The long winding hallways of the building, the numerous musty staircases and unmarked black doors felt ominous.
“I don’t want to wake up in the morning,” I told Dr. F. “And I can’t sleep at night. I’m up for hours playing things over and over. I don’t enjoy anything anymore. I don’t feel happy. Nobody likes me for some reason. Everyone in school is looking at me like they’re going to hurt me.”
Dr. F closed his eyes, made grumbling noises, asked me “why” or “when” and then sent me on my way. He didn’t tell me that there’s a science behind how trauma changes the brain, that neurotransmitters become like short-circuiting wires, sparking wildly from the ends. He didn’t tell me that the body remembers its experience with fear so strongly that it begins to respond to other stressful situations in the same extreme way, and sometimes, it responds to things that most people would never respond to or notice.
He didn’t tell me that depression is often a symptom of post-traumatic stress, or that the past can become the present, years later, simply at the sound of a siren, or the feeling of someone grabbing your arm and startling you.
He didn’t tell me that what had happened to me had to potential to change the entire direction of my life, causing me to do things and feel things and make decisions that maybe I wouldn’t have, and so maybe we should take a closer look at it and figure out how to go from there.
He just said, “See you next week.”
So, by the time the thin winter sunlight gave way to the more soothing, golden aura of May, nothing felt different, but I needed to feel different, somehow.
On the cusp of turning 15, I decided to take my first drink.
Becca, her older boyfriend, Harry, and his friend, Ron, took us to Pier 25 along the West Side Highway and filled red plastic cups with a small amount of brown liquid that smelled like lighter fluid. They both went to School of the Future, the high school across the street from Baruch. I looked out over the sandy volleyball courts where we’d played at Downtown Day Camp, then looked back down at the inside of my cup. I knew this was wrong, but everyone had to try drinking sometime, right? Maybe this will help, the invisible little girl whispered. I didn’t know what it meant, that Bacardi 151 was “151 proof.” But from the way they talked about it, I figured it was strong.
I took a sip and grimaced, but refused to cough like Becca had.
The boys laughed.
“Wow, she’s tough, huh?”
That stuck with me like a badge of honor and was all the motivation I needed to take another shot, and another. That would be the beginning of feeling that the more I could impress these guys by downing alcohol, the more worthy I was of…something.
The next thing I knew, we were on the roof of Harry’s building somewhere in Tribeca, and I was sitting between Ron’s legs.
The sky was just starting to darken into a deep lavender, thin clouds spreading across it like someone had tried to wipe them away, leaving streaks on the surface. When I looked up and suddenly it all started spinning faster and faster, I didn’t feel afraid. When the next thing I saw was Ron, sitting with me on a couch, trying to get his belt buckle off, I didn’t feel afraid then, either. And when he began pushing my head down, then up, then down. I didn’t feel afraid because I couldn’t feel much of anything.
My next drink was two weeks later, when, after school one day, a group of us filed into a limo with a drug dealer named Mike who had to be in his twenties.
We parked the limo somewhere along Sixth Avenue and Twentieth Street, and the other guys, wearing hats tilted to the left and low-slinging jeans, left to “give us some time alone.” The limo driver sat up front, and Matt pushed a button to make him disappear. He undid his belt and slid down his jeans while saying, “You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” I said.
I don’t know how I knew how to do what I did, and how to look sexy doing it, but I did the same thing to Matt that I did to Ron, hoping, somehow, it would get me closer to this greater thing I couldn’t seem to have, some feeling of being a normal teenager.
Inside, I felt like a parent who needed a break from watching over that invisible little girl inside me, the one who was always afraid of something and had access to weapons that could cause me to make some very adult mistakes.
Excerpted with permission from After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning by Helaina Hovitz. Copyright 2016, Carrel Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.