Surviving 9/11: Ten years later


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.

Surviving 9/11: Ten years later

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  1. Nathalie
    Nathalie says:

    I’m here, in the East Village. Came here to slow down, not Wisconsin-farm slow…but slower nonetheless than my previous life. I don’t know what mediocre and elite in these contexts is, but I bet with 39 seconds left, the lines start to get clear and things don’t always fall where you thought they would. I’ve been thinking about what I want to do tomorrow, am thinking I might read, walk the dogs and spend some quiet time alone.

  2. Katemturner
    Katemturner says:

    it appears as if you aren’t high-achieving but you are. you made a conscious decision to achieve something higher than the current definition of high achieving. there is a huge migration happening at all levels of living, of people asking themselves what’s underneath the busy lives they lead, what might be possible if we went for deep instead of wide. 

    you’re still a high achiever. it’s that now you’re plugged into something that happening to us as a species, a turning point in evolution where we look at the life we lead, its true impact on our kids, our sense of well being, our community (that’s growing more global by the day).

    a psychic prediction? five years from now you’ll be a frontrunner, a visionary living what she teaches, recognized for the courage and insight it took to make the leaps you did to escape the machine of High Production, for showing what happens to a high-achiever when they turn that high energy and vision toward living a life more full of truth and connection and Yes. :)

  3. Amy Monticello
    Amy Monticello says:

    Penelope, this post reads entirely differently than your screeds against grad school. You have humility here. You want others to follow their instincts even when people like you tell them they’re making a mistake. You want others to be changed. I love Wisconsin–I love the whole Midwest, actually–and I’m glad you’re there, setting the pace of the life you want, and not the life others (even a former you) want for you. Maybe you could take your tortoise-winning sense of peace to the University of Wisconsin, and speak with some of their humanities graduates. Observe their happiness or unhappiness. Recognize them as different from you, just as you are now different from lifers in NYC. Allow them whatever mistakes you’re certain they’re making. But also allow them to surprise you, to accomplish what you think they can’t, to become people you’d be proud to be, if you were them. Allow them to be happy if they are.

  4. Damomma
    Damomma says:

    You keep talking about “interesting” as though there is a universal truth of what interesting is, but I think it’s subjective.  No, not subjective — it is evolutionary.  As a kid you have a hot job in a fancy location and that is what is interesting.  But you grow up and the jobs and the titles and the fancy clothes are suddenly false-fronts and the real, dirty, banal life behind them is all that interests you, because it’s all that’s real.   And if you really grow up you find life itself inherently interesting wherever it is, however it is.

    Oh what a gift to make thousands of others interested, too.  And I’m really glad you didn’t die. 

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    So here we are 10 years
    later and still there are 28 pages of the 9/11 report which haven’t been
    released! This video sheds a lot of light on what those 28 pages might have in
    them.. Let us grow out of the silly idea that a bunch of cave dwelling Afghanis
    were able to pull something like that off! Americans deserve closure. Send this
    video out to everyone you know!

  6. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    And what about the opportunities your kids would be missing right now if you had stayed in NY.  NY and the fast life isn’t everything.  In fact, it really isn’t anything when you think of quality of life.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your ongoing willingness to be vulnerable and open with your life and experiences. This was incredibly moving and emotional. I am so glad you made it. Your boys are blessed to have a mom who is on such a journey as you are and so obviously loves them deeply. 

    Thank you for sharing…


  8. Oler
    Oler says:

    Such a joke when folks in some small metro like St. Louis are scared to venture downtown. Yeah right…that will be a target…(don’t think so!!)

  9. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    Paraphrasing Penelope

    ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. Everything is okay… You would know that if you thought you had 30 more seconds to live.’

    Thanks, Penelope. I needed to hear that.

  10. Sarah Bramundsen
    Sarah Bramundsen says:

    Your kids look like Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley ) and Dan Radcliffe (Harry Potter ) in the first movie… :D

  11. Dale
    Dale says:

    Nothing changes for any of us unless we experience discomfort. 911 was extremely uncomfortable, but for most of us that discomfort didn’t last.  We need to remember why to continue on the path to permanent change, or the zeal to change dies and we revert to what we were before.

  12. Dale
    Dale says:

    Nothing changes for any of us unless we experience discomfort. 911 was extremely uncomfortable, but for most of us that discomfort didn’t last.  We need to remember why to continue on the path to permanent change, or the zeal to change dies and we revert to what we were before.

  13. Ma
    Ma says:

    Not directly related to this post but I was wondering how you manage to find time to synthesis all the articles and news on the internet? Do you use google reader? Have a newsfeed set up? What are the primary sources you use? 

  14. Pattimurphy
    Pattimurphy says:

    Beautiful post. And I’m glad you survived, so that we could have an interesting voice in the internet jungle.

  15. Erica
    Erica says:

    One can live one’s life in many different ways, and you undoubtably will be giving up some things in one kind of life to have another kind of life. It really comes down to being ok with your choice, and possibly that comes down to self-esteem. I believe what’s critically important, no matter whether you are in rural America or in NYC, is to be informed. If it’s one thing that can be taken away from 9/11 is that the world is increasingly smaller. What happens in other places does and will affect us increasingly. To me, being informed means reading several points of view from several news outlets, from more than one country and/or in more than one language. With the internet you can be informed, and inform your kids, from anywhere.

  16. Zo
    Zo says:

    Well I was living and alive but not very old when this happened and i just can’t believe that i was almost 4 and i can’t remember a single thing……

  17. Robb Skidmore
    Robb Skidmore says:

    I too will never forget that day and the trauma I experienced watching the towers come down on television. A horrible sense of powerlessness. At the time I was cranking out a gargantuan first draft of a novel. After a million different things happened in those ten years, I am about to release that novel in December.

  18. Helen
    Helen says:

    Oh, Penelope, how I needed to read this today!  I have just had a miserable day.  I have recently given up a high paying job to focus on my business, for which I am in the hole currently.  So I am working to pay my start up costs right now, which I am still paying out,  I drove home from a show today heartbroken and crying about how I sold very little, and the whole `what did I do` thing.  This post put it all into perspective.  It made me think about how I`m here for when my teenage son gets home from school most days, and how I was never able to do that when he was younger working my 9 – 5.  And about how even though I`m not making any salary at all yet, I do not miss my job and believe I never will (though hey, honestly, I feel I will miss the money!)  You`ve refered to the `dip`before regarding a start up, and I do feel I am in it.  Your post reminded me that its going to be ok, one way or the other!  I am so glad you survived 9/11, because I would never have had the courage to do what I have done without your blog and the advice you have given about entreprenuership.  Despite the bad times, I already feel generally happier in this new role.  I too have to echo other readers and thank you for your brutal honesty and vulnerability when writing your posts!  I am utterly addicted and inspired.

  19. 2el esya
    2el esya says:

    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.

  20. Dannielle
    Dannielle says:

    My favorite blog of yours is the one where you talked about being abused as a child, and how it taught you to not-be-afraid to be transparent. This one is my second favorite. You have been blessed with great wisdom, and your children are beautiful. 

  21. Chloe
    Chloe says:

    I’m glad you continually write your story and I’m glad that you admit that you don’t know the final answers. I don’t either. It seems rare to find people who are willing to admit it.

  22. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    You did not have to move to a rural farm to enjoy three meals a day with your kids. try mInneapolis. The best of all worlds. Plus, everyone thinks Mpls is shitty, so it will never get too congested.

  23. Jeanne Mock
    Jeanne Mock says:

    You have a very powerful story… Thanks for sharing. Being okay with a situation you can’t change takes time but is necessary to live a happy life. And maybe you could change things if you wanted to, but in the end, which would make you happier? That’s life for you!

  24. Pawan Garg
    Pawan Garg says:

    It is really OK to be out of compitition so that you can decide and prepare yourself to enter into compitition once again; otherwise, help your kids to deal with it (COMPITITION) in future.

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  26. Sarah Q
    Sarah Q says:

    That is so touching – I suppose big events in your life like surviving the twin towers disaster makes you put everything in perspective and learn that in the end, things that may seem so vital to now like weighing a certain amount, having a certain career, etc, are in the end not important. I need to remember this!

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