more than a description of what the site means and has come to mean.

It raises the specter of absolute destruction and absolute failure of understanding. It captures the absence of meaning, the absence of an integral narrative, and the human response to trauma of repeating waves of endless, radiating violence and destruction of Sept. 11.

A year later. How have we fared? Our lives seem to have resumed the shape of normalcy. We work, play, care for our families. We make plans for the future. Ordinarily, remembered aspects of an experience coalesce into a story that captures the essence of what has happened. As people remember and tell others about an event, the narrative gradually changes with time and telling.

Do we have a narrative for Sept. 11 yet? Do we have a kernel of understanding around which to build the story of what happened? What happened to whom? To them? To me? A year later have the events of Sept. 11 been transformed from a series of sensations — smells, feelings, images — into a personal event belonging to you?

Or are the original sensations and feelings repeating themselves and intruding upon you? Intense emotional reactions, nightmares, images, aggressive behavior, physical pain, and bodily states — all can be understood as the return of elements of the mental imprints of the trauma.

And these don’t really fade with time. The traumatic imprint remains as destabilizing as it was on the day of its first occurrence. This is the problem. The images, sensations, emotions related to the trauma — if kept separate from the conscious self — are not subject to the work of integration, the work which transforms them into a narrative and into part of a personal history with meaning.

After a year we have begun the long work of transformation. And so on an overcast day, we might go down to the beach where we can in a limited way repeat the experience of endlessness destruction and momentary loss of understanding.

It’s like a test, a way to achieve mastery, and a way to bring the traumatic experience into understanding. We talk about it. We reflect. We transform sensation into text. We slowly make the narrative.

Lisa Lempel-Sander is a psychotherapist in Douglaston, New York. She can be reached at 225-0552

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