WHEN THE TERROR WON'T STOP
The New Reality
The planes bursting in air causing mayhem and destruction gave Americans a rallying point to come together, to hoist our flags and to be patriotic. As was appropriate, we joined as one nation. Though stabbed with shock, we reacted bravely and generously. We felt buoyed by a united congress singing God Bless America. We harkened to Bush, Pataki and GiuIiani's entreatments to be strong, resolute and steadfast. We tried to live our lives as we had before. Most of us wanted to, few were completely able to.
We understood that those immediately and intimately affected, those living in Washington, DC, New York or Pennsylvania, those who lost a loved one or knew someone who did, would probably have a more traumatic reaction that those untouched or living elsewhere. But no one prepared us for our own anxiety, depression and restless nights. We reached out to loved ones, to family, to religion and to community. Instinctively, we understood that we needed all help we could get and give. We did everything we should. So, why are so many of us still experiencing distress? Why are so many of us still afraid?
One recent survey said that seventy-five percent of Americans are now depressed. Fifty percent say they are having trouble sleeping. And, that does not include those who are feeling more tearful or who are experiencing bursts of unfocused anger, or those whose insides are chaotic or who are unable to concentrate as well as they did before September 11th. The New York Times reports an increase in heart attacks. Stress does nasty things to our bodies and our minds.
As a practicing psychologist, last week was most stressful that I can recall. Normal solid citizens came to see me, expressing upset of every dimension. Most were finding their sleep disrupted, some wanted to sleep all time. They were worried about their children's futures. Would sons and possibly daughters have to go to war? What kind of country would we become? What would happen to our freedom? Fear of flying, germ warfare, a TV program on how to fit a gas mask to your face … where will next attack be, will my money be gone and maybe my job? The terror had only begun.
The economic situation didn't help. Some knew people who had been laid off. Some were afraid of losing their own jobs. Others felt a deep humanitarian concern and worried about having to fire those in their charge. Where would jobless go? What kinds of jobs would be open to them? People talked about diminishing 401Ks and buying or selling stocks and homes. They spoke of dreams shattered. And, because dreams are ephemeral, they take a long time to mourn.
Although media offered endless explanations about how people might feel, almost everyone thought it applied to someone else. Few understood why they were in such a funk. About best I could do was to tell people that their response to abnormal events was normal, that they were not going crazy, and that they were not alone. We talked and talked and I advised people to do simple things, talk, hug your loved ones, find community, pray and talk some more. This time-period will be worst part. Becoming accustomed to fact that life has changed and that we are vulnerable takes getting used to. Accepting a new normalcy isn't easy and takes time. Eventually, for most, symptoms should ease. For others, even with medication, symptoms will continue and their terror won't end.