9/11: Flashbacks from behaving poorly at the World Trade Center


It's 9/11 again. And for the last seven years, I've written on this day about how I have grown since the World Trade Center. I was standing next to the first tower when it fell.

Mostly, I don't think about 9/11 anymore. Well, not on a daily basis at least. But, for example, I so seldom hear a plane flying over my town—Middleton, WI—that when I do, I have flashbacks to hearing the second plane fly right over me and into the building.

I also have flashbacks when I go running with the farmer on his dirt road. On a dry day the dust gets in my mouth and it feels like the moments leading up to when the air was so thick with debris from the fallen building that I couldn't breath. We stopped running on the dirt for the summer.

In an odd way, though, 9/11 has helped me. It helped me focus my career, and understand my personal history, and it helped me have compassion for my husband when our marriage was ending.

Over the years, what that upsets me the most about 9/11 has changed. In the beginning, I was most upset about how when I saw danger, I walked toward the building, to see what was happening, rather than getting back on the train and going home. Later I learned that most of Wall St. responded the same way, so I was beating myself up for what was simple human nature.

Later, the thing that most upset me was that I needed so much help from people, but I did not offer help. For example, someone else broke a window, I don't know how, but I pulled myself into a building with breathable air just as I was preparing to accept death. I made my way to a bathroom that was clean and had running water.

Our mouths were so coated with debris that we couldn't really breathe without first swallowing water. There were men fighting over who could drink out of the toilet first. The fighting men scared me and my instinct was to lock the door—I just wanted to be safe.

Later I realized that most people around me were being selfish. It is another natural instinct that you never read about in the newspaper. Who wants to tell a reporter about their selfishness on the anniversary of 9/11?

This year, I realized that my most upsetting moment has changed again. It was the moment where I accepted that I was going to die. I had just married my husband, and I was so disappointed that I would not see how our lives unfolded. I realized that the greatest joy in life is simply watching the lives of people you love unfold in their very own way.

After 9/11 I had a series of nervous breakdowns. I was scared to walk in the city, I could not handle the stress of being the primary breadwinner with a newborn, and then we lost everything we owned to bed bugs, and I got a divorce.

For most of that time, I don't remember feeling excited about watching my life unfold. I felt like something was wrong with me. And I also felt like, if what you are most sad about when you die is not getting to watch life unfold, and if I am not excited about getting to do that now, then what am I living for?

I tried not to think about it. But I know from my post-traumatic stress therapy that trying to not think about it is not healthy.

But just lately, the past few months, things changed. I have financial stability since my company is more stable and doing well, I fell in love with the farmer and convinced him to un-dump me. And I found a nice rhythm with my sons in our post-divorce life that is actually much more peaceful and intimate than we have ever had.

So I am excited again to watch my life unfold. I am excited to see my sons grow, and my relationship with the farmer grow, and I'm excited to see what happens with my company.

And I wonder: Did the World Trade Center cause me to become completely unstable for a time? Or did the World Trade Center give me a framework for creating a different stability that grows better every year?

47 replies
  1. Beth
    Beth says:

    This is a really interesting post. I have never read about anyone’s PTSD experience before. Something horrible happened to me 3 weeks ago & I don’t really know what to do about it it, what to think about it, or how to process it. No one understands because I can’t find anyone who it has also happened to. I don’t sleep, I am no use at work, I have no concentration & I am in a foul mood. So this post helped. Thank you so much.

  2. Kevin Polk
    Kevin Polk says:


    Your description of how your trauma story has changed from sort of keeping you “stuck” in the story to being more flexible in your moves into life (relationships, parenting, work, etc.) is moving to say the least.

    Great work!


    P.S. Full disclosure: I do a fair amount of work in this area (I’m a clinical psychologist). Your post will help me help others. Thanks!

  3. Michael Fidler
    Michael Fidler says:

    I’m glad that this is the first post I came across this morning about 9/11. I’m glad because out of all the pain you’ve endured, you’re finally beginning to see something positive from it. Unfortunately our greatest growth comes from the most painful experiences. Normally when I read something I like, I share it, but it doesn’t seem appropriate in this case. Thanks for expressing your feelings about this so openly. It’s left me with a smile on a difficult morning.

  4. Christine Livingston
    Christine Livingston says:

    What an awesome post. I truly admire your courage in getting through what you did and in writing about your experience so honestly and so respectfully of yourself and of the situation. I am inclined to think that both things you say are true: the World Trade Center BOTH caused you to be unstable for a while, AND has given you a framework for creating a different stability.

    Best wishes


  5. Richard Calautti
    Richard Calautti says:

    Penelope, I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now and this is absolutely one of my favourite posts of yours. It’s really inspiring and do brutally honest in many ways. It has really moved me. Many thanks. Richard x

  6. Kat
    Kat says:

    Beautifully said, beautifully done. You are a courageous writer, truth-teller, and human being. Years ago, someone told me that “in every season of suffering and tragedy, new lessons for living are learned.” Sometimes it takes time to see those blessings. I’m glad you’ve been able to see yours.By telling your story so honestly, you give others hope to find theirs.

  7. Jay Schryer
    Jay Schryer says:

    This is a really beautiful, and powerful story. I love how you’ve taken the tragedy and your own personal “failures” (which weren’t really failures, as you’ve come to realize) on that day, and have turned them around into a positive turning point in your life. everything that happens to us, both good and bad, contains a lesson and an opportunity for us to grow.You’ve really embraced that idea, and it shows with this post. I think we could all learn a great deal from this. I know I have.

  8. Suzy
    Suzy says:

    I realized that the greatest joy in life is simply watching the lives of people you love unfold in their very own way.


  9. Suzy
    Suzy says:

    Thank you for sharing your 9/11 story as it continues to unfold. As a survivor, you bring the epic event back to a personal level.

    Thanks too for linking to the bedbugs, it is timely as I ask everyone I encounter to recommend a great exterminator for a moth problem that is getting the best of me! The reactions of people have been priceless as they are shocked I would mention/admit to a bug problem.

    Living in the Netherlands, housing is expensive and cramped, so we too use your NYC rule of getting rid of something(s) every time we buy. Thanks to the rule, we are not so attached to the things but I would rather be giving away the coats, suits, and sweaters instead of tossing them. I like to look on the bright side, at least these moths aren’t biting my kids!!!

  10. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I’m so thankful that you survived and have shared your experiences with the world. You have so much to offer. I don’t know if I believe in God, but I do believe that sometimes good things can come from horrible tragic experiences. YOu are living proof.

  11. Joe
    Joe says:

    My feelings about your various posts are generally all over the map, but it’s posts like this that keep me coming back. Thanks for sharing that. And as tempting as it might be to beat yourself up for being selfish, all you can do is use that as a model for how you don’t want to behave going forward. It’s a total cliche, but that which does not kill us makes us stronger, right?

  12. Genevieve
    Genevieve says:

    “I realized that the greatest joy in life is simply watching the lives of people you love unfold in their very own way.”

    So true and beautiful (so difficult to keep front of mind every day in real life though).

    I always come back to your writing because of your voice, courage and honesty.

  13. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    I really like the way you talk about how you’ve changed the way you evaluate yourself, and have given yourself more context–not just “did I meet an ideal,” but “was my behavior really all that strange.” And clearly no, it wasn’t. I think we survive in all kinds of ways, and it’s really interesting to see how your perceptions of that have changed.

  14. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    Isn’t it lovely when things fall into place and you can just swim around in your own happiness for a while? Continue on content little fishy… life is about times like these!

  15. Acting outside myself
    Acting outside myself says:

    I’ve never experienced anything so traumatic as 9/11.

    On a much smaller scale, however, I’ve witnessed and responded to four separate traumas. Each was of a different nature and each required emergency medical assistance, e.g. a car accident, a loved one getting hurt, etc.

    Typically, I’m a wimp for anything bloody. I can also be over-emotional and over-caring, to the point of incapacitation. What I noticed about myself at those emergency moments, however, was that a different “me” kicked in – someone I wouldn’t otherwise know I could be. In each case I became robotically unattached, very decisive and totally capable.

    My point in telling this is, that to those who observed me in those emergencies, I probably appeared rather uncaring. Yet, I was very much in control and my actions medically assisted the person in need, if not saved his life. In each case, it was after the fact–after I had been relieved of the responsibility–that I emotionally fell apart.

    God gives us amazing strength to deal with life. Our human reactions in traumatic times are natural because that’s what it takes to survive.

  16. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    @Joe “My feelings about your various posts are generally all over the map, but it’s posts like this that keep me coming back.” Well said, Joe. I came here knowing that you would post about 9/11 and this one blows me away.
    Re: your final question, it’s a little like which came first, the chicken or the egg – but I say the latter: 9/11 gave you a framework for creating a different stability that grows better every year. Just compare your posts of the last 7 years with today’s – so different this year, both in tone and content. Bravo. You’ve turned the corner.

    • prklypr
      prklypr says:

      PS It is not odd at all that 9/11 helped you focus on your career and be more compassionate. I think that was one of the most common effects of 9/11, whether you were there (you) or across the river waiting for your family and friends to come (me – and not all of them did). Traumatic events cause people to reassess their lives, both personal and professional. Career changes, divorce, etc are expected, I think.

  17. sharonA
    sharonA says:

    Thank you so much for this post today (and all your past posts on/about this day). When I first came across your blog you were referencing your experience with 9/11, and it was heart-wrenching but comforting to read through every single related link. After six years in New York, I moved back to Seattle in 2005 and I’ve always felt a sense of isolation when it comes to anything having to do with this event. Your posts, your references, your experience, and the way you move through your life help those of us who were there but aren’t any longer feel a sense of connectedness.

    It will never be just another day, but like you, every single day has a sense of purpose; my drive is more focused and I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner. So for me, both of your questions have a true answer. I may have been unstable for a while, but this new life is more precious each day I live it.

  18. Kelly Kuner-Sexton
    Kelly Kuner-Sexton says:

    Thank you for sharing. It was very thoughtful and it reminds me that life is fluid and your perspective about things that happen in your life can evolve over time.

  19. angela
    angela says:

    Thanks for your story and your personal truth. It’s an inspiration. Your post today moved me to tears. I’ve also been through a devastating, traumatic event, though very different than what you went through, and can relate to so much of what you said, particularly the part about going through a time of instability. I am afraid to go back to work and I have not been ok since it happened. I wrote out my story as if I were going to post it and then I deleted it, because it didn’t seem appropriate for me to share it on a day of remembrance, when the focus should be on honoring the memories of those who were lost or celebrating the lives of those who survived during the events of 9/11. I don’t think it would be respectful to the memory of those fallen on 9/11 if I were to share my vitriol and bitterness over my own personal tragedy, so I will save my story for another time. God bless you and all the work that you do.

  20. Jim
    Jim says:

    In regard to your closing sentences, I would say that while you were thrown off centre for a time, you obviously fought to regain your balance – and life – moving forward to create something new. I wonder how many people who were directly affected by 911 on that horrible day are still emotionally paralyzed, unable to undergo a rebirth, such as you did.

  21. Kim Ann Curtin
    Kim Ann Curtin says:

    Thank you Penelope.
    For your courage to be honest.
    For your willingness to be vulnerable.
    What 9/11 did for so many of us (I myself was about to take off on a AA flight out of LGA that morning to CO.) was give us the ultimate Perspective Shift. And that my dear, is the key to what Kurt Hahn expresses with “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.”
    I salute you for being unwilling to settle for less.

  22. Bridget
    Bridget says:


    Nice post

    I think you were correct, speaking from the heart really brings out the best in you. Sometime we have to break everything down to rebuild a better life. Most of the time we don’t feel like we are the agent creating the deterioration. Often times that is true. But it just feels like from time to time we are forced to reconstruct,like some power to make sure we are maximizing our experience in this life.

    What also strikes me in this post is what a difference a year makes. All of the positive things in your life were not working last year. It just gives one the additional encouragement that even if life looks hopeless today, it can change on a dime.

    As usual I learned something new from reading your post-thank you!

  23. Elisa
    Elisa says:

    You know the phrase “women and children first” when evacuating (usually a boat) I learned from a nautical security friend (yep, we’ve got lots of those up here in Maine) that the reason for that phrase has nothing to do with chivalry or kindness or anything like that.

    Basically, in an evacuation situation people get frenzied and the men would literally trample to death the women and children getting to safety. So they implemented the strategy “women and children first” so that men would be reminded that in general they are bigger/stronger/deadlier tramplers and they need to let the smaller folks off the boat first.

  24. Dale
    Dale says:

    The saying “time heals all wounds” definitely is true, but only if we let time work.
    Because of your personality, you morphed because of your active lifestyle, and willingness to seek the “substance” of life. Seven years was enough for you, well really five in your case as I’ve seen the changes in you really take root about two years ago. But what if one’s life situation is not changing or allowed to change? Does healing and growth take place then? I think not.
    PTSD’s effects diffuse as time passes, but a considerable amount of inner reflection and patience is necessary to fully benefit (yes I meant to say benefit) from any tragedy or trial. You gave your self the time, I only hope that others reading this give themselves the time – however long it takes.


  25. Eric Wentworth
    Eric Wentworth says:

    What you have gone through consists of one of life’s 25 most stressful events—the terrorist attacks, divorce, moving and a new career (that’a all I surmise from your blog, they’re may be more).

    I’ve gone through 23 of the 25 most stressful events since 9/11 (although being there wasn’t one of them). Some of them two or three times.

    It’s interesting to observe the different responses to stress and trauma. It’s so individual. I’ve often thought that, in my case, I should be drinking or on drugs. I’ve chosen to carry on and press forward–an eternal optimist. But I have noticed that my joy in life isn’t anywhere what it was once. The happy-go-lucky is, well, gone.

    Now I just live for moments of joy (and there are many if you stay open to them). They are like little stepping stones across the otherwise bleak landscape that constitutes life in 21st century America.

  26. Dale
    Dale says:

    Life doesn’t have to be bleak. It’s like anything else, it seems to cycle. But I believe we can make it more than a bland existence by living for more than ourselves. I know it’s not in fashion today, but just remember the good feeling you get from doing something for others even if they don’t know you did it for them.
    Now go after thst feeling by volunteering, giving of yourself, and or by simply being kind. It works, I know it does. Also, take time every day to make peace with yourself. That helps too.
    There is joy to be had, but we must work for it:)

  27. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Thank you for sharing your story of 9/11 and your journey since that time. I think the World Trade Center tragedy has helped you in many ways based on the content of this blog. However the help was not gentle or compassionate. It was abrupt, harsh, and required your survival skills to get through it. It’s a long journey and what’s important to monitor is the trend overall.
    I recently saw a video interview of a man who was in one of the towers and he managed to escape thanks to the help of a fireman. He used the words cowardice and selfishness to describe his character that day. My point is some people are more honest and forthcoming with their feelings and can better describe them and put them in their proper context with time as they are able to process them.
    There are so many experiences and feelings that we can’t or won’t talk about and yet we share many of those same things. I guess it’s part of the human condition. I’ve also had my own “9/11” with a long journey. Many issues have been solved with still more on the table. Thankfully I am not perfect as I wouldn’t have any problems to work on. :) My “9/11” has made me more grateful for many of the simple and small things in life. That’s how I look at it and for which I am grateful.

  28. Brent Driver
    Brent Driver says:

    The occasion of 9/11 reminds us all that life is full of trials. The saying that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is so very very true. Penelope could’ve folded like a blanket after her experience at the WTC and her life could’ve gone in a completely different direction…perhaps even have ended prematurely. However, her trials as a child perhaps gave her the strength and prepared her for that moment, just as 9/11 prepared her for the trials that came with having her own children and the end of her marriage. Many people end up blaming God, fate, others, etc. for their misfortune…and those people are usually never happy in life…ever.

    For the rest of us, there is always hope on the other side. If you can find the strength to get through whatever trials you are enduring right now (and we all have it within us…sometimes it takes asking for help to truly find that endurance), you will emerge on the other side even stronger…often able to help others with their own trials. This is the true joy of life. (James ch.1, vs. 2-18)

  29. Tryal
    Tryal says:

    Thanks for this post. I experienced something traumatic this spring. I hope that I find the benefit from this. I know that I’m trying to take care of myself and my family better since this tragedy. I’m especially trying to take better care of myself, which lends itself to taking better care of my family.

    This tragedy has caused me to reevaluate things and want to change certain things but I live in fear of making the wrong decisions.

  30. Juliana
    Juliana says:

    > Mostly, I don't think about 9/11 anymore.

    Then why do you keep writing about it all the time? STFU!

    By the way, I don’t for a minute believe you were there. If you could, you’d try to convince people you were at the Kennedy assassination too. You just love attention, no matter how much you have to lie to get it.

    • sal
      sal says:

      If the frequency of her 9/11 posts bothers you, stop reading the blog. It’s that simple. There is no need to get nasty and unhinged.

  31. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    Thank you for this candid post. Watching lives unfold, and Become, what,as Paul Coelho conveys in The Alchemist, as our own Personal Legends, is truly one of the greatest blessings of all.

    I have 3 teenage children, and I marvel each and every day at what they reveal to me;of who they are, who they aren’t,and who their trying to avoid becoming. I marvel at myself and my husband as we grow and change in this tumultuous time, trying to become the parents we’d want to have if we were them. I marvel each day at what my dog and cat have to teach me; about themselves, about me and about just how much more alike we are than different.

    As I send kids off to college now, I marvel at what more I’ll become, at how our marriage will grow and change as our roles change, and I’ll try to do it all with faith. The unknown, and the known, can be tricky little buggers to navigate, but in the end, Life is still a mystery, and although I wasn’t ever a Nancy Drew Fan, I do like to see what the Master Weaver has up it’s infinite sleeve, and I’ll marvel at it as it unfolds, because, that’s My own Personal Legend, and the universe is conspiring to create it, after all,uniquely for me. The least I can do is embrace it.

  32. Kathryn Binau
    Kathryn Binau says:

    you captured so many of my same thoughts – i was not in New York but i was on a plane flying out of Washington DC and my husband was in Washington D.C. at a meeting. Generally i don’t think about it but on the anniversary, i find myself paralyzed for most of the morning. maybe it is post traumatic stress- maybe not but i know that my husband and i changed our entire lives as a result of that day. we left the washington area and moved to the midwest. i no longer feel scared for my family and for myself but it takes very little to bring me back to that moment.

  33. Elm Clark
    Elm Clark says:

    I was watching the twin towers fall from the UK and I still remember how traumatizing it was…just watching it on Tv. I can’t imagine what it would have been like standing right THERE next to it as it fell!

  34. Stacey Kannenberg
    Stacey Kannenberg says:

    A favorite Penelope quote: I realized that the greatest joy in life is simply watching the lives of people you love unfold in their very own way.

    Instead of thinking you are lost, I believe you are simply watching yourself unfold in the way you are suppose to unfold in your very own way.

  35. Ganoderma Coffee
    Ganoderma Coffee says:

    Thanks for your story. I have to remember back when this happened. My little brother was born just the day before, he was just one day old. It’s been easy to remember exactly how long ago this happened because it’s just 1 day older then him.

    I was drinking coffee in the morning (west coast) and a friend called us and told us to look at the news. We were in shock for the rest of the day!

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