It has been 13 years since the 9/11 New York City World Trade Center attacks and it would be nice to assume that everyone’s moved on (and if you haven’t, there are plenty of coaches out there willing to help). After all, this is the impression you’d get when you pick up a newspaper. After Iraq and hunting down terrorists, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, drone strikes in Pakistan, the take down of Bin Laden, and the Boston Marathon bombings, it seems that America has really moved on since 9/11. From the terrorist hysteria of the years immediately after the attack which eventually led to the war in Iraq to the Obama administration’s focus on fighting terrorism more as a police matter, one thing has been lost in the shuffle: relief efforts. Most people think that 9/11 relief efforts have concluded now that the replacement building for the twin towers has been completed. There seems to be, at least based on the actual physical location of the attacks, some sort of closure symbolized by the new building that stands at the site of the attacks. Well, that’s just the buildings. The real relief and ‘reconstruction’ efforts that you don’t hear about in the mass media is the one that happens within. This is my story of personal renewal and efforts at moving on after the 9/11 NYC World Trade Center attacks.
My life before 9/11
In June of 2001, I got a thin white envelope in the mail. You remember snail mail, right? There it was-starting at me. A thin white envelope with the letters ‘Lehman Brothers’ in bold font. This was decision time. The moment of truth. This was the culminating tense few minutes almost six years of my life led to. You have to understand, I’ve always wanted to be an investment banker ever since I was in tenth grade. There was just something about the concept of high finance and bonds that resonated with me. I fell in love with this idea of helping companies borrow from investors so they can expand their operations, hire people, you know, make a difference. From nasty pre-SAT tests to burning the midnight oil in my bid to get into the ‘right’ schools for a finance career to throwing away and restarting version after version of my college application letter, the last few years of my high school career was marked by one burning desire-to get me into an Ivy League school that will help me quickly get on the radar for a Wall Street finance job. After a lot of stress, personal drama, turmoil, and endless hair pulling and fidgeting, I found out that I barely got into the Ivy League-only Dartmouth accepted me. Still, I was in. I could already see myself getting measured and fitted at Brooks Brothers on my way to get some primo wingtips and dining on steak and lobster for lunch-on the company dime!
Dartmouth college life was to be expected. The same melange of gossip, fumbling sex, sexual curiosity, multicultural explorations, drug experiments, and philosophical uncertainty that, I am sure, surrounded most other college students all over the country surrounded me. I didn’t pay much attention to most of that anyway. I was out to fry bigger fish. I was less interested about ‘finding myself’ than I was in finding out if I can make serious bank with the right Wall Street firm. I have never owned a car in my life but during my senior year at Dartmouth, I saw a top of the line Mercedes roll into one of the campus parking lots and I easily saw myself guiding that steel beast into my very own Upper East Side New York City townhouse. This wasn’t a pipe dream or mere day dreaming. I could actually feel the grip of the steering wheel as the car turned in front of me from a distance. I could actually smell the leather seats as I stared at the awesome piece of German fine automotive engineering. I could smell my destiny.
Graduation was a haze. How could it be? My final year at Dartmouth was a frenetic 24/7 blur of applying for Wall Street firms for entry level dirt floor positions, putting the final touches on my senior thesis, and putting up with the drama of my college girlfriend. Well, my girlfriend and I split up so 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, right? Whatever emotional sting I felt from having a girlfriend dump me for the warm sands of West Coast California on her way to a UCLA MBA, I gradually got over as I stared with anticipation at that solid rectangular white envelope in front of me. I had bad flashbacks of my Ivy League applications. You know you got rejected if you got a thin white envelope instead of those thick beefy envelopes the postman had to roll into a tube to fit into your mailbox. For what seemed like forever, I thought that Lehman letter was a rejection. I really did. I started to panic. What would I do to pick up the pieces? Do I have a back up? Should I apply for an MBA? Regardless, I finally got enough strength to open the envelope-and there it was: I got hired!
Lehman Brothers and 9/11
My three months at Lehman was a whirlwind of meetings, motivational talks, one and one mentoring, and, of course, hours of work. We’re not just talking about the typical ‘punch the clock’ schedule of 160 hours per month. I was putting in 350 hours and I still felt like a slacker. They were paying me enough money to bankroll a tiny Third World Island economy so the cash, and the stuff it bought, took care of my stress as I barely crawled out of the office after a fairly ‘short’ 18 hour daily stint. I’ve had grueling days in my former career as a ticket broker, but this was just over the top.
All the hard work paid off though. In early September, my immediate supervisor told me that I was on the short list for a promotion. I was stoked. Then 9/11 happened.
Up from the Ashes
I remember rushing back to the office after the second plane hit. It didn’t register. It seemed like just some random news report of stuff that happened at the other side of town. When I heard the buildings actually crashed down, things got real all of a sudden. I remember slinking off to the bathroom and just staring blankly at the back of the stall door in front of me. I didn’t feel grief, anger, sadness, surprise, none of that. I felt… numb. I just sat there for what felt like hours. When I finally got back to my cubicle, it looked like that many other cubicle monkeys like myself took the rest of the day off. I joined them. After some ‘stress debriefing’ during the following days and weeks, it looked like the Lehman unit I was with was back in form. However, something was different. It just felt, well, different.
Thanks to the Dot Com Crash and the economy’s major dip, Lehman started dropping staffers like a bad habit. I made it through the purge. But considering I’ve made it through 9/11 and staffing purge, I felt more like the unlucky ones who were left to live another day. I had a massive case of Survivor’s Guilt-so big my therapist probably could have bought a small bungalow in New Hampshire from the many hours our sessions ate up. I was clinically depressed and nothing can’t seem to get me to snap out of it. My therapist and I have dug through my daily experiences, past trauma, and even childhood like you’d trawl through an old closet. Still, I was flat on my back emotionally. I hated the chemical cocktail of antidepressants on the market that therapists would dispense like Pez candy. ‘Brand A didn’t work for you? Try Brand B… It’s new and improved, you know?’ I hated that whole chemical roulette my therapist had me on. Still, after a few years, with the help of a personal trainer and a balanced diet, I was able to finally get off the meds and my therapist’s weekly sessions have turned into quarterly sessions.
Personally moving on after 9/11
What I got from all those years of therapy was the survivor’s guilt is truly a bitch. I felt numb and depressed because it felt like I should have gone down with that building or I should have been one of those poor victims who decided to jump to their deaths rather than burn. It churned my stomach and made me bawl like a baby every time the image of a man falling to his death with his attache case’s handle firmly in hand. I could not get the image out of my mind. That image actually symbolized my life. I didn’t have much of a life unless you think wearing great clothes and expensive watches while wasting my life away trying to put a pretty bow on a multimillion dollar bond deal meets the Socratic definition of a great life. After 9/11, my personal relief effort is to get as much meaning in my life as possible. I began to question what I was doing and, most importantly, why I was doing things the way I was. After I finally paid off my student loans and had a hefty amount of cash saved up after some opportunistic investing and mad savings, I was ready to fly the coop.
2007 in Phoenix
9/11′s burning imagery of crashing buildings, falling people, and ash everywhere still figured in my dreams. But instead of having it scare the crap out of me, I started to feel a distance between myself and the image unfolding in front of me. I knew it was time to move on. I finally pulled the trigger on my dream and put in my resignation. This was the final stage of my personal relief efforts to deal with 9/11. New York City was too much. It just reminded me of 9/11 and my mind got to big for the city’s smallness. Let’s face it-with all those skyscrapers, you can’t help but feel really really small. Come September (there goes that month again) 2007, I was fully relocated to Phoenix Arizona.
I chose Phoenix to start my own small e-commerce company mostly because of its awesome weather and great wide open spaces. Still, there is also something about the name of this city that appealed to me. You see, since 2001, I was dead inside. Part of me died with the Twin Towers. I could never get that part of myself back and I am sick of mourning over it. Phoenix offered me the chance to rise from the ashes and to move on. The depression meds are gone. My therapy sessions a distant memory. All I have now are endless sunsets, great dry heat, and endless stretches of… possibility.