The anniversary of the World Trade Center attack will arrive soon after Labor Day. It is tempting, in the summer's heat, to put off thinking about such a sorrowful occasion. But I want to suggest that if we take a deep breath, and start to plan, we will be better off.
First, the deep breath. The year that started on 9/11/01 was unexpected and traumatic. In the first few months, people walked around New York in a daze of bewilderment and pain. Not much work got done. We returned to work bit by bit, many of us putting our emotions aside in an effort to "get back to normal." But "normal" has been elusive: a damaged city to repair, threats of bioterrorism to manage, and world conflict to comprehend have meant many new tasks for each of us. In some ways, the work that existed before Sept. 11 and the new work created by the attack mounted in our in-boxes. By spring, I found myself confronting double the usual number of graduate students attempting to finish their school requirements. It was one of many markers of an extraordinary workload. In asking around, I found many friends and co-workers were also coping with unusual demands on their time and energy. All in all, sudden trauma, chronic tension, extra work, and incessant worry have taken their toll on us. So, take a deep breathyou'll feel better.
Next, the planning. The anniversary of any loss is an occasion to ponder the absence of the loved one and the presence of a new reality. It requires our focus and our participation. We can help ourselves manage an anniversary by preparing times and places for this all-important emotional work. An anniversary is also an occasion to feel the emotions associated with the loss as they surge through our minds and bodies. Anniversaries exhaust us, because they require us to revisit and understand our feelings. A final point about anniversaries: They are not optional. Even anniversaries that are buried in our memory banks will ripple quietly through us, unnamed and disconnected, but nevertheless profoundly disconcerting.
The planning for the anniversary of 9/11 offers a special challenge, because we will experience an array of painful emotions after a year of stress and tension. "Grief meets strain," you might say. People can easily become ill in such a scenario. It is for this reason planning takes on great urgency, and demands the participation of healthcare providers throughout the metropolitan area.
Since 9/11, I have worked with NYC RECOVERS (http://www.nycrecovers.org/index.htm), an alliance of organizations that have incorporated social and emotional recovery into their agendas in the post-9/11 world. The NYC RECOVERS wellness campaign for September 2002 invites organizations of all kinds throughout the city to hold healing activities that include yoga, song, dance and gardening, and to decorate the city with signs of wellness. We have proposed that what we all need is to embed the anniversary in a month of "wellness." Think good food, sleep, meditation, exercise, spiritual activityall the things that heal the mind, body and spirit. This will provide the cushion for the hard work of the anniversary. We hope healers of all kinds offer "wellness" events for the public.
In this context of shared concern, we will be able to contemplate the meaning of the past year, and to imagine the future. We invite all members of the medical center community to join us in moving through the anniversary with our hearts open to feel and our ears ready to listen. This is not simply a good idea: It is the best course of action if we are to protect the health of our compatriots and ourselves.
Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove is professor of clinical psychiatry at P&S and professor of public health at the Mailman School of Public Health. The phone number for NYC RECOVERS is 212-740-7297.