Beauty in Tragedy: The Attacks of September 11

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9/11 Memorial

Yesterday I met a security guard who worked at the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He cleared the lobby of his tower before he escaped and the tower crashed down. His memories of that day haunt him; he is beset with anxiety. He remembers the bodies on the ground, the remains of the people who jumped to their deaths to escape the heat of the scorching flames. He lost his friends who worked security on the upper floors of the towers, including his best friend and his best friend’s wife who worked together.

On 9/11, the best friend’s four-year-old son became an orphan. The security guard told me how the little boy cried nonstop for days and days calling out for his mommy and daddy. I was so depressed when I heard that story. I thought of my four-year-old daughter, and my heart broke. I didn’t know how to lift my spirits after reliving 9/11 with someone who had experienced it firsthand.

I told myself that I cannot change what happened, that the past is the past. I thought about the little boy, who is now a young adult. On September 11, 2001, a kind, loving man, the security guard, took that little boy home with him and made the boy his son. The security guard and his wife opened their hearts and home to the little boy and became his mommy and daddy. While I cannot change the loss and sadness of 9/11, I can feel good when I think about good people doing good in the world. I can endure my feelings of sadness when I see that there is beauty even in tragedy.

Adapting to Phobias: A Claustrophobic Gets Stuck in an Elevator

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Stuck in an Elevator

Do you need to conquer your phobias or is it enough to adapt to them? I believe that it is enough to adapt, provided you develop the tools you need to function reasonably well in society.

I am a claustrophobic, which means I have irrational fear of confined spaces. For me, the worst confined space is a crowded elevator. My first claustrophobic episode occurred when I was a young girl. My mother, two sisters and I entered a crowded elevator on the way up to the top of the Statue of Liberty. I started to panic, feeling like the walls were closing in on me. I was riddled with anxiety.

As an adult, I take elevators, but I avoid crowded ones whenever possible—the exception being if I am running late and decide I’d rather endure panic than be late. If I have the choice, I take an escalator rather than an elevator. It may be surprising to hear that I live in a building with a small elevator that resembles a mahogany coffin. Before I moved into my apartment, I needed to practice going up the elevator one floor at a time, one day at a time, until I could ride to the top of the building. I love where I live, so it was worth it for me to get comfortable with the elevator.

Getting stuck in an elevator is one of my biggest fears. A few years ago, this fear became a reality. I was in my building riding up to my apartment with my two dogs, when the elevator stopped. I felt like I was about to have my first panic attack. For me, this episode was about life and death. I felt like if I let myself have a full-blown panic attack, I would die. I didn’t want to die, so I went into survival mode. I lay down on the floor of the elevator, took deep breaths and closed my eyes, transporting myself somewhere else. I had no experience with meditation, but I got myself into a meditative state.

My cell phone was working, but my battery was low. My security blanket when I ride elevators is my water bottle—I carry it with me in case I get stuck, but this time I had forgotten my water bottle. I was stuck in the elevator waiting for the mechanic to come, without my water bottle, and the mechanic was stuck in traffic. I did not know that I could have called 911 to have the fire department rescue me, as this was my first time stuck in an elevator. After I was stuck for an hour and fifteen minutes and the mechanic was still forty-five minutes away, the superintendent of the building called 911. It took five minutes from the time of the call to the time I was rescued. Needless to say, I love the fire department.

I felt so good about myself after my release, like I was a survivor. I felt like I had survived an avalanche. I was so proud that I had conquered my claustrophobia. I even thought that I was cured, but the episode turned out to be a display of strength, not a cure. Today, as I have always done, I take escalators instead of elevators. I avoid crowded elevators whenever possible, and when I find myself in a crowded elevator, I panic and pray that we do not get stuck. Usually, I can breathe through my anxiety, but sometimes it doesn’t subside until I get out of the elevator.

I have adapted to my phobia, not conquered it. Adapting works just fine for me. Although I avoid situations that I consider high risk, such as extremely crowded elevators, I live reasonably normally, which includes taking elevators, because I know that I have the tools that I need to survive should I find myself stuck again. I can take deep breaths and close my eyes. I can sip water, should I remember to bring my water bottle with me. Most importantly, I know that I can call the fire department. May there always be cell phone service, and may I never forget my cell phone when I am in an elevator.

Anxiety in a World of the Unthinkable

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We live in a crazy world of mass shootings and bombings. How can we live without fear and anxiety? How can we feel safe?

I choose not to recount the episodes of terror that our nation and the world has faced. Most everyone knows of the horrid shootings, violent bombings and the senseless loss of life.

Our president, local law enforcement and our spiritual leaders speak of the “unthinkable” when talking about these tragedies. In simple terms, “unthinkable” means something about which it is too upsetting to think.

Although the unthinkable can happen, the way to live in this unpredictable world is simply not to think about the horrible things that could happen, not to think about the unthinkable. If you spend your time thinking about the unlikely but tragic possibilities in life, you will bring anxiety upon yourself and paralyze yourself with fear. Your dark thoughts will crowd out good, positive ones. It is not healthy or helpful to think about what could go wrong that you cannot control. I am not saying that we should blindly go about our lives not thinking about risks. There are ads on the New York City subway that say, “If you see something, say something.” We must be aware of our surroundings.

In this unpredictable world, we can make choices about how we want to live our lives, meaning where we want to go and what we want to do. We can come up with individual plans for how to deal with the risks of our day, however remote. Right now, I would feel too vulnerable to enjoy myself at an outdoor event with a large crowd of people in an open, unsecured space. That is just me. Our leaders would tell us to stand up to terror by carrying on with our lives and living without fear. I’m still a work in progress.

Once you decide what you are comfortable doing and what you are not, which I will call your “plan,” then follow your plan and try your hardest not to think about worst-case scenarios. The secret to thriving in a world where the unthinkable sometimes happens is to control your thoughts so you do not think about the unthinkable. Should a bad thought creep into your consciousness, swat it away with an imaginary fly swatter. There is so much to do and accomplish in life, and so much potential for joy. Embrace life and do not let fear and anxiety consume you.

These are unsettling times, so if you find yourself suffering from fear and anxiety that you cannot overcome yourself, please seek out professional help. You may benefit from talk therapy and/or prescription medication. The world is a scarier place than it used to be, and there is no shame in needing help.