My 9/11 fifteen years later

My 9/11 fifteen years later

In case you don’t know, I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. Here is the piece I wrote for Time magazine on that day.

Here is an archive of the posts I’ve written every year on 9/11.

Here are my two biggest problems today:

1. Kids. Both my sons slimed out of doing chores two days in a row and I have read way too many times that kids who grow up with chores are way more resilient than kids who don’t grow up with chores. And I really really want to be a good mom because I have to work so hard at not duplicating my own childhood.

2. Fat. I have gained 30 pounds since I started driving 20 hours a week for my son’s cello lessons. I was thin before this started, and I am tall, but still, gaining 30 pounds is really terrifying. I have to wake up every day and tell myself I can lose it. Or else I won’t get out of bed.

So, it’s fifteen years after 9/11 and I’m going to tell you the secret to all of life: 9/11 didn’t change me. I’m back to my regular self. I am worrying that I can’t extract myself from my childhood and I’m worrying that I’m fat.

There is a lot of research about how catastrophes don’t really change who we are. Like if you lose a limb you will be just as happy after that as you were before you lost the limb. We have a happiness set point we revert back to. I used to think it’s incredible. Now I think it’s consoling.

I want to be me. I don’t want to be someone who can be completely changed by a few hours. Or minutes, if you are just counting the moments when I thought I would definitely die.

There are little things, maybe, that have changed. Like, maybe I focus on so much on resilience because it was a huge focus in the group therapy sessions after 9/11. But really my whole life has been about resilience – finding it inside myself.

And thank goodness, because I know now, that I can rely on it to get me through anything. The events of 9/11 didn’t change me, but they helped me to know I have the resilience I’ll need to get me through life.

Last week a friend’s son interviewed me about 9/11 for a school project. At the end of the interview he said, “Cool. Thank you so much. I’m going to have the best report of anyone!”

And I said, “Great! I hope yours is the best!”

And that’s how I know how well I’ve bounced back. Fifteen years later I want to be the best school report, and the best mom, and the most thin. Not much has changed since I was seventeen years old.

37 replies
  1. cynthia woodyard
    cynthia woodyard says:

    Boom, hit life on the head! I like you mas o minus 30 lbs. You’re brilliant and brave at what you do with what you have……..XO

  2. Francine
    Francine says:

    I love you Penelope and I find your analysis 15 years later truly inspiring. Yes-resilience. Yes-it was awful. Yes, you have different life experiences and different knowledge as a result of your experience on Sept 11, 2001…but you are the same person at your core. Just like the rest of us. Trying to live a good life, worried about doing things well…and now you know you can live through pretty much anything!

  3. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Dear Penelope, I will focus on the weight issue. If you think your BMI is not what it should be, take immediate action to lose the pounds (calories in vs. calories out, remember to drink water). Tomorrow is a good day to start. I am also working on losing pounds, many of them. I know from experience, that once we pile the pounds, is not easy to lose them. Is hard work. It is your health. Everything else is better, when our weight is kept under control. Thank you for your blog.

  4. MBL
    MBL says:

    My daughter doesn’t know much about 9/11. I just mentioned this to her and she asked if the anniversary was a time of mourning or celebration. I replied “I guess both.”

    Thanks for posting.

  5. Carol of Kensington
    Carol of Kensington says:

    I started reading you regularly because of what you wrote about September 11th. It was so good and so interesting and Hemingwayesque. With you, every word has value.

    That kid is clever to realise your story is going to make his report great. Guess the midwest isn’t teenage wasteland.

  6. Carol of Kensington
    Carol of Kensington says:

    My husband and I went on the Bulletproof diet over a year ago. I’m fitting clothes I haven’t fit in 20 years. He says he’s the size he was at university. It’s a diet that gives you brain power and a happier mood so try blending unsalted butter in your coffee. You might like it.

  7. The EQualified Engineer
    The EQualified Engineer says:

    First time, 15 years later, I read your post about 9/11. I wish I had seen it sooner, but I did now at least.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    As Carol posted previously, I believe it is refered to the Keto diet or LCHF, low carb, high fat. I’ve been doing it myself, sucessfully, after several years of failed weight loss attempts and can recommend it.

    You seem to be a great mum and I am sure your kids will grow up to happy and strong individuals.

    Keep up the good work, new subscriber coming up :) Have a great day!

  8. MBL
    MBL says:

    Definitely low carb. It is the only thing that works for me. I have lost 50 pounds since December. My husband has lost 45 since June. And he eats a ton. With your access to great eggs and vegetables, it should be really easy. And look into flax recipes for “bread” type things. The studies on flax preventing breast cancer are amazing.

  9. Jesse Bernstein
    Jesse Bernstein says:

    As my niece, I remember all too well you comments regarding your first hand experience of 9/11. I also remember reading your account during a school assembly shortly afterwards. For several weeks afterwards, I broke into tears for no apparent reason though there was every reason in the world to have done so. About five years ago, while going to therapy while recovering from a torn quad tendon surgery, I observed first hand what the human spirit is all about. I observed the very elderly, with extremely debilitating injuries, push themselves both figuratively and literally to get over their injury. I will always admire the human will to survive.

  10. Ann Eichenberger
    Ann Eichenberger says:

    Seems like those commenting have lots of diet advice. But not much recognition of the reason you gained the 30lbs. Even if you lost 30 lbs, could you keep it off as long as you are driving to cello lessons. We all gain weight for a reason. For you, is the amount of time spent or the importance you place on your son having a different childhood than yours?
    Perhaps you are placing impossible demands on yourself. Just as the Trade Towers can’t be reconstructed, the impact of your childhood can not be totally erased. My two cents.

  11. C is for Conifer SECRET FAN CLUB
    C is for Conifer SECRET FAN CLUB says:

    Your original post—leaves me speechless but filled with awareness about many areas I want to explore more. So very brave. Thank you so much for that genius and this current post too, perfect also.

    Last years post only shows the first few sentences. I thought that was the whole post and was actually impressed that you chose to acknowledge the day despite not being ready to chat that day.

  12. me
    me says:

    ” … my whole life has been about resilience – finding it inside myself. … I can rely on it to get me through anything. I have the resilience I’ll need to get me through life.”

    Dear P, Thank you so much for sharing this. Especially today.

    Peace, sister.

  13. Rebeca
    Rebeca says:

    I appreciate your annual posts very much. However, on 9/11 I find comments about weight loss interesting because:
    1) everyone feels they have THE diet when in fact they found the program that worked for them at just the time when the needed it or were ready to do something.
    2) I bet 30 lbs lighter you were very under weight as this blog speaks of eating disorders as well.
    And 3) your weight is so not the point.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      For me, her feelings about her weight are exactly the point. If being at ground zero for 9/11 doesn’t recalibrate someone’s priorities (core beliefs/knowledge about what affects their frame of mind) then nothing will. The fact weight is trivial AND of such import makes it a perfect example.

      Regarding weight loss tips, Penelope has frequently posted the effect that carbs have on her. People who are similarly affected by carbs know that once carbs are out of your system you realize that “lack of willpower” was never the problem. It is chemical. Furthermore, once you make the decision that “I don’t eat carbs” or whatever, you have taken that decision off of the table. That is huge in that you have removed many, many decisions that lead to decision fatigue–which is a known factor in weight problems.

      Whether or not weight “should” matter as much as it does doesn’t change the fact that it does matter some. Of course 15 years and a couple of pregnancies are going to change one’s metabolism, and one’s “healthy weight” may go up some, but even 10-15 pounds can make a difference healthwise in long run.

  14. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    As a mother, I think the thing I most worry about is if I can instill resilience or enough resilience in my kids.

    They’re not doing any chores, other than my 4-year-old daughter likes to help me make deserts.

  15. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I was worried you may not do a post this year. I am happy you did. I love you! Thanks for helping to educate me about personality types.

  16. DC Acoustic
    DC Acoustic says:

    I don’t know what it is about your writing, Penelope Trunk, but I’ve lost count of the times I have felt like crying when I read your blogs. That’s challenging for a middle aged, middle class white guy in a suit eating his lunch in public…
    I just read your original 9/11 piece. Same story – simple and honest, you somehow manage to convey very individual human fear and confusion that I suspect was widely experienced on that day and I’m grateful for your insight.

  17. ellen
    ellen says:

    Have you ever gone to Food Addicts Anonymous meetings? No sugar, no flour changed my life. I binge but the FA plan WORKS.

    I like when you write about struggling with weight. It’s interesting and inspiring and relatable.

  18. Erin Wetzel
    Erin Wetzel says:

    Penelope –

    When you told me to stop writing about the time I tried to kill myself bc it was boring and I wasn’t the same person anymore, it was one of the most comforting things you ever said to me.


  19. Andrea Enright
    Andrea Enright says:

    This is so interesting. I’m recovering from my own catastrophe– my husband died fourteen months ago. And I already feel like I’m heading towards my “happiness set point.” It’s frightening, actually. How can I be ok after my husband died? But I’ve got to keep living and I’m realizing I just want to be happy and skinny. Kind of the same stuff before he died. So weird.

  20. Debbie Hewitt
    Debbie Hewitt says:

    Hi Penelope, I think the distinction with kids is around those who have chores to slime out of and those who don’t. I’m sure your kids are going to be fine. They seem to be doing remarkably well.
    Many, many people with awful childhoods (and yours was way more awful than most awful ones) are wonderful parents. We know how horrible parenting feels, and we can usually recognise it when we see it.

  21. Lindsey
    Lindsey says:

    Thanks so much for this piece. I love it. It IS a little ridiculous but also comforting that we just want to be healthy and happy. We’ll always want to be better, or the best, smarter, make more money, win.

    Everything will be okay because some things really will be fine, and we have the resilience to overcome anything that is not fine. So then how do we balance sitting still and being in peace with being in motion and working hard?

  22. harris497
    harris497 says:

    You wrote, “We have a happiness set point we revert back to. I used to think it’s incredible. Now I think it’s consoling.” But what if you are not happy with your happiness set point? Does this mean that we are stuck… despite what the gurus say? This is rather depressing for those depressed or anxious readers. At least that is how I interpret the message. I may be wrong…

  23. Annabella
    Annabella says:

    If you’re like 99 percent of society, then what you’re carrying is not an extra 30 pounds of fat, but a combination of fat plus inflammation due to stress, sugar, grains and gluten. If you’re predisposed to any kind of illness, then the stress of being in the car so much, then eating sugar, grains and gluten is going to cause you to blow up.

    But you know all of this. I don’t need to say it.

    I’m susceptible to and predisposed to hypothyroidism and a laundry list of auto-immune illnesses which are commonly misdiagnosed by traditional medical doctors. After some self-education and research, now I know I’m fine as long as I stay away from sugar, grains and gluten, and limit certain kinds of stress. There’s the good stress, like forcing myself to write in the morning and getting it done, and there’s the bad stress, like worrying that I’m not writing while getting nothing accomplished.

    Take care of yourself because, eventually, something’s gotta give, and you don’t want it to be your health. I don’t mean to lecture. The road has been long for me in getting here so I tend to preach.

  24. AlisonR
    AlisonR says:

    You are right, it’s true. It doesn’t change you, but somehow things change, you begin to see things differently. You pass a test, get another token and pass to a new game level. Or it’s like another piece of the puzzle. The puzzle that is yourself, your life.

    I guess it depends what you look for. Defensive driving courses teach you to immediately look for gaps, not objects. You learn not to focus on the car coming for you, rather focus on the space. If you are looking for everything to end, maybe it will. If you look for a space you can move to, you can keep going. That’s kind of a nice metaphor.

  25. Brett Staupe
    Brett Staupe says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who put on weight in the past 15 years. Indeed I was supposed to be in both towers that day, for several interviews for jobs. My car blew up instead so I never made it. Those companies I might have gotten jobs with also died that day. Never really recovered from it. It put me 10 years behind everyone else.

  26. ghe sofa
    ghe sofa says:

    I weakened and susceptible to exhaustion and a long solid list of autoimmune diseases misdiagnosed by traditional medicine in general mà. After some study and research, now I know I’m fine as long as I stay away from sugar and gluten grains and certain types of stress. There is good stress, like forcing yourself to write in the morning and done it and have concerns like stress, bad that I did not write anything that gets results.

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