By Jayson Blair
For Paris, the deadliest attack since World War II is a trauma that rivals 9/11, and, after 14 years at war, it might just be for the rest of us too.
It is easy for me to remember the moment on the dark night riding the aboveground train over the East River in New York City when I saw the ad for Project Liberty, an effort to help New Yorkers get mental health in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Pride and time constraints as I tried to pull myself together and as I covered the aftermath of the attacks as a reporter for The New York Times, made it easy to put some of the idea of getting that help on the back burner, and a little of it in some locked file cabinet in my mind.
It took eight years for that lock to come off and the fire from that backburner to ignite – it was long after the dust had settled, long after I had left New York disgraced in a scandal where I lost my job in journalism and long after I had been successfully treated for bipolar disorder.
I was sitting in my childhood room in Virginia, reading the 9/11 Commission Report, engrossed in its pages on the 102 minutes between the attacks and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. I broke out into my first panic attack. Sweating, my heart pounding, confused and feeling as if I was going to die, there was finally no mistaking the palpable posttraumatic stress that I experienced because of the September 11 attacks.
In fact, for years, I denied it. My father gently had raised the concern for years. So had my mother. And more than once my psychiatrist had made the point. But, until, that moment I did not see it myself.
One of the problems with having problems is that someone always has it worse. Stories of returning Iraq War veterans or survivors who were in the Pentagon and the twin towers, made me think I did not have it that bad.
Looking back, what my family and psychiatrist had noticed was that each time there was another major terrorist attack – like the Madrid train bombings or the 7 July London bombings – I became emotional, I was out of sorts, my behaviors changed and my anxiety increased. It was the same, they would say, when I read about the conflict in Helmand Province or bombings in street markets in Bagdad. I did not connect it to those events. I thought it was just the normal madness of my moods as a person who has bipolar disorder. As my eyes opened to my own reactions, it became all too clear that the symptoms of posttraumatic disorder, or PTSD, that I had seen in my past as a journalist and in my present work as a life coach were in me as well.
My mentor at The Times, a gentleman and a scholar, would tell stories of covering the genocidal war in Rwanda, including where he and colleagues saw a single hand moving in a truck full of bodies. They knew that by the time they dug him out, the man would be dead. My mentor told me that one of the things that he had learned as a war correspondent was to never sit in a restaurant in a place where you were not facing the door and without an escape plan already in your mind. I could see his anxiety about making that happen when we were in restaurants in New York prior to 9/11. Now I saw that anxiety in myself.
They had been in the file cabinet. They had been on the back burner. But they were very much alive. It can be a feeling that is so intense that it is no shock to me that some veterans who experience it on a regular basis have turned to everyone including exorcists to cast out the demons.
Sometimes Postraumatic stress does not hit you at first. Often you do not have to be at the scene, as you can tell from talking to drone operators and CIA analysts. Sometimes the mind is amazing in its reliance – as one of my favorite colleagues, Mehul Mankad, a psychiatrist, used to say – and it does not hit you at all. Disassociation, despite common beliefs, is not always a bad thing.
Sometimes, it hits because of the strangest things and at the strangest times. In World War II, Orville Tethington, the maker of the world’s first steam-powered fog machine, created a weapon called the candle thrower, which was tested only once over fifteen minutes and it littered the battlefield with flaming candle fireballs. Jarod Kurtz wrote, in the book I Should Have Renamed This, that “upon returning home after the war, some soldiers suffered such extreme and bizarre cases of PTSD that anytime a civilian lit a match or used their lighter, the soldiers would hit the ground and start signing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Sometimes it hits you because of association. The Paris attacks, for many, will bring what was dormant back to life.In the aftermath of Friday’s attacks, there is no question that many of the people in France will need their nation to pay attention to the posttraumatic stress they will be facing. Even more Frenchmen and Frenchwomen will need help as the Hollande government takes its country further into the war in Syria.
At the same time, there is no question to me – after three wars and several terrorist attacks over 14 years – there will be many Americans who will need help as well, as they relive some of the fear, anxiety and stress of yesteryears.
For some it might be about 9/11. For others, it might be about Vietnam. For others, it may have been Beruit, Rwanda, the Pentagon or the Hindu Kush. For others, it will be about a sexual assault, shooting or some other life-changing event. For others, it might just be about the fear of morality that they felt when they realized that their sense of safety was shattered.
For all of us, we need to reach out and keep an eye on those who might need support in these difficult times.
Solidarité with the French, and with ourselves.