In New York, a town where one third of the workers worked downtown, and more than one third were affected by the twin tower attacks, one of the best places to network is at trauma groups.
You have to interview to get in a group. Not because they’re exclusive, but because peoples’ experiences are so different and the groups, apparently, are most effective if people have similar experiences.
There are groups for people who lost a spouse and there are groups for people who sat in their apartment in Queens watching TV. The group I got put in is filled with people who escaped from their offices by dodging splattering body parts of jumpers. I am the curious standout in the group. As the other members were running away, I was walking closer. I am the authority on what it was like to suffocate under fallen debris.
After a few sessions, though, we all knew each others’ stories, and we all found we were in the same place: Tying to reacclimatize ourselves to the world, which for everyone, included somehow getting back to five days a week at work. Most people are still employed, at the large, or small-but-largely-affected firms you’ve probably read about, like Marsh & McLennen or Cantor-Fitzgerald.
One guy, from a large trading firm, has a cube next to someone who has cried every day for three months but has not gone to counseling. Is it appropriate to suggest counseling? Normally, a suggestion like this would be out of line, but the group agrees that in this case, it would be okay.
A woman in the group was caught in the subway, under the tower when the second plane hit. People panicked and could not decide to get off or not and the doors jammed. Now she won’t get on the subway, so her commute from the Bronx is three bus transfers and a ten-block walk. She is often late to work and she is scared it’s affecting her performance. People in the group gently tell her how they overcame transportation fears. But we all admit to having formed weird transportation rituals to ward off flashbacks.
Sometimes someone remembers something new, and it’s horrifying: “When I fell, I got hit by a severed hand.”
Sometimes the reports are gossipy, and it’s fun to be an insider: “A woman I know was burned on 40% of her body and survived, and her high-profile trading company pays her only $170 a week for disability.” (We all concur that the company is scum.)
Some of us are looking for jobs. One guy who worked at a brokerage firm decided to take a severance package rather than commute to the new office in New Jersey. He said he’s sick of information technology and he wants to work in a nonprofit. The social worker gave him a list of possibilities.
One guy kept talking about his wife who worked in human resources at a big company in tower two. Every time he talks about her — her phone call, her escape —- I hear “human resources.” Finally, I asked him if I could send my resume to her. He gave me her email address and her work and home numbers. I sent the resume, (and my friend, who is not in the group, said, “Oh god, I just interviewed there. I asked the hiring manager what he liked about the company and he said, “Do you mean now or before all my friends died?’”)
One guy quit his job because even a month after the attacks his boss still had not even mentioned the World Trade Center to him. This guy worked in a building that had one side blown off. That means there’s enough of the building left for him to go collect his belongings.
His company scheduled collection times with the cleanup crew. The guy in my group went last week. He said it was creepy to go back because the buildings he went to every day were gone. But it was worth it, he said, because right before the attacks he had ordered PaintShop Pro furtively, for personal use. He stole it when he went back to Ground Zero.
When he said that, the group laughed. “A was sign of normalcy,” the social worker said. A sign of hope to all of us.