Photo: Winston Tan/Shutterstock

Working With Mental Patients the Morning of 9/11

New York City Narrative
by Julie Schwietert Sep 11, 2009
Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. Julie Schwietert was working with mentally ill patients in New York.

IT’S WHAT WE notice that hurts afterward. This year I’ll wake up on September 11 and think, as I have for the past seven years: “The sky was just so blue.”

It was the thought that played in my head all day, a ridiculous refrain. As if perfect blue could ward off what was about to happen. Or as if it would dissipate completely afterward, the sinister plumes powerful enough to blot out blue as far as the eye could see.

It was the sky I was thinking about, driving along the East River on my way to work in Queens, tempted to turn back and go home or anywhere else.

Just months into my new job as a psychotherapist working with mentally ill adults, I knew it wasn’t right. There was nothing therapeutic about a basement office with scuffed walls and no windows, an oppressive stale air hanging perpetually in the space. There was little we could achieve by listening to people tell the stories of their lives over and over again because that’s what Medicaid mandated.

I needed air. Open space to think. That blue sky.

Instead, I was in high heels, pressing gas-brake-gas-brake all the way to work until I found a parking place. You don’t notice time when you don’t need to, when nothing significant is going on. You think: “Coffee. Notebook. Pen. Morning staff meeting.” Having given in to the roteness of your days, you’re on automatic. You look back on these moments and think you should have been more attentive. You should, at least, have made a note of the time.

“Not a knife. Not a knife. I’m telling you, get the planes out of those buildings!”

James was the most psychotic of my clients, constantly besieged by invisible torturers who delighted in making him miserable. “Get the knife out of my back!” he said as I shut my office door and put my keys and ID around my neck. It was too early to practice reality testing. “Sit down, James. We’ll talk about the knife later.”

“Not a knife. Not a knife. I’m telling you, get the planes out of those buildings!”

This was a new one.

James pulled the TV out of a therapy room and into the common room, tuning in to the only channel whose signal could penetrate the basement. The planes were stuck in the buildings. “What are you going to do about it?” James asked me, and I couldn’t decide if his tone was like a child earnestly asking a parent or like the part of him that scared me most– the part that challenged me because it touched a place deep inside where I felt entirely inadequate to help.

“I’m not sure yet,” I answered honestly, and shut the staff room door behind me.

We would evacuate the patients, sending them home to parents or caregivers who’d have to deal with the immediate terror of the attacks. We would be sent home ourselves, wanting to go but wanting to stay, too. Not wanting to go home to our small apartments, where we knew we’d be alone with our televisions, curled up on couches and watching the deliberate speed of the crashes over and over again without learning anything new, wanting to do something—anything—different, but not being able to.

The thoughts that occurred to me as the 30 minute commute home to the South Bronx stretched to six hours, most of which were spent sitting motionless on the Queensboro Bridge, where I watched smoke billow into the sky: I will never wear high heels again. I will always keep my cell phone charged (the battery was dead). I will always have gas in my car (the tank was empty and I was broke). The sky is still so blue.

In the weeks that followed, I’d sit in class at NYU and smell death in the air. I’d clean ash from the windowsills of my apartment—more than six miles from the Trade Center—every day. I’d look at posters of the presumed missing, one photograph of a fat man in a suit, standing next to an elephant imprinted in my mind.

I’d sit in meetings where we’d talk about emergency plans, contingencies for disasters that pushed the limits of our imaginations. I’d spend eight hours counseling clients at work. I’d be drafted to counsel colleagues in a strange ethical void of what people were starting to call the “new normal.” I’d be dispatched to counsel people in parks.

And finally—months later—I’d be asked to counsel Spanish speaking immigrant women. Either their partners had died or had been picked up by Immigration and carted off to distant prisons in states whose names they couldn’t pronounce, but either way, it was hell.

“I just can’t stop thinking about the stack of letters,” one woman told me, raising her hand above her head to show how high the bills and official notices piled up. “I understand,” I told her, breaking up inside, thinking, again, about that blue sky.

Community Connection

For another Matadorian’s memories of 9/11, please read 8:46 am, 9/11 Manhattan by Tom Gates.

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