Obviously, no one who was alive on this day 17 years ago will ever forget it. Even at the time, we all knew this was history in the making. There was a new permanent demarcation of time: pre-9/11 and post-9/11. For my generation, this was our first experience with the likes of D-Day, or Kennedy or King being assassinated. It was the day that we will remember for the rest of our lives where we were when we first heard that the towers had been hit, and how almost unnaturally blue and cloudless the skies were, and how strange it was to look up without seeing a single plane in the air.
But that’s not what this is about.
In all the accounts I read every year, one of the common themes is one of fear in the weeks following, and the feeling that nothing was safe anymore.
It’s notable to me to read these sentiments. I understand them. They make sense. In the aftermath of a massive terrorist attack, fear is a perfectly reasonable response.
But that was not my experience.
I was always anxious, growing up. Everything unknown was cause for anxiety. It would pool in the bottom of my gut on the way to school every morning: what work would I be overwhelmed by? What nasty things would the mean girls come up with to say? What awkward way would I stick my foot in my mouth?
I think I was about 11 when I had my first real panic attack. I had taken a CPR course, and became convinced that I was going to have a heart attack. In my pre-teens. With no history of cardiac issues. Later, it was that someone was breaking into the house. Every night. There was an entire summer that I mostly only slept during the day, because it was safer.
I recognized how irrational my fears were, so I didn’t tell anyone about them. I was also afraid of being teased about them, and having them dismissed as ridiculous. Especially since I already knew they were ridiculous.
This continued to manifest throughout my high school and college years in various ways. I was particularly terrified of diseases, because there was little controlling them. I took urban legends about intentional HIV infections at face value, and news reports about Ebola and flesh-eating bacteria kept me up at night. The one fear I did talk about was my fear of vomiting, only because it was hard to hide the hyperventilating when someone was sick around me.
It also seemed like a relatively reasonable fear. Nobody likes being sick.
My anxiety also manifested over approaching milestones and assignments I felt unprepared for, such as getting my driver’s license and applying for college and financial aid.
What I have come to realize in the last twenty-some odd years is that the anticipation was always worse than the actual event. When I had to take care of a sick and vomiting child, I dealt with it. When I got sick myself, I got through it. When I had to take my driver’s test, I studied for it and did well. Applying for college was far simpler than I’d expected (and they were paper applications back then!).
So when I woke up on 9/11/01, having skipped my first class of the day in favor of sleeping in, and turned on my radio to hear the president speaking gravely of a national tragedy, and then ran out to my living room to turn on the TV and watch the footage of the planes hitting the towers, and the towers collapsing, a strange sense of calm came over me.
When I went to class that day and we spent the hour processing what had happened and what might be yet to come, I felt a sense of cool detachment from the discussion.
When people I worked with panicked about the thought of biological weapons being released from air ducts in local malls and schools over the following weeks, I was the composed voice of reason pointing out that our small college town was unlikely to be a terrorist target.
It wasn’t that I was unmoved by the lives lost in those planes and buildings, or unaffected by the horrifying footage of people jumping from the towers to avoid a slower death by suffocation, starvation, or fire. I understood the gravity of what had happened. I was well aware that all of our lives would be forever changed by what had happened. I was as horrified and grief-stricken as anyone else about the lives lost, and the trauma of the first responders. I’m still angry about how we have failed those first responders who worked tirelessly to find survivors and recover remains without a single thought for their own safety.
But what I finally understood with perfect clarity 17 years ago today was that any sense of safety we had up to the moment the first plane hit was an illusion.
One of the worst possible things I could imagine happening had happened.
And all of us who are still here today survived it.
And to live through that made anything else I felt anxious about seem small and petty. I understood, on that day, that whether or not a mall in Lexington, KY would have anthrax spores released through the vents on a day I was there was completely outside my control – so why waste my energy freaking out about it?
I would be lying if I said I never got anxious anymore.
But that was the day I stopped letting fear rule me.
We’re never actually safe, but in order to live our lives, we have to pretend we don’t know that. But if the worst happens, and we survive it?
Then we pick up the pieces and carry on. It’s the least we can do for those who didn’t make it.