Living in the Shadow

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.”

Elizabeth Beautyman says that when she examines some patients who complain of symptoms like stomachaches or exhaustion, she now often discovers nothing physically wrong, and suggests they see a therapist. “People don’t want to hear it,” she says. “It’s more frightening for them to think it might be their brains, that they’re causing these severe symptoms themselves.”

Children in the city have developed psychosomatic illnesses, too. “I’ve seen five kids who have complaints – abdominal pain, headaches, tightness in the chest – for which I could find nothing physically wrong,” says Max Van Gilder, a West Side pediatrician. Van Gilder has a deeper worry, however, noting that March is traditionally one of the peak months for suicide. “We are now in the midwinter depression-and-suicide season,” he says. “My fear is that we’re going to see adolescents who were in school near ground zero having delayed psych responses. I know the schools are worried, and I’m a little terrified.”

New York Psychiatrists and psychologists are well equipped to treat patients troubled by unfulfilled ambition and loneliness, but a whole population radically traumatized by a single violent event is a new kind of challenge. At Rockefeller University’s campus on York Avenue, so many researchers and clinicians turned up on a recent Tuesday evening for a free seminar called “Stress in the City” that organizers had to open up a second room to accommodate the overflow crowd.

As Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU, showed slides of the brain’s structure and explained the body’s physical freeze-fight-flight reaction to a traumatic event, many people jotted down notes. Rachel Yehuda, who directs Mount Sinai’s Traumatic Stress Studies Division, got a lot of knowing nods as she methodically listed the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder: “distressing recollections … emotional numbness … avoidance of reminders of the event … “

But the biggest response came by accident. Marylene Cloitre, director of Payne Whitney Clinic’s Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Program, was having trouble at the podium with her computer’s PowerPoint slide presentation, silently pushing different buttons as a technician tried to help. Suddenly, a huge photo flashed on the screen of the Twin Towers on fire, and people gasped loudly, a collective moan of shock. “I was rattled; I had meant to introduce that photo before I showed it,” Cloitre says three days later in her office at Payne Whitney, overlooking the 59th Street Bridge and the East River, still abashed by the presentation. “But this does show how raw people still are.”

A strawberry-blonde psychologist with an empathetic manner who sounds southern (“Nobody believes I’m from Queens”), Cloitre specializes in treating PTSD patients such as rape and incest victims, and worked with family members of victims of TWA Flight 800. But dealing with the shell-shocked survivors of September 11 – Cloitre met with numerous traumatized people right after the attack and consulted for several months for Marsh & McLennan – has been a searing and worrisome experience.

In the early weeks, Cloitre said her goal was to offer education and reassurance, to tell people it was normal to have bad dreams or be fearful or jump at a loud sound. “Everyone wanted to know, ‘What should I expect? When will it go away?’ ” But by March, anyone still suffering from those severe symptoms is not likely to recover without therapy or medication. “At six months, whoever is going to get better is better,” she says. The problem, of course, is that no one wants to admit to being the odd person out; if everyone in your office saw the same horrors you did and seems fine, how come you can’t handle it? “This is the big divide,” she says. “If other people can go back to life as normal, those who are deeply affected feel abandoned.”

Her program has seen a 20 percent jump in new patients in recent months, but many people don’t come in complaining about reactions to the Trade Center attack, talking instead about other anxieties – panic attacks, fear of committing to marriage, depression. “Their problems aren’t obviously related to 9/11,” she says. But what’s happening is that people who have seemingly overcome a previous trauma – death of a loved one, being a crime victim, a frightening illness, long-ago childhood abuse – have been, in the clinical term, “re-traumatized” by this new shock to the system.

For all the work she does with the severely distressed, Cloitre is in many ways an optimist; she’s seen a lot of people get better. But she thinks we’re going to be living in a sad city for some months to come; there’s no quick fix for this New York state of mind. “When I see people suffering from PTSD, I know it’s just the beginning of a long journey.”

Recovery comes slowly, no matter how hard people try to cope. It’s not a simple take-a-pill, move-away, see-a-therapist formula: Everyone reacts differently. For those who lived closest to ground zero, it’s impossible to escape, or pretend it never happened. As Sandra Harper was racing out of her TriBeCa apartment on September 11 with two daughters and a dog in tow, she took the time to roll up towels and place them on the window sills to keep out the dust. Now, although she and her husband, Hamilton Fish, the president of the Nation Institute, have been back home for many months now, the towels are still there, a mute reminder of that day.

Sitting in a rocking chair in the family’s homey, loftlike living room, Harper, who looks exhausted, says she was walking her daughters, Eliza, 11, and Sophia, 8, to P.S. 234 that morning and had reached Chambers Street when “we heard a loud, clattering sound and felt a shadow of the jet and looked up and saw the plane hit. Eliza said, ‘Oh, my God, it looks just like a movie.’ ” Sandra ran home with her daughters to their second-floor apartment. The family doesn’t have a TV, and when neighbors invited her to the roof to see what was going on, she and the children went upstairs – just in time to see the second plane crash into Tower Two. “It exploded and the heat hit us in the face. My little one began flipping out, she was really scared, she thought we were going to die.”

The family was able to return to its apartment, but Sandra could not bear to live so near the smoking wreckage. She decamped with the children to the safety and clean air of a rented country house in Garrison, enrolling them in the local school; the trio returned to lower Manhattan to rejoin her husband in mid-November. “I missed my friends,” says Eliza, the oldest daughter. “I had to tell my story twice a day there.”

Sophia has been seeing a therapist since the fall and is doing infinitely better, but this dreamy girl who wants to be a writer still seems fragile. “Can I ask you, where were you on September 11?” she inquires. When I tell her that I was at home and my husband was at the airport, she visibly panics, saying, “He could have been on that plane!” But he wasn’t, I reply; he’s fine.

“Let me tell you about some other terrorist things,” she confides. “The Grand Union burned down in Garrison, and my friend’s mother died of cancer.” I ask how her life has changed since September 11. “Everyone’s acting different,” she says. “Kids at school go home crying. I used to be friendly with everyone in my class. Now I’m not. What’s different? Everything.”

At Central Synagogue in midtown, attendance has jumped from 350 to 600 people on Friday nights. “I’m not hearing a lot of people wrestle with ‘Why did God do this?’ ” says Rabbi Peter Rubinstein. “Instead they’re asking, ‘How do I find a spiritual center or connection with God that will help me in this time of loss?’ “

In the synagogue’s bereavement group for parents who have lost a child, many longtime attendees are in worse emotional shape since the terrorist attacks. “The event re-created for them that sense of mindless, out-of-control loss,” he says. As for the rest of the congregation, he says, many people seem depressed, and they muse aloud about changing their day-to-day lives. “I’m seeing people rethinking their careers.”

At the Unitarian Church of All Souls, the Reverend Forrest Church says his counseling load has doubled as people pour out their confusion and describe exacerbated tensions in their marriages or jobs. “This has provoked a real crisis for people,” he says. Five hundred fifty people attend regular Sunday services now, up 120 since September. “Some people are seizing the opportunity to turn things around, to go into marriage counseling or stop drinking. Whatever problems existed before, I’m much more aware of them now.”

Not all the stories he hears are sad ones. He refers me to one of his parishioners, Anne Bradley, a 47-year-old business consultant, who has found a new sense of purpose by becoming a charitable volunteer. “I was a typical New Yorker, highly driven to do better and move up the corporate ladder,” says Bradley, a single Upper East Sider who has an enviable six-figure salary. After September 11, her priorities changed. “I wasn’t motivated anymore,” she says. “Work didn’t excite me as it used to. I wasn’t interested in putting in the hours.”

Bradley quit her job in January, arranging a three-day-a-week position with a previous employer to keep enough income coming in to pay her mortgage. Now she works two days a week as a volunteer with two charities, Lighthouse International, an agency for the blind, and Heart & Soul, which helps the underprivileged and homeless. “I absolutely love it,” she says. “Some of my friends think I’m crazy, they just don’t get it, and others are jealous: ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ “

After September 11, the entire city stopped for a moment to ask: What am I doing with my life? And should I keep doing it here? While Bradley vowed to stay in town, others feel their emotional ties to New York have been so permanently frayed that moving on means moving out.

After 28 years as an announcer for the classical-music station WQXR, June LeBell has taken early retirement and is moving to Sarasota, Florida. “I feel wonderful about going,” she says. “I’ve always been good at getting the best out of the worst.” LeBell, 57, had been fantasizing about starting a new life, but her feelings crystallized in those numb September days after she fled her Battery Park City apartment just after the towers fell, carrying only her toy poodle, Lili. “I went back to work, and I lasted for a week. I couldn’t stand it. I kept bursting into tears. Anytime I heard a garbage truck hit a grate, I’d freak out. I’d get so tense my gums would hurt. I know it’ll never happen here again. But I don’t feel safe.”

It may take a long time for many New Yorkers to feel completely safe again. But Manhattan, both magic and tragic, leaves a lasting mark on those who leave to try life in other Zip Codes. Murro Van Meter, a 25-year-old Wesleyan grad who moved here in 1999 and became a stockbroker at a small Times Square firm, was already feeling disenchanted with the city and his not-so-brilliant career by the end of last summer. “The nasdaq was dumping, I was paid 100 percent on commission, and you can’t sell in a bear market,” says Van Meter. He married his high-school sweetheart, Sophia Fox, a photo researcher, on September 16, and upon returning from their honeymoon, the newlyweds chose to bail out of sad city life and head for Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Van Meter coached high-school basketball this winter and is now trying to make a living as a woodworker, while Sophia is an office manager at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. “It’s nice here, but it’s boring as hell,” Van Meter says. “We’ve been back to New York eight times already.”

Living in the Shadow