Friday, September 9, 2011

Turn Into the Wind: Dealing With the 9-11 Anniversary and its Hype

All week I've been writing about how American society matches the symptom profile for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This morning, I took the first of those pieces to my writer's group, a small circle of women writers who share and respond to each other's work every Friday mornings. I knew it was not my best work, and I wanted feedback.

As usual, the group was very helpful, but one of their reactions caught me by surprise. Members felt that my writing was distressing (not in terms of quality, but in terms of topic), and that I needed to give information on how to deal with that distress. So I'm taking a detour from the exploration of PTSD in a post 9-11 society to help all you Quarterbackers out there as we head into the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

Perhaps the most important thing you should know is that, if you're feeling blah this week, or sad, or anxious, or irritable, or having trouble sleeping, or anything else that makes you feel "off," even if you do not consciously connect those feelings to this anniversary, you're normal. Anniversaries are very powerful, and quite often people who don't even realize that it is an anniversary have negative reactions nonetheless. This isn't helped by the terrorism alert for New York and Washington. What might be somewhat distressing anyway only feels magnified given the time of year.

You also aren't crazy if you are sick and tired of the anniversary coverage (although chances are you aren't reading this, so I may be wasting my breath). The extra coverage is draining because it prevents us from getting away from the intense memories and the feelings they evoke.

Whichever of these two groups you most identify with, you're normal. Don't waste one minute worrying that your reaction is too much or not enough or inappropriate, any more than you would criticize yourself for feeling pain when you stub your toe. You couldn't control those feelings if you wanted to, so don't bother trying.

But what can you do? If the coverage or the date or the blogging about our messed-up society is bothering you, what is the solution? You may not like the answer, because here's what it isn't. Turning off the TV, avoiding reading my blog, doing something completely non-9-11 related on Sunday and generally trying to get your mind off it may feel good for the moment, but it is a quick fix for a longer term problem. That's because problem isn't the reminders of the attack, it's how upsetting they are to you. Avoiding the reminders won't solve the underlying issue, it will just push it back underground.

What I suggest is completely counter-intuitive. When you find yourself having negative feelings -- sadness, fear, hurt, anger, guilt, shame or whatever -- don't try to turn away from them. Turn towards them. Identify what you are feeling and what caused it. Label them consciously. Don't try to explain it rationally, because emotions are not rational -- they're, well, emotional. Whatever you're feeling just is, so you might as well feel it.

The reason this is a good idea is that, when you turn and face your negative emotions, they stop feeling so overwhelming. Feelings, by themselves, do not hurt us. What we tell ourselves about those feelings and the events that trigger them can. No one likes to feel sad or afraid, but you can tolerate it. Your negative emotion loses its power when you acknowledge it and face it head on.

Does this mean you should glue yourself to the TV and watch as much coverage as you can this weekend? No. Just as avoiding reminders isn't healthy, seeking them out to excess isn't, either. Watch, read and hear what interests and moves you or is meaningful to you. Consider for yourself what type of commemoration, if any, you believe is appropriate for you to participate in. Just monitor yourself and be careful when you find yourself saying things like, "I can't watch that," "I want to get my mind off it," or "I won't be able to handle that." Those are signs you're avoiding, and you're not turning into the wind.

For me, this Sunday is about reclaiming September 11th as a day of grief and fear -- yes, I'm reclaiming fear -- and as a day of unity, service and collective support. I am allowing myself to feel the sadness and, as hard as it is, some of the horror of that day. And I'm patting myself on the back for doing it, because it isn't easy. I hope you'll join me.


Colleen said...

For several years after it happened, on the anniversary, the local fife and drum corps got together at The Old North Bridge, to play a memorial, including all the young F&D groups play a LOT of memorial services, and they found it comforting to do something normal. Come to think of it, the 4-H kids played a few songs in honor of a small plane (pilot and his young son were killed) that went down on the National Park, right next to a small airport, and they all heard the crash....I guess, if you have a routine for a ceremony to honor the dead, when people die, you want to do that ceremony.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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