When Crazy Is Normal

Portrait of a Grieving City


One of Garfinkel's patients tripped over a severed foot while evacuating the stock exchange. Several others saw the first plane pass right next to the big windows of their conference room. He has the same message for all of them: "It's normal to be absolutely terrified out of your mind," he says. "It's normal to be more shaken than you've ever been before. It's normal to replay the event in your mind again and again. It's normal to be dreaming of dead bodies next to you."

Illustration by Max Grafe

At the Family Assistance Center on Pier 94, psychologist Judy Kurianski has also been trying to assure people they're traumatized rather than crazy. Sometimes she holds their hands, other times she just listens—to the woman who can't stop regretting her last fight with her husband, for instance, or to the man who was on the 77th floor and is still waiting for his son to descend from the 102nd. When she was down at the site of the collapse, she lent her ear as a Con Edison worker blurted out a detailed description of how burning bodies appeared when they hit the ground. "As horrific and morbid as that sounds, he needed to say that because it got it outside of himself," says Kurianski. "Afterward, he said, 'Gee, thank you for letting me say that. That is such a relief to get rid of that ugly thought in my head.' "

While this kind of emotional off-loading clearly serves a purpose, a minority of psychologists think people would do better to keep their misery outside the medical context. "If a loved one dies and we have grief and we go through all of the pain of that loss, we don't talk about having an illness or disorder that needs treatment," says Gerald Rosen, one of a group psychologists who signed an open letter cautioning against what they called the "rush to therapy" after September 11. Rosen, who used to provide immediate counseling, known as debriefing, to those who had survived bank robberies, rapes, and other traumas, points to some recent studies indicating that debriefing increases victims' chances of experiencing more distress down the road. Instead, he recommends seeking "natural supports" from family, friends, and church.

Many who have seen the worst of it don't want to rehash with anyone at all. "When I'm not working, the last thing I want to do is talk about it," said one policeman, who, like many of the city's uniformed officers, is still working a grueling schedule of 12 hours on, 12 hours off.

For Kim Sanders, a staff member for the National Development and Research Institute who was four blocks away from her office on the 16th floor of tower two when the second plane hit, the solution is somewhere in the middle. Sanders doesn't want to go over the horror she saw on her way to work anymore. "I've said that 100 times already," she says. "Sometimes it's just to satisfy someone's curiosity rather than to help with what you're going through in that moment." What does help, she says, is talking to others who have shared the experience about their progress—how much easier it is to leave the house for the first time and what it feels like to ride the train.

While Sanders has also found comfort shooting pool in a bar—"getting back to the normal things," as she puts it—others have little stomach for their old routines. When the planes struck, one woman who works for a local elected official was campaigning in the West Village. But now, "I don't give a shit about the election," says the woman, who asked not to be named. "I'm so filled with loathing for my boss and anyone asking me to do stuff, I feel like my head's going to explode."

The Existential Fallout

The Chinese character for crisis combines two ideograms, one meaning danger and another meaning opportunity. Having glimpsed their and others' mortality, many are finding themselves suddenly emboldened to change their lives. Jen Nessel quit her job as communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless on her first day back in the office, which is five blocks from the blast. The event—and the loss of a coworker, who had an asthma attack and died after being caught in the dust and smoke from the towers—made an ongoing quest for job satisfaction that much more urgent. "I was unhappy on a moderate level, and I realized that the only way I was going to change that was to just do it."

For Richard Taylor, a bus driver who was on his way into the Battery Tunnel when the second tower came down, change came in a smaller form. "I shaved my hair," says Taylor, who had worn it past his ears for years. After abandoning his bus and fleeing for his life during the collapses, he buzzed his dust-caked hair close to his scalp—something he had long considered trying. Says Taylor, "I don't worry about the small things anymore."

Indeed, the big things looming—or, in the case of the towers, no longer looming—have induced a psychic shift that has dwarfed the usual concerns of New Yorkers, regardless of where they were when the planes hit. The new war is further eroding the sense of control so damaged by the terrorist attacks, intensifying the fears that had already sparked a run on gas masks and Cipro. And for some, the uncertainty of whether and when we would launch a military attack has been replaced by other fresh anxieties about the fate of our troops, the extent of U.S.-inflicted civilian casualties, and when and how this war will end.

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