The devastating emotional impact of the losses on 9/11/01 was the equivalent of having every emotional bone in our bodies broken simultaneously. No one had any experience with an event or situation of this magnitude. Things were perilously skidding sideways. I clearly saw the light and I knew I needed to get help…and fast.
As I began seeing Dr. Vilardi in early November, I realized I was being given an opportunity to reach for something I had always wanted. I would finally find that place of mental health that had eluded me since childhood. In order to navigate my young family through the maelstrom that we faced I needed to be as mentally and emotionally stable as humanly possible. I wanted a happy, grounded life for my children and me. I was so tired of being misunderstood and misunderstanding. I was so tired of fighting when all I wanted was happiness, peace and harmony. I was committed to doing whatever it took to go all the way. Little did I know then that I was embarking on the single greatest journey of my life that would take me to that place of which I had only dreamed.
In those early years, I would ask Dr. Vilardi, “How will I know? How will I know when I have achieved mental health? Does a bell go off? Will they notify me by mail?”
She would say simply, “You will experience a rush of creative energy unlike anything you’ve ever known. You will have better relationships and a greater capacity to work and play. All the energy that goes into destructive pathology will be available for creativity. ”
I spent the first four years that followed 9/11 discovering, uncovering and learning about myself and the world around me at an exponential rate.
The first challenge was managing the incredible chaos that ensued in the aftermath of losing Ted in the attacks at the WTC on 9/11. Everything and everyone came unglued as I watched. People did not know what to do. Hindsight has allowed us to minimize the highly reactive and emotional months that followed, but things then were spinning out of control. We went to war in Iraq within weeks of the attacks. No one knew when or where the next terroristic strike would happen. An Anthrax scare gripped the country just weeks following. A sniper mysteriously killed random victims on highways at gas station near our nation’s capitol.
I give the Al Qaeta terrorists an A+. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was a new household word. Everyone living on the northeastern seaboard from Boston to Washington was completely terrified. Fear settled in at a cellular level. In other parts of the country, however, it was a news story just as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Columbine shootings in 1999 had been for us in the East coast. All I wanted was for life to go back to normal. As we now know, that never happened. Our country, our world, our culture, our future has been forever changed as a result of the events of 9/11.
As well as trying to understand the centrifugal force that was spinning our world out of control following 9/11, I was digging through issues from both Ted’s and my families. Both families felt they had a say in how my children were handled. Almost every person involved was emotionally broken on several levels. As ‘typically’ dysfunctional American families from the 1960s and 70s, our families shared similar root issues and these came to the surface with a vengeance. Something inside me was telling me not to trust their judgment (and judgment was the operative word).
My profound ‘take’ and unique experience of 9/11 had jettisoned me to a new and unexplored place. I knew Ted would want me to take our children forward to a ‘new normal’, breaking free from the chains of the generational behaviors with which we’d both been raised. Under this duress, the dysfunction of the individuals in our families intensified so that being around them became very difficult and worrisome. Yes they loved us, but this wasn’t about love. This was about severe emotional instability, bad behavior and a lifetime of incorrect information.
Much of their thinking and behavior was unacceptable. Because their damage was so severe, and because Jen, Bill, and Tim were so young, I feared that the adults in our families could negatively influence my children. My sole purpose at this time was to protect them on every level. I was a mama lion and I was fierce. I was willing to risk myself and any judgement from the adults around me if it meant doing the right thing for my children. After 40 years living a life of frustration and dysfunction, I would do everything I could to keep family history from repeating itself.
As a result, I pushed them all away. This made me a target for both sides. I was very unpopular. I ceased being an extension of my parents and doing things the way they wanted. They did not like this. Ted’s mother and sisters went crazy when I wouldn’t allow them to have access to the children in the way they wanted. I set time limits for visits so they could see them but on my terms. They did not like this. But as Dr. Vilardi would say, “it made for excellent ‘grist for the therapy mill.’”
My analytic study was fascinating. Yes, it was very emotional. I was very confused. I was experiencing incredible contradictions within the extraordinary experiences I was having both good and bad. I had enormous anger that I was previously unaware of. I was consciously and subconsciously enraged on many levels and at many things some more rational than others.
I had had a very difficult childhood. I needed to sort through it so I wouldn’t project it or recreate it with my children. And it was all so interesting. I would leave every session with another ah-ha moment. I saw clearly that this new direction was our only option. I was strong enough to handle it, and I was up for the fight. The kids came first. I was committed to giving them a life of transparency, balance, and honesty where all (adult) players involved would take ownership of their behaviors and responsibility for their actions or they would not be included in our game. I had been given the roadmap of how not to do it by watching how the early deaths in both Ted’s and my family had been handled, and redirected 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
I came to understand that we subconsciously seek partners who reflect our level of dysfunction. It’s like our neuroses’ match, and we are drawn together. Our damage is aligned. Ted and I were creating a young family with the same dysfunctional future. 9/11 gave me the out and I took it.
Dr. Vilardi and I dug in and peeled back the layers. It wasn’t about blame; blame doesn’t get you anywhere. It was about understanding why. It was about exposing and identifying the root causes of the problems. An analogy of analysis: peeling back the layers of an onion or unwinding a ball of string. Every day we have new experiences that create a new layer. A person’s mental and emotional perspective at that time records that new layer as a good piece or bad piece. How this is emotionally recorded continues to shape the psyche. Each layer is then sealed over the next day by the next experience. And so it goes.
Imagine that trauma (one large or many repetitive small ones) is a festering sore trapped under the layers of emotional experiences. People (the perpetrator–those who caused it) just want you to move on. They can’t understand why you can’t ‘just get over it’; so the denial or lack of ownership on their part continues. For the person who has been hurt or damaged (the sufferer), the sore keeps getting more and more inflamed. As the denial (lack of admission, not taking responsibility for actions, refusal to see the truth in a situation) around it (from those who were there and should understand) continues, the rage builds to the point of bursting. Everyone is ‘so surprised’ when the sufferer explodes. They call him/her crazy. This is the ‘crazy-making’ or power of denial and crazy making is an actual analytic term in psychology.
Talking about the thoughts and feelings experienced around a person’s life-events in analysis, the act of putting them into words and openly examining them, allows these emotional layers to be peeled away and discarded. In most cases once identified and expressed, they simply dissolve into the atmosphere. You often can’t remember the specifics of an issue if you try to think back on it weeks or months later.
Dr. Vilardi helped to balance my badly damaged ego. She explained it as a damaged ego is like a un-insulated wire. When I started with her, my ego was very exposed and therefore I was highly reactive. She helped me to believe in myself and develop a healthy self-esteem. I began to experience a self-love I’d never known. She calmed me down. She leveled my reactive behavior. She helped me piece together the vast and intricate puzzle that was myself (that is everyone). She considered my point of view, acknowledged my feelings without judgment, supported me unconditionally, and told me I was good.
To become a credible clinician ‘experiential’ training is required. The wisest and most seasoned clinicians have spent years doing their own personal psychoanalysis (or ‘time on the couch’). The empathy and profound understanding that comes from experiencing the journey of self-discovery and its emotional break-through(s) is critical to honing the craft of becoming a genuine and resourceful clinician. This must be experienced first hand. It cannot be learned in a book. The best practitioners continue to seek ‘supervision’ throughout their years of practice. In other words, they take their cases to a mentor or other well-respected analyst for objective discussion. There is a long line of mentors behind anyone who is trained in this way so that you (the patient) will get the benefit of many great minds in one. Think of the analyst as an ‘instrument’ that his/her patients will use to tune their emotional selves.
Analysis doesn’t cure you. You are never truly cured. But you can be healed. You can understand what triggers your responses. You can learn to live with and understand the emotional affects that the trauma caused. The truth is that everyone is a little bit crazy. Analysis shows you in what ways you are crazy. What is it that triggers your negative responses? What causes you to make the same mistakes repeatedly? What types of people and events should be avoided? Analysis builds a ‘mote of objectivity’ around you that buys you that extra pause or moment of consideration before you react. It helps you create boundaries to protect yourself from what is not acceptable. It helps you to arrive at the center, a place where you live in the day/moment; not in the future or in the past, but in the present. You will be fundamentally happy even on your worst day. There is an underlying contentment that comes from an in-depth understanding of yourself and the world around you. Quite simply, it helps you develop an emotional I.Q. and an educated peace of mind.
At the four year mark in November 2005, I broke through the final ceiling to achieve mental health. It is very hard to describe the feeling. Everything just fell into place and I ‘got it’. From that point on and through the next two years I would embark on the most remarkable journey of my life. I was brand new. It was as though someone took the lid off the top of my head and 40 years of repressed thinking came shooting out of the top. I began to reprocess my life from the ages of 12-24. I had a prescient understanding on how we could all heal, of what was missing in our culture and the things we could do to fix it. And at the same time, I began to knit. When Dr. Vilardi told me I’d have a creative breakthrough I imagined myself painting beautiful fine art. But no. I started knitting. I had always been a crafter. It had saved me thoughout a painful and lonely childhood. Now it was back but this time as a calling to take care of all the women who had taken care of me and the ones I knew needed care themselves.
Now sixteen years later, I realize that 9/11 actually healed me. It was the final catalyst for me to dig in and go all the way toward a life I had wanted since early childhood. The unconditional love and support that was showered on me from friends and strangers alike (and continues to this day) had bolstered me so that I had the confidence to continue the process and actually heal.
Since the age of 7, sitting on a jungle gym in 2nd grade, I knew it wasn’t supposed to feel like this. Dr. Vilardi not only saved my life but she led me (and my children) to a life I had only dreamed of living.