Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Living in the Shadow

Nightmares, psychosomatic illnesses, marital troubles, depression -- unprecedented numbers of New Yorkers are suffering from emotional problems related to 9/11. And if you're feeling worse now than you did last fall, you're not alone.


The offices of LifeNet, the crisis hotline, are tucked away on the second floor of a converted industrial building in the East Village. On a February afternoon, seven staff members are seated at metal desks taking calls, but one voice stands out amid the din. Francine Durant-Wernham, an imposing African-American social worker, speaks in such soothing and melodious tones that folks linger on the line just to keep hearing her reassuring voice saying -- as she tells caller after caller -- that everything will be okay.

But it's not okay . . . not for the callers who are still having horrible nightmares or finding it hard to drag themselves to work or to be kind to their kids. "People were laboring under the assumption that they'd be traumatized this fall," says Durant-Wernham, "but then they'd feel better." Yet it's hard to recover when your daily sense of safety is continually shattered. "People hear a report on TV about the threat of another attack, and they're afraid to take the bridge or the tunnel again," she says. "What I hear again and again is the same thing: 'I thought I'd be over it by now.' "

Not yet. Not even close. The initial numbness that followed September 11 may have worn off, but the seismic shock to the city's collective psyche is still producing new and surprising symptoms. A second wave of grief is now hitting the city, a trend dramatically underlined by LifeNet's log of anguished calls. As expected, they soared from 3,000 a month before September 11 to 5,100 by December, but the surprise came in January. No sooner had the ball dropped in Times Square than an astonishing 6,600 people reached for the phone. And the numbers just keep climbing. Now they're getting 250 calls a day. "We're bracing for a spike as we head toward the six-month anniversary," says John Draper, the psychologist who heads LifeNet. "The farther we get from September 11, the support that people depended on to get through the crisis has faded," Draper says. "No one's knocking on the door and bringing over food anymore. People who think they're the only person out there suffering are scared to death."

Draper worries that even more New Yorkers will go into the fetal position after watching Sunday night's CBS special, with its graphic new footage of the attack, along with all the other six-month-anniversary broadcasts. "This will reopen wounds," Draper says, and Spencer Eth, a psychiatrist at St. Vincent's, agrees. "Seeing that damn scene of the towers falling again," Eth says, "will reactivate symptoms."

The truth is that we are living in the largest psychological laboratory in modern history. Specialists in post-traumatic-stress disorder concur: Something unprecedented seems to be happening here. It's not just those who lost family members or fled for their lives who are having a terrible time; the collateral damage to the entire tri-state region has been brutal.

Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist for the Israeli Defense Force, has flown to New York twice since September to offer his expertise. His fellow Israelis, embattled for decades, have become inured to terrorism. "But what has happened in New York, which in my life experience is extremely rare," he says, "is that people who weren't anywhere near the Trade towers are developing traumatic reactions."

"I've had patients come in complaining of chest pains, or saying they are having trouble breathing, and there's no evidence of illness," says Elizabeth Beautyman, a Madison Avenue internist. People are afraid of elevators, of driving over the George Washington Bridge, of riding the subways. "I'm spending a fortune on taxis and I don't care," says Pamela Workman, a 30-year-old artists' manager. As for flying, forget the major carriers. "I only fly jetBlue," she says, "because I feel like no one knows about it."

Marriage counselors report an epidemic of stressed relationships. "I'm getting three or four new referrals a day," says Mikki Meyer, a Manhattan and Chappaqua marriage therapist. "All of a sudden, couples are feeling like something is missing in their relationship. What's missing is that feeling of safety." Similarly, Evelyn Moschetta, a therapist with offices in Manhattan, East Hampton, and Huntington, says, "I'm seeing people who have decided that maybe they don't want to stay in a marriage that was 'good enough' before."

And in a city where people usually love to brag about how incredibly overworked they are, it's now acceptable to admit you're slacking off. "No one's working until nine at night anymore," says Rance Piatt, a content manager for a downtown Internet company. Coming out of the subway on September 11, he was caught in "this cloud of debris, with people running like a Godzilla movie." After that, Piatt says, "it's a different atmosphere; people are out the door at six. Work only goes so far. And half the office has a deep cough. We can't help but worry about what we're breathing."

Day by day, week by week, the city's mood shifts, and not always for the better: Families who thought they were home free are belatedly feeling the aftershocks. A teenager left his parents a distraught note on Valentine's Day, suddenly overwhelmed by sights he'd witnessed firsthand five months earlier at the Trade Center. "He started having flashbacks. He's consumed with anger, he just wants the buildings back," says his worried father, noting that his son had been fine. "I didn't see this one coming at all."

"We're seeing a turning point right now," says Jane Barker, a vice-president at Safe Horizon, which is providing counseling to employees at many downtown firms. Survival guilt has kicked in, she says. "Folks who were deeply affected but didn't lose a family member didn't feel right about calling for help earlier. They're calling now. People are realizing, If I still feel terrible, maybe I should talk to someone."

The High School of Economics and Finance, a well-regarded public school that draws students interested in Wall Street careers, is located on Trinity Place a block from what used to be the World Trade Center. On this brilliantly sunny late-February Tuesday, the boisterous freshman class of several hundred students -- back in the building for the first time since they were evacuated on September 11 -- noisily fills the eighth-floor cafeteria.

Many of the kids, who are predominantly African-American and Hispanic, race immediately to the window to look directly down at ground zero, a maze of trucks and earth-moving equipment. Other teens avert their eyes, making a point of sitting at tables with their backs to the view. It's like watching a Rorschach test in action.

"Our kids are resilient, but they saw more than they should have," says principal Patrick Burke. "They saw bodies falling. We evacuated after the second plane hit, and weren't that far when the towers fell." An affable mustached public-school veteran, he's presided over the chaos of recent months as his students crammed into the already-full Norman Thomas High School, attending classes on a reduced 1 p.m.-to-6 p.m. schedule. "We lost a lot of students who dropped out or transferred. Our enrollment's down by about 100 students."

After a free lunch of tuna and turkey sandwiches, the students head down to classrooms for group sessions with therapists, a trauma-prevention program funded by the New York Times Company Foundation. "I zoned out when I first came down here," says social worker Donald Thoms, trying to coax the kids to talk. At first, his remarks are greeted with restless silence. But a few questions later, the stories begin to pour out. One girl shyly admits that she felt uneasy in the cafeteria, and had stayed away from the windows: "I didn't look because I imagined the towers were still standing."

Other kids chime in with their nightmares -- one had dreamed of being pulled out of class, brought to the basement, and confronted by men in masks -- and others talk about how they still have flashbacks of running from the school as the towers collapsed. "Whenever I hear a siren," one boy says, "I think about that day." Then another teen in the back raises his hand and boldly announces: "This city deserved the terrorist attack. You can't treat other countries badly and not expect consequences." The class erupts into pandemonium as an angry girl yells, "Nobody deserves to die!"

After the students have filed out, a sober-looking Thoms turns to Burke and says sympathetically, "You've got your work cut out for you."

"I've never been busier," says Jane Farhi, a cardiologist with a Park Avenue practice. "People are more concerned about their health. Every single person who's walked into my office talks about the World Trade Center, even now. I have seen some people with blood pressure off the charts."

Farhi, like so many other Manhattan M.D.'s, fears New Yorkers are now more vulnerable to physical-health problems. "There's definitely been more people with respiratory problems," she says, adding with a sigh, "This has affected us so much more deeply than anyone expected."

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift