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How Living in New York Through the Doom of 9/11 Impacted My Mental Health

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Horror hovered above New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. The brisk tempo of a once-raging metropolis slowed to a crawl, the five boroughs brittle and on the brink of demise. Everything felt like it was devoid of color. That concrete jungle in all its majestic glory was eerily silent, its electrified zeal fading to black. What was once a full-throttled ultimate megacity had taken on a milieu of depeche mode. People walked slowly. They kept their heads down. They didn’t speak. Utter sadness was gripping Gotham City. And like the rest of the nation, eight million of us were collectively crying.

It was an otherworldly experience to actually be there. I was there. Age 21. Just out of college.

I moved to New York about three weeks before 9/11. I was newly hired as an editor at AOL Digital City, an online entertainment guide that no longer exists. I had only a couple friends when those towers fell. I didn’t have a permanent place to live; I was subleasing a room from someone who happened to work on the same team as me at AOL. It would be seven years before I was diagnosed bipolar, but I definitely felt the depression side of my illness coming alive those weeks following 9/11.

If you’ll remember, there was not a cloud in the sky that day in New York. The temperature was a warm 72 degrees. I was late for work. Bound for Manhattan, I hopped on the Subway in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, where part of the route is elevated. As we ambled toward the isle of Manhattan, we saw it. A tower, spewing smoke from the top. The other tower unharmed.

When the train went underground to cross below the East River and into Manhattan, we were confounded with conjecture. I was so naïve that terrorism didn’t even cross my mind.

I emerged from the Subway at 23rd St. in Chelsea, where my office was and far enough uptown to be away from Ground Zero. The North tower was down and the other had been struck. I stood on 6th Avenue and observed the South tower ablaze. I watched it fall.  The Twin Towers — monstrosities of corporate hulking architecture and symbols of American extravagance — were actually seen as an eyesore to many New Yorkers who felt they polluted the skyline. They were the tallest skyscrapers in the world when they were finished in 1973 and only had small slits for windows. At the time, “Harpers” magazine panned them: “These incredible giants just stand there, artless and dumb, without any relationship to anything, not even to each other.”

Because the towers were so maligned by New Yorkers, I thought: “Could this be some sort of planned destruction, like a casino demolition in Vegas?”

I didn’t think twice about walking into my building and riding up the elevator to my office to go to work. As the eighth floor elevator doors opened, coworkers were leaving, my boss saying, “It’s an attack! Go home!” I knew what I had to do. Since cell phone signals were jammed, I had to go to my desk and use the landline to call my family to let them know I was OK. I did. They were, of course, relieved.

I left the building with my roommate Andy. Subway service had stopped so we couldn’t go to Brooklyn. We walked to an apartment in the East Village that belonged to a couple friends of Andy’s. The four of us sat, glued to the TV watching CNN all day. Eventually, by dusk, the Subway went back online. Andy and I took the Subway home to Windsor Terrace. No one made a sound on the train. We slept the clock around.

It turns out I knew one of the fallen: Vanessa Kolpak. She was working a new job in the financial sector at the WTC and she was in my high school class in Chicago. It made the disaster feel more tangible. I thought, “It could’ve been me.” My sadness deepened.

We could see it on TV like the rest of America: Lower Manhattan, blackened, dirty and smoky — a total hellhole. I don’t think barely anyone dared to venture anywhere below Canal Street, an area with TriBeCa to the west, Chinatown in the center and the Lower East Side to the east.

The city was a streetscape of desolate urban canyons. For weeks, businesspeople stayed home. No one was getting any work done anyway. There were few signs of life except at Union Square, the park located at the intersection of Broadway and 14th Street.

The skateboarders and buskers and breakdancers and people watchers that once owned this downtown space were nowhere to be found. Union Square became the epicenter of grief. In a city of 8 million, everyone gathered there to mourn. Bulletin boards were erected and people posted flyers with pictures and notes that said, “Have you seen this person?” There were flowers and candles and tributes blanketing the pavement all over the place.

A seemingly endless cloud of smoke and ash floated over Ground Zero for weeks.

I’m gay. I wasn’t out yet. I had never even kissed a guy. Because of 9/11, I felt like the world could end at any moment, so it was time to finally admit to myself I was gay and get a love life. As it turned out, Andy was gay and single as well. We kissed at a bar on the Lower East Side a couple months after 9/11 and entered into a relationship that lasted about a year.

I lived in New York nearly 10 years, eventually scoring my dream job at MTV News, where I learned to write scripts, produce television segments and interview pop and rock stars. When the economy tanked in 2008, I crashed too. I got laid off from MTV along with about 20 others. The same year, my bipolar kicked in with a major manic episode followed by a yearlong depression.

I wrote a memoir about my triumphs and travails titled “The Bipolar Addict: Drinks, Drugs, Delirium & Why Sober Is the New Cool.” It includes my 9/11 story. But it mostly chronicles my fall from grace, stint in rehab and eventual resurrection from alcoholic and bipolar abyss.

I haven’t been back to New York in quite some time, but I am going on a trip next month. I’ll be sure to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The tears will undoubtedly return. 9/11 is part of me in a way that it isn’t for many people.

I visited the makeshift memorial at Union Square every day following 9/11. With a frown cemented on my face, I was somehow drawn to the darkness. Sometimes it feels good to be sad. It’s like some kind of catharsis. And it lets you know you’re alive.

Originally published: August 27, 2021
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