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Shrinking Feeling

On couches across town, patients are worried about the 9/11 anniversary -- and to make matters worse, here comes August.

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As Manhattan's therapists prepare to disappear to their own secure, undisclosed locations for the month of August, their patients are already bracing for that daunting September ordeal, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

"My patients are all talking about it, wondering whether they'll be able to function that day, should they go to work," says Janice Lieberman, an Upper East Side psychoanalyst.

The most common fear surfacing on the couch is that the city will be hit again. "People are leery about the day," says Ethel Person, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, "because they reason that for the terrorists, it would be a statement of power to strike again." Adds Wayne Myers, professor of psychiatry at the Payne Whitney Clinic, "People in the financial community are experiencing anxiety. I hear them saying, 'Are we going to have anything like Cantor Fitzgerald again?' "

With New York City public schools opening on Thursday, September 5, psychiatrists predict that many kids will become unusually upset at going back to school, associating the start of class with last year's attack. "As the day grows closer, I'm urging families to spend time together," says Reese Abright, a child and adolescent psychiatrist consulting with three schools near ground zero.

Bad nightmares, bed-wetting, and please-don't-make-me-go fights may be more prevalent than usual. Psychiatrist Lynn Burkes adds, "I've seen so much separation anxiety this year with normal children. Six-year-olds who used to go on play dates or sleepovers don't want to leave their parents."

The time-honored therapeutic advice is that merely getting through painful anniversaries can bring let's-move-on relief. But Todd Essig, a psychologist and board member of the New York Disaster Counseling Coalition, which offers free therapy for police, firemen, and EMS workers, doesn't expect much catharsis. "September 11 wasn't a discrete event -- there are going to be a lot of different anniversaries for people," he says. "When the body part was identified, that's an anniversary for a family. When someone lost their job, that's another anniversary."

One Cantor Fitzgerald widow whose husband's remains were just identified says, "Boy, did that set me back. After nine months of waiting, it was a shock." She is thinking of spending September 11 in the country.

Jennifer Gardner, whose husband, Doug, also perished at Cantor Fitzgerald, muses sadly about the date's symbolism: "I won't be able to say 'last year' anymore -- 'Last year, I was with Doug on our anniversary' or 'Last year, here's what he did for my birthday.' "

While Gardner, former legal counsel at the New York Times, understands the journalistic need to deal with the event, she says, "I'm dreading the hype. I don't want to have to keep seeing the burning building. I'm going to have to hide in the closet all day and protect my children -- and I don't want to do that. Our lives exploded, and there is no closure for that."


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