I’m OK, I’m Not OK–medium.com
Last week I picked up my life where I had clumsily dropped it seven weeks prior. Those past forty-nine days felt frozen; they’d been clipped out of my calendar and pasted up on the wall under a thick film of glue. Nothing happened in those seven weeks, but everything changed. I made a plan last week for my son to have a virtual play date in a week’s time — on May 15th. I was stunned. May 15th? Can that be right? The last I’d checked it was March 13th — the demarcation of a novel before and after: life before 9/11, life after; life before I had children, life after; life before Covid-19, life now.
As I sat at my desk for the first time since March 13th, I found everything just as I had left it — each file last updated on March 12th. What happened between then and now? I didn’t lose a loved one. I’m not a frontline worker. I’m not an essential worker. My nine year old was sick — a fever for seven days, but he’s fine. My husband and I isolated for fourteen days, we’re also fine. My husband’s been furloughed, but we work in the arts, so we know how to do non-essential. We have a net of support in family and friends around the globe. We have emergency savings. We have food. We’re ok.
But I feel far from ok.
I’ve been here before, a few times. I know that’s not really possible, has anyone ever been HERE before? No, but I’ve been a few places like it, with the dazzling disadvantage of youth. I lived on 49th Street and 9th Avenue in New York City on September 11th, 2001 — more than fifty blocks north from the epicenter of the attacks. I didn’t run from the towers. I didn’t know anyone who died in those buildings. I wasn’t a first responder. In fact, I slept through it. In those days I worked two jobs — one for love and one for money. Tuesday was my only day off and I used it to catch up on sleep. I slept through 9/11. I didn’t even witness the attack in real time.
On the 18th anniversary of those attacks I read a piece in the New York Times about a woman who survived them from the 68th floor. She was physically unharmed, but suffered a gradual unraveling of her life in the years to follow; including the diagnosis of 9/11 related PTSD from a court-ordered alcohol treatment program. The article reads:
“PTSD never occurred to me,” said Ms. Bergeron, who was a high-ranking official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2001 and whose office was in the north tower. “We weren’t first responders. We weren’t cops or firefighters whose job was to go into the building. People told us, ‘Be happy to be alive.’ We minimized ourselves afterward, and it all built up over the years.”
I was not on the 68th floor of those buildings, as I mentioned, I was fifty blocks north fast asleep. But when I did wake up, I watched from my fire escape as people walked aimlessly up the avenue barefoot, their perfectly tailored suits covered in ash, clutching a tattered brief case in one hand and a cell phone that no longer received a signal in the other. I was locked on the island as all transportation ground to a halt, leaving us all to silently wonder if we were sitting targets for whatever was about to happen next. My throat grew sore from the sheer volume of pulverised debris sent all those blocks uptown via a north-westerly wind. But when asked, I said I was fine. I was so lucky to live on 49th Street — fifty blocks away. I’m ok.
But I wasn’t ok.
I realise now I did not have the emotional intelligence in 2001 to understand that just because I was lucky didn’t mean I was unharmed. The towers were the epicenter of the attack, but each ring moving out from that focal point had a different level of trauma to endure. I hadn’t understood that just because I didn’t lose anything tangible, didn’t mean I didn’t lose something. I understand that now.
In these past six weeks since the novel coronavirus took its hold around the world, I’ve caught myself in this old, familiar narrative. When friends ask me and my husband how we’re doing, we say, ok. We don’t run through the laundry list of everything that isn’t ok, because who are we to not be ok? Who are we to be affected while we sit safe and warm in our London flat sipping a gin and tonic (or two) while we ride out the storm? Ms Bergeron’s story reminded me I needed to change that narrative.
Yesterday after my daily walk I confessed to my husband, “It’s a beautiful spring day; the sun is shining, birds are chirping, it’s wonderful to have you home with us. I thought, ‘Wow, this is lovely. We don’t want to take this time for granted,’ but then I thought, ‘No, this is terrible. We’re in a global pandemic. People are dying alone on ventilators, others are risking their lives. Economies are collapsing, we could run out of money and I am SO sick of Zoom!’ but then I took a deep breath and felt the sun on my face and the breeze on my skin and I thought, ‘No, we’re so lucky. We’re ok. I love Zoom.’”
Navigating the chasm between these two realities is exhausting. I traverse it every day as I’ve come to realize it’s all true — the lovely and the horrible. In 2001 I focused on the former and pushed away the latter. This time I have to give myself and those around me permission to feel all of it, no matter where each of us may fall in relation to one of the many epicenters of this current global crisis. I have to choose not to avoid it — not to cocktail party, sleep, or binge-watch my way through it, but just to feel it, to sit with it and accept it. When people ask, I have to learn to say, I’m ok and I’m not ok.
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