Helaina Hovitz

@helainanatalie | contributor
I'm a journalist, editor, & author of "After 9/11" and dedicated to raising awareness & educating the public from a personal standpoint of complex PTSD, anxiety, and addiction, esp. in young people
Helaina Hovitz

How the 'Slender Man' Movie Will Profit From Real Tragedy

If my daughter were almost stabbed to death and still living with the repercussions, I’d be pretty upset about the fictional horror movie inspired by that tragedy debuting next week. I’d be extremel y upset that a voiceover about a young girl disappearing was being used to advertise it in the trailer. I would be confused about how a group of people could get together and fetishize such a horrific event. And yet, on August 10, we’re getting “Slender Man.” For those who don’t know, “Slender Man” is a character that has gone viral in many places on the internet. Then, two teenage girls in Wisconsin, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, took another teenage girl named Payton Leutner out to the woods and stabbed her nearly to death to “please this character.” A fictional character. Payton miraculously survived after crawling onto a bike path, and the two teens who attacked her were sentenced to time in psychiatric hospitals. One of the girls has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. I really wish I could stop there. Being a horror movie fan is an occurrence that happened in recent years. The more I started to talk about my own traumatic experiences on and after surviving 9/11 after my memoir came out, the more I started to look for an escape that could pull me out of the day to day, and being years sober eliminated any injecting of things that could alter my mood or mind. I went from being scared of everything to virtually un-scare-able, then disappointed, then merely hopeful when it came to horror movie viewings. I became more of a critic. Then I saw that “Slender Man” was going to be a movie, and I immediately thought of that girl and her family. She was the same age I was, 12,  on 9/11 when we were attacked when she was attacked. The creator of this “Slender Man” told NBC years ago that these events made him deeply sad. So sad, I suppose, that he sold the rights — I’m assuming, since that’s how entertainment works — of his concept to the movie studio putting this movie forth. The horror movie world is starved for creative ideas. We did not need to turn “Slender Man” into one of them. It’s literally a faceless figure that looks like a tall stick-like alien. Although the plot isn’t strictly based on what happened, the movie was no doubt inspired by the real-life case. Bill Weier, the father of one of the girls involved in the stabbing, told the Associated Press, It’s absurd they want to make a movie like this. It’s popularizing a tragedy is what it’s doing. I’m not surprised but in my opinion it’s extremely distasteful. All we’re doing is extending the pain all three of these families have gone through. Payton — the young girl who was stabbed — is still suffering from severe duress, anxiety, fear, emotional trauma and insecurity, as her mother said in a statement.  Just like I was after 9/11, Payton was afraid to sleep in her own bed. She started sleeping with scissors under her pillow. Imagine seeing movie posters, trailers and commercials everywhere you went for this movie. You would nurse your invisible scars and feel god knows what at the world, and at the very least, the people who all banded together to make this movie. Let’s talk about the handful of movies made about 9/11. Watching “United 93,”which I saw at the movie theater across the street from what was then still Ground Zero, and two blocks from the school I was in that day, a 10 to 15 minute walk from home, in 2006, was a huge mistake. But it was a well-made film, looking back on it. I wouldn’t watch it again, but it paid homage to heroes and made you feel what they felt in real time. There was purpose in that movie. Though many survivors and Americans in general have avoided it — as I probably should have — it’s educational, it’s honorable, it’s memorable. I have absolutely no comment on Hulu’s “Looming Tower “ because I can’t even bring myself to look at the main photo without feeling sick. But these movies, along with “World Trade Center,” which followed thestory of two men trapped in the wreckage for days before being rescued, aremeant to teach us something. Fetishizing and creating horror movie fantasy about a character who had a real following with clearly dangerous implications is irresponsible, and it’s the kind of “based on a true story” that isn’t supernatural, it’s human tragedy. It’s deranged. From the looks of the trailer, we’ve got teen self-harm, suicide and self-mutilation going on here, as well as any number of mental health issues. Of course, as with most horror movies, they’re undoubtedly dealt with irresponsibly. This girl’s life is forever altered, and instead of having respect for her experience, it’s being made into a movie, one of the few places we can go to safely escape from the anxiety and weight of our real-world problems for just a while. This article, the one you’re reading now, is not by any means a reported news story on how the family does or does not feel about the film’s release, about what the movie studio and the creator of “Slender Man” have or have not done or said or thought. I have no way of knowing that. What I do know is that I’m sitting here looking at the Freedom Tower and thinking about how I felt when the news coverage after the 9/11 attacks was on an endless loop, and what it did to me when scenes of buildings exploding in the very same way were featured in films like “Superman” or “Spider Man” for years after. I’m thinking about how it would feel to have an experience based solely on something that happened only to me — not something that affected hundreds of thousands of people — and thinking that if Payton and her family are reading this, I hope that they know someone out there is thinking about how they must feel, and wishing their daughter a continued healthy recovery. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Helaina Hovitz

9/11: Triggered from Childhood Trauma

Over the past few weeks, people have been extremely triggered for a number of reasons. Even if they aren’t living with trauma, witnessing what is happening to children in this country is devastating and deeply disturbing. Thousands of children have been impacted at the U.S. border, affected in extremely traumatic and long-lasting ways, physically, mentally and emotionally. While the eyes of the national news crews are on them now, and while a couple of incredibly perceptive journalists are picking up on the fact that there will be enormous mental health repercussions, they will all be left to deal with the aftermath on their own soon enough. I went to a wedding last week and met a couple who went to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and said they had no idea there were kids and families living and going to school in the immediate area. Not until I told them my own story. Then I learned that next week, an exhibit called “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11” is making a debut at the museum. I haven’t seen the exhibit and as a journalist I know better than to put down or criticize what I don’t know. I’m sure it’s an important and moving exhibit in its own right. But the world at large is still pretty unaware that there were children living and going to school in Lower Manhattan at the time, and it’s not a story anyone is scrambling to help us tell. And it woke up that tiny person in me who, 17 years ago, along with my middle school classmates and neighbors, felt completely passed over. We were all simply encouraged, in the aftermath of 9/11, to “get back to normal,” and we tried hard to do just that. A lot of us told ourselves: o ur experience isn’t as important as others. Our parents didn’t die, so we shouldn’t complain. Kids in other countries live these horrors all the time, so we’re lucky this only happened once. Unfortunately, this is how it will be for years for children in this country who live with trauma and its invisible scars and feel that their experiences can never be understood, or will never be acknowledged. For the record, all of these experiences are separate, valid and important. Backing up a bit further, I woke up on my first wedding anniversary earlier this month to see a new comment on the wedding photo I’d posted to Instagram with the new World Trade Center behind us. Someone had simply commented with a plane icon, and in the comments view on my end, it looked like it was heading, dead on, right for it. The woman who “commented” wasn’t someone I knew, she looked like a travel agent who probably didn’t really think much about her “self-promotional” strategy of tacking on an icon of a plane, with no words, onto any photo #honeymoon. Some people I showed it too saw “it” instantly. Some people, it took a second. Others couldn’t figure it out. This is exactly what I’d expect. However plugged in you are to an experience, however close your own experiences have come, is how much you will empathize. The same way the smell of sunscreen just reminds you of summers at the beach, sounds and words and images will trigger us in an unpleasant way, though it may do absolutely nothing to or for you. It’s the same way that plane icon made me cringe, someone who hears a rape joke on a TV show or at a party might inwardly, silently cringe. Someone who casually says they’re going to kill themselves if they don’t get their coffee soon may not realize just how close to home that comment hits for the person next to them who lost a relative to suicide. Things that seem like “no big deal” to some people can really hurt others. There are eyes on children who have been separated from their parents at the U.S. Border and slept under sheets of tin foil right now. Right now. Those children will be traumatized for some time, far beyond when everyone’s eyes and the eyes of the media divert. Then, they will be so busy trying to get through life, they may not have the means or awareness to see the signs — or afford to find the help they need since they are just trying to survive. I started to try and bring the experience of 9/11 child survivors to light in 2011 and have kept trying ever since. To what end? The statistic has, for a long time, been that one out of every two children in this country will experience something traumatic in their lifetime, and many will never find recovery. Some, like me, will find a lot more danger and distress along the way — along with misdiagnosis. Hundreds and thousands of 9/11 survivors who feel lucky to be alive and grateful to have their loved ones with them are still 100 percent entitled to feel the pain that comes with triggers even years later. We are people who want to move on and have moved on. But just like the children who are being ripped away from their parents and held in cells, just like the women who have said #MeToo are much more than what happened to them, like people who have survived natural disasters and violent crimes and the sudden death of a loved one, survivors are not clinging on to their pain, but it is unfortunately always eager to be woken up. The first step to healing pain is acknowledging it. Everyone’s eyes have to be open, and we need to feel seen—and at the same time, survivors of trauma will always move through the world with invisible scars, looking just like everyone else. That’s why we need to keep telling our stories, and their stories, even when nobody will help us tell them. Even when we think nobody is listening. Because you never know who is. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

Helaina Hovitz

What Students Need To Know About PTSD Post-School Shooting

We’re all dealing with something invisible — Kevin Love made that clear a few months ago. Some of us know it, and some don’t. When it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder, some of our young people will never get the correct diagnosis or treatment, and that, in itself, can be deadly to survivors. This can lead to more severe issues, self-medication and, unfortunately, suicide. I spent years trying to figure out what was wrong with me after being a direct child survivor of 9/11 all of those years ago, one of the few children to actually be caught under the Towers from start to finish. As a teenager looking for relief and for answers, I was swept through a revolving door of therapists and psychiatrists who fit my symptoms into one diagnosis, then another, scribbling out prescriptions for medications I had severe reactions to, and yet, nothing changed. Things only got worse. Years later, as I begin to answer people’s questions about my experience, I’ve been asked more than once whether I find it surprising that it took so long to finally get the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the proper treatment for it. There are incredibly complex ways trauma affects the brain. It can lead to exacerbated and dangerous behavior when it comes to sex, relationships, drinking, work, being able to concentrate, school, sleeping at night, friendships and relationships with family. For young people, it can be hard to put words to what they’re feeling or connect the dots, and conversations initiated by teachers or parents usually make kids want to talk about it less and curl up into themselves more. That’s why we have to get this in front of them directly, and let them know they should feel empowered to seek out the help of a specialist if they start to experience the following symptoms: In the immediate aftermath: Flashbacks Panic attacks Nightmares/Insomnia Hyper-vigilance Hyper-reactivity (larger and more emotional reactions than a situation may seem to call for) Easily startled Intrusive thinking Disturbing thoughts or worries Fear of separating from parents or leaving home In the longer term: Unhealthy attachment or codependency in romantic relationships Frequent engagement in sexual activities that could be considered dangerous or unhealthy Missing school, cutting class, grades dropping, difficulty with other kids and faculty Anger, isolation, depression, self-harm, and aggression Drinking, drugging, excessive eating or shopping Fear of abandonment The thing about trauma is, it’s progressive, and requires a specific kind of trained therapist to diagnose and treat, which is why so many kids give up after going to talk therapy and feeling like nothing changed. Trauma affects the developing brain of a teenager by creating new patterns and pathways in the brain that lead to thoughts, behaviors, perceptions and actions that come from a place of fear, panic and mistrust. Receiving the right diagnosis, treatment and seeking alternatives when we feel we’re being misdiagnosed or mis-medicated is imperative. It’s not just survivors of school shootings who are affected: One out of every two kids in this country will be affected by trauma. This includes events that occur in everyday life like the death of a parent, surviving an accident, witnessing domestic abuse or other acts of violence, being exposed to something disturbing and so much more. It can also take months or years for symptoms to show up, which is why it’s so important to keep a very diligent eye for changes that might disguise themselves as “teen angst” and can lead, when untreated, to suicide. PTSD is often misdiagnosed by typical psychologists because they are trained to treat what immediately presents itself as a DSM and medically treatable diagnosis like general anxiety, addiction or bipolar. Then comes the medications that don’t work, the talk therapy that doesn’t work, all of which can be re-traumatizing in itself. But young people — especially children — don’t necessarily even realize they’re living with trauma or have a history of trauma… and it never comes up. They also often lack the words to describe what they’re experiencing on their own, so there is something to be said about someone finally putting words to some part of what they’re experiencing. Trauma, and the treatment of PTSD, is something a specialist trained in that area should tackle with cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, art therapy and a combination thereof. Sometimes, successful treatment is paired with medication. A study just broke last week that the suicide rate among teenage girls is higher than ever. Ariana Grande also had an interview to TIME last week reflecting on the terrorist attack that took place at her concert a year ago. And at the end of last week, another school shooting took 10 young lives. These events reverberate across state lines and even on a global level, and they make us all feel afraid. It is possible to feel so afraid that secondary trauma occurs, warranting treatment as outlined above. Some kids may go on unaffected by it, as we are all different. And for those directly exposed to violence in any form across the country, support, treatment and a plan in place to restore a feeling of safety is crucial for carrying on and living a healthy life. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .