By November 2002, I was working full-time at Robin Hood and interacting daily with organizations serving low-income victims of September 11th — my entire days at work were devoted to the consequences of that horrific day. Aside from work, I went to class two nights each week. I did homework. I worked on a semester-long group project. I spent hours commuting each day. With the little time I had left over, I tried to have a social life. I listened to my mom talk about what she was doing to move forward with her life. I was overwhelmed, and physically and emotionally exhausted all the time, and felt like I was suffocating a little bit more each day. (If you haven’t read my previous essay, this piece will make more sense if you do that first.)
In February of 2002, at the train station on my way to work, I saw the front page of the New York Post through the window on the newspaper box on the platform — Al Qaeda murdered Daniel Pearl by beheading him. Even though I had the Times in my bag, I found myself putting coins in the slot to retrieve the Post. I read it as I sat on the train while the Hudson River raced by outside my window.
There weren’t many people in the car with me as I devoured the articles about Daniel Pearl. When I finished, I put down the newspaper and sobbed. I thought of his wife and his parents. They were experiencing what my family was going through. Even though I didn’t know the Pearls, I felt acute pain for his family’s suffering. It seems childish to say, but it felt so unfair. How could rationale beings act in such savage and senseless ways? I didn’t have any answers but couldn’t help ask the question to myself repeatedly. Any murder is heinous, but a beheading? Were we in the Dark Ages? What did these murderers think they were accomplishing? And to film it for the world to see? I didn’t understand. It was, quite literally, incomprehensible to me. This was a different world than the one I’d grown up in. Dark forces were becoming more powerful and I was scared.
My heart overflowed with sadness for the Pearls. I wished I could do something to help them. Some kind word to offer. Something. Anything. I said a prayer and sent healing out into the universe. I wouldn’t allow the experience of dad being murdered by terrorists to harden me or to cause me to become insensitive to violence. I would permit myself to feel pain for them and pray for them.
After September 11th, I needed my dad. I missed him so much and had no one to talk to about the madness in the world. He was such a thoughtful and well-read person, and he served as a strong mentor and sounding board for me. Even though we disagreed on many points (mostly because I was young and idealistic and he was older and realistic), a conversation with my father was my first stop when I wanted to talk about world events.
I wished I could talk to him and he could explain everything to me in straightforward terms. He had a way of simplifying the most complicated topics so I could make sense of them. As a kid, I was an avid reader of the Daily News and always knew what was going on in New York City — stories about what had happened the previous day were easy to follow. (It helped that the tabloid Daily News was essentially written at a child’s reading level.) For more complicated topics, I relied on my father. Once during the 80s, when I was around nine, I saw TV footage of Shiite Muslims self-flagellating for a religious holiday. Despite my Catholic school education, I had never heard of or seen this practice before. My father patiently explained what was going on and then continued to give me a lesson on the Iran and Iraq war and the discord between Shiites and Sunnis. He broke it down in a way so it all made sense to me. I needed his perspective as I sat on the train. I needed to talk about Daniel Pearl, our country being attacked on 9/11, and everything else I couldn’t make sense of.
All my emotions about these different events were so intertwined and complicated. I couldn’t have put my finger on each of them while they were happening but each emotion became enmeshed with the others, like strands of spaghetti congealed together. I missed talking to my dad about current events. I missed laughing with him when something funny happened. I missed telling him about my classes and what I’d learned. Those feelings were situation specific and hit me unexpectedly. At the same time, I was sad and depressed about him being gone, and those feelings were different and far more deep-seated than simply missing our conversations or daily interactions. The depression overtook my whole self, was always there, like an elephant sitting on my belly.
For months, I’d been spending a lot of energy on not feeling anything. Trying to push everything down. It was grueling to sit in meeting after meeting listening to others talk about the struggles faced by families impacted by September 11th. I heard heartbreaking stories, and I wanted to feel for these survivors. But if I let myself feel too much for them, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop my own feelings from rushing to the surface.
Instead, I kept up my practice of pushing the feelings aside and listening to words without absorbing them into my inner being. I heard them with my intellect but refused to hear them with my heart. I needed to focus on the work. Here and there, I brought out my personal perspective, and shared a tidbit or two about my own loss, but I couldn’t let the volcano erupt. Certainly, not as often as I would have liked. And certainly not like I did for Daniel Pearl and his family.
A month earlier, after Thanksgiving, my manager asked me how the holiday was without my dad. I told her it wasn’t so unusual for us to have a holiday without him as he often had to work on Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Truthfully, Thanksgiving was brutal. Both of my grandfathers had also died in 2001 — my mother’s father died in January, and my father’s father died in August — so Thanksgiving was hard all around. It wasn’t the absence of just my father, it was the disappearance of two generations of men in my family.
I didn’t share that with my manager but told her everything was fine. I kept up the façade. I was at work after all, and not in a therapy session. Also, I barely knew her. I politely answered her question and moved on with my day. I hope I also smiled and thanked her for asking.
In the first months after September 11th, it seemed everyone I knew told me I should try therapy. Plenty of people in my life saw therapists regularly and shared insights about what they got out of it. My mother met weekly with other families of firemen who had died and a counselor provided by the FDNY. The group therapy helped her. At Robin Hood, we met disaster grantmaking experts (yes, this is a thing) and they recommended Robin Hood dedicate a large portion of grantmaking to mental health services. By December, I began to realize I needed help to find a way to deal with my grief and everything I was experiencing at Robin Hood. Plus, all self-respecting New Yorkers are in therapy, aren’t they?
Since I was a graduate student at NYU and still on the university’s prepaid health insurance plan, I thought it would be easiest to start with the school-run counseling center and made an appointment for one session. On a cold December afternoon in 2001, I walked down Broadway to my first appointment at the NYU counseling center.
I was a little surprised to find the person with whom I was meeting didn’t look much older than me. She was called “Dr.”, though so I figured she must have had a PhD, and I gave her the benefit of the doubt — maybe she was young-looking but actually had enough experience to do the difficult work of therapy. I began by telling her about my father and could tell right away she wasn’t sympathetic. She didn’t nod or say “uh huh” and her expression seemed detached. While she sat behind a desk, across from me, I tried to tell her how it felt to talk to survivors about such things like who in their family was most deserving of the $5,000 check from Robin Hood. I caught her looking at the clock multiple times. She didn’t seem to understand my situation and failed to offer me any insights or advice about coping, and sitting across the desk from her made me feel more like I was on a job interview. When I left, I knew I wouldn’t be going back.
When I shared the experience with my friend at work, she confided she’d had a hard time finding the right therapist and I should keep looking because therapy could make a big difference. My sister, Karen, had been seeing a psychiatrist she’d found through the fire department counseling unit. (Another benefit of being an FDNY family was we had access to free mental health care after September 11th.) Since Karen liked this doctor and she had an office in the city, I made an appointment with her next.
Dr. Pierce was supposedly a renowned research psychiatrist studying bereavement in children. I met her for the first time at New York Hospital. Other than being taller than I expected, she was the picture of a New York shrink — long, gray hair, no make-up, glasses, and a huge, overflowing handbag filled with research papers and all the other stuff New Yorkers carry around.
We met in a room clearly set up for play therapy with children. The walls were stark white with toys all around. (I wasn’t a kid but I knew no child would want to open up to this woman in such a boring room. How about painting the walls an inviting color? Would that have been so hard?) I also saw what appeared to be a one-way window in the room, which made me uncomfortable — I felt as if someone was watching and listening to me. I explained how I was grieving while working at a job where I had to help others who were experiencing the same thing. Dr. Pierce seemed to kind of get it but at end of the session she said, “OK. I think I can help you not only deal with the loss of your father but also with your life and where you want to go.”
Hmmmm, I wasn’t sure I wanted her to help me with my life and where I wanted to go. The therapy was free so I figured I’d go back and maybe it would be better after a few sessions. Karen seemed to really like her so, why not?
Unfortunately, Dr. Pierce didn’t seem to understand the concept of me having a job with an office downtown and it wasn’t easy, or convenient, to meet her at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday. I explained I could only come in after work but she insisted the people at my job wouldn’t mind if I had to leave the office once a week for a doctor’s appointment. She was probably right and the people at my job wouldn’t have minded, but I minded. Each appointment took close to two hours with travel time. Leaving in the middle of the day meant I had to ask my colleagues to schedule meetings around this appointment. I knew therapy was important and I wanted to prioritize it but I also wanted it to be on my terms and didn’t think it fair to inconvenience other people and schedule appointments in the middle of the day.
After hustling uptown to see her once during the day and being stressed out about it, I told her it wasn’t working. She suggested coming in at 7:45 a.m. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me because I’m a bit of an early bird, but I already had a long commute. To get to her office at such an early hour required a car ride, commuter train, subway, and ten-minute walk. I tried it a couple of times because I wanted to see if it could help me. Unfortunately, I was constantly late, tired, and miserable about the arrangement.
Aside from the logistics, the therapy itself wasn’t too hot. There were these long periods of silence when I would stare at the floor and she would ask me what I was thinking. Half the time I wasn’t thinking of anything. Or I was thinking of what I was going to have for breakfast, or what time my next meeting was. Sometimes I would make something up or try to fill those silences with blather.
Other times, when I talked about my father and started to feel choked up, she would say, “You’re looking tearful right now.” No kidding. My father was murdered by terrorists along with three thousand others and I was trying to talk about it and I felt like crying. But I’d cried enough on my own time and I wanted to try to get something useful — like how to manage my emotions in a healthy way — out of these ridiculous sessions.
One other little (big?) thing about Dr. Pierce that really bothered me was half the time I was there, I felt like I was still at work. When she found out I worked on the relief fund at Robin Hood, she asked me about funding. She pitched her program on bereavement and said they were looking for grants. Wait, I was here for therapy for myself, not at a business meeting. Why was this professional — a doctor, no less — using my therapy time to find out how she could get funding for her research? I explained Robin Hood only funded direct services and her program wasn’t something Robin Hood would be interested in. She went on and on about how their services were direct and an important part of therapy. Finally, I had to tell her that if she was really interested in applying for a grant, she should talk to one of my colleagues. I actually ended up giving her my colleague’s name and number.
Her brazen use of me as a resource continued. My colleague, who also told her Robin Hood wasn’t interested in funding her research, was a dead end. A few weeks later, Dr. Pierce asked me if I thought Robin Hood could help her find subjects for a study she was doing on bereavement in children who’d lost a parent as a result of September 11th. I gave her the names of a few victims’ groups that might be able to help, but quite honestly, the whole affair really bothered me. Thank God I wasn’t paying for the therapy because I would have been wasting my money. Here she was asking me for help with her “business” during my therapy sessions. Her behavior was unprofessional, to say the least.
I was already sad, depressed, and suffocating. Now I was also disappointed and a bit angry about her taking advantage of my position at Robin Hood. I made time in my day and put in a great effort to get to the sessions. I wanted the focus to be me, what I was experiencing, and how I could deal with it better.
After about five or six meetings, I decided to call it quits. I left her a message saying I didn’t need to go anymore and would reach out again if I changed my mind. (I wasn’t going to change my mind but wanted to let her down easy.) She called me back at home. I repeated what I’d said in the message and was done with it. She didn’t give any real pushback, which begs the question why she bothered to call me back at all. Was it just to put me on the spot? Now I needed therapy to deal with my therapy.
If those two experiences were what therapy had to offer, no thanks. I would continue to deal with everything on my own. I didn’t want to keep going down a path of trying to get to know a therapist and tell my story over and over. It was hard enough to live through this ordeal without having to re-live with a new therapist. I’d have to keep searching for other options to deal and heal.
Looking back, I think maybe I wasn’t ready for therapy. I was still living through the events and not ready to take a step back and be introspective — it didn’t help that my first two experiences with therapy were subpar. I’m glad I trusted my instincts and decided to pause on finding a therapist. It felt right at the time and 20 years later it continues to feel like I made the right decision.