Covered in Ash: Overcoming the trauma of 9/11

Helaina Horvitz shares her 9/11 experience at an open forum on the 17th anniversary of the attack. (Photo by Ashley Wall)

Boarding a plane with her family after a trip to Disneyland, Helaina Horvitz settled into her seat, feeling panic rise as she watched a group of rowdy college kids yell over each other. Recalling the traumatic events that happened on 9/11, Horvitz, afraid for her life, immediately turned to her parents and in desperation said, “I have to get off the plane.”

A year earlier, Horvitz and her family witnessed the twin towers collapse, and people jumping from the buildings onto nearby cars. Like a horror movie, Horvitz remembers people covered in black-and-white ash, vomiting and bleeding, unaware they were breathing in toxic smog.

Horvitz told her story to an open -forum audience in the Alumni Room via video chat on Sept. 11, 2018, the 17th anniversary of the attack.

Horvitz said this traumatic event has led many, including herself, to experience hyper-reactivity, a symptom of PTSD that causes unwarranted fear or anxiety, adding, “Being afraid does not mean you’re not brave. … None of us really have chosen to hang onto the bad stuff that happens to us. … With trauma, it’s kind of an unfortunate backfire from the brain and the body feeling like they now have to keep you safe, as if the event is recurring again and again.”

After 9/11, Horvitz said she struggled coming into her own. She changed high schools three times, saw 12 different therapists, couldn’t keep friends, had trouble sleeping, and became paranoid at the sight of airplanes, and even suitcases and backpacks.

“We basically were living in a world where we were told to be afraid of pretty much everything and still move on with our lives,” she said.

Coping with this trauma was exceedingly difficult and “extremely intense to a point where it was dangerous,” she said. By 22 years old, Horvitz had been in and out of the hospital four times for alcohol poisoning and thought about taking her own life multiple times.

It took a lot of hard work and dedication to separate “fact from fiction,” she said. Horvitz spent years engaging in behavioral and dialectical therapies to help manage her trauma.

Now, 17 years after 9/11, Horvitz is a mental health advocate, editor, author of the book “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning,” and a renowned journalist, writing for publications such as The New York Times, Forbes, Glamour, Teen Vogue, and Buzzfeed.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president of enrollment and student development, said what inspires her the most about Horvitz is her “determination to face the memory with an insistence on hope, by focusing her work on positive news. … It reminds us that there is good news even when we think there is no light to be had.”

Horvitz became interested in stories of hope while writing her college senior thesis on life after 9/11. Around this time, during the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Horvitz contacted 16 of her former classmates and their parents, questioning them about the tragedy with a focus on PTSD.

Most of the interviewees never considered having PTSD, although they had all the signs and symptoms, she said. Astonished by her realization, Horvitz began to write about it and advocate for healthy ways people who experience trauma can move forward, such as therapy.

FSU sophomore Michaela Cronin said she thinks there should be a required therapy system, appointed by either the school or the state, in play for victims who experience traumatic events. “Thinking about the Boston bombings, it’s not anywhere near as severe as 9/11, but it still affected us so close. I think it would be a good idea.”

Besides stories of hope, Horvitz said it’s important to recount the events of 9/11 and share her story as a way to advocate for mental health and erase the stigma.

“There’s school shootings happening at an enormous rate. There’s natural disasters happening at an enormous rate. It’s heartbreaking and even when I watch it on the news, I haven’t heard anything about the mental health effects of this,” she said.

Horvitz added people that have PTSD from 9/11, like herself, and other events wanted to move on from their experience, but found themselves stuck in a state of terror and high alert.

“There’s this notion, I think, when bad things happen – ‘Oh, everyone move on already.’ We very much wanted to move on, but that was very difficult because, not only was the world around us still in a state of terror and high alert, but trauma changes the brain. It changes the body.

… We do move on, but it’s how we move on that matters,” Horvitz said.

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