During the year after 9/11 I went to counseling for post-traumatic stress. I went to a group that met weekly. The counselors explained that if we told our story over and over again, the story would have less power over us.
So I have been telling my story for ten years. I am lucky to have a blog, and an amazing community to tell my story to. And recently, as the 10th anniversary has been approaching, I've been telling my story again, to many news outlets.
I was there when the first tower fell. I was so close to it that I could not even see what had happened. I didn't run. I ducked for cover. I got trampled. By the time I could stand up, everything was completely dark.
I remember the moment I realized I should close my mouth and stop breathing. Time got so slow. I remember thinking that if I had stopped breathing sooner, I would have had a few extra breaths right now. I remember thinking don’t swallow, because there was too much stuff in my mouth.
I thought to myself that I had no idea what to do to save my life. I was in the dark and couldn't breathe. I thought I'll only be alive for maybe a minute longer, so I only have to keep trying to figure out how to save my life for one more minute. I told myself I can't give up until I pass out. I remember that I hoped for a fast death.
Then something switched in me. I was okay dying. I felt okay with whatever level of pain I had before I died. I thought of my two brothers. I wanted them to be okay. To be fine. And I hoped someone would help them deal with my death. I thought of my husband, and I was so disappointed to not see our life unfold together.
That evening, after I had been to the hospital, after I had both eyes patched up, my husband finally told me both towers fell. That evening, I still thought the time that I was in the dark was maybe ten minutes. Now I realize that the time when I could not breathe was probably less than a minute. I had accepted the pain and my death after only 30 seconds.
The first time I told that story was when I wrote it for Time magazine on the evening of 9/11. I can't believe how much my story has changed. How much more I know.
Here's what I know. I know that leaving New York City is really hard to do. I spent my whole life being a high achiever. I was a high achiever in high school, even as the police were taking me out of my parents house for abuse. I was a high achiever in college, even while I was in a mental ward. I was a high achiever in my 20s, even as I was doing the hard work of taking care of my two youngest brothers.
Here's my life story: Top figure skater, professional beach volleyball player, syndicated journalist in 200 newspapers, author of three books, founder of three startups.
Here's my World Trade Center story: Learning to give up everything. I am not a person who waited until the end of my life to slow down. I'm someone who stopped competing. When you leave New York City to move to Wisconsin it's like a formal announcement that you are out of the competition.
In New York City, anyone who can manage living there with kids is doing something great in their career. For those who have kids, there is only room for high achievers in that city. And I am not there.
I live on a farm outside Darlington, WI, a very, very small rural community where most people are happy. Most people grew up here. Most people do not expect to leave. Most people do not expect to be the greatest at what they do. They just want to have a nice life. I do not fit here, to be honest. I find myself continually obsessed with being great, making my kids great, finding the best opportunities.
Like gymnastics camp. Top schools. Big vacations.
What I learned from the World Trade Center, ten years later, is that it's okay to pull back. It's okay to stop competing. It's the scariest thing I've done in my life. And I'm not great at it. I still drive eight hours round-trip so my son has a great cello teacher.
That 30 seconds when I thought I was dying gave me the strength to cut back on my fast-track life even though nothing else tells me that is a good idea. I have no friends who are on as slow a track as I am. I don't know anyone who left New York City with kids to a rural farm.
It's scary. What if I am giving up an interesting life for merely a peaceful life? What if the payoff for being together for three meals a day is not enough to compensate for the opportunities my kids miss?
The legacy of the World Trade Center is the stories of people who survived. And in those stories, I hear a symphony of assurances that it's okay to get off the fast track. Because you can still feel fulfilled. It's okay to earn half of what you're earning now. It's okay to put your kids in a bad school. It's okay to have a mediocre career or a mediocre house. It's okay even if you just rent forever.
All these things are okay. You would know that if you thought you had 30 more seconds to live.