What a 9/11 Survivor Says When Asked if Trump is Triggering PTSD

Sixteen years ago today, on September 11, 2001, I was a middle-schooler three blocks from the World Trade Center, and my experience of living in a war zone caused me to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, something I’ve written about for Newsweek before.

It was a diagnosis that took years to get after misdiagnoses and failed attempts at therapy left me feeling desperate, but because I kept hope alive, I was able to find layers upon layers of recovery.

Part of recovering from trauma is learning not to see things in black-and-white. But we’re now living in a time where we’re pushed into taking sides, red or blue, pro or con, for or against, left or right, and it’s just all wrong. We seem polarized at every level of society, from our politics to our TV choices to our social media feeds. And I keep being asked, “Are you triggered by Trump? How has that been?”

09_11_whitehouse_04 U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump observe a moment of silence in remembrance of those lost in the 9/11 attacks at the White House in Washington, D.C., on September 11. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

That isn’t an easy question, but the answer is this: I believe that Trump is doing such a good job of turning Americans against each other instead of unifying them, of inciting violent acts of terrorism, hate crimes and chaos, that anyone who does want to hurt us would have every right to sit on their laurels and wait around until he’s done to get back at it.

I have never been less afraid of a terrorist attack than I am right now, because I think we are currently living in such a state of distress that our own president is scaring the shit out of us well enough as it is. Terrifying.

Fact: People are unfriending each other and unfollowing each other on social media because of their political views. I did not personally witness this happening with Obama.

Fact: There are videos that compare the way Trump talks about his daughters or responds to victims of natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey in Texas to those of former presidents like Obama, and you can’t call split-screen footage or images "propaganda" or "fake news" because they both exist in the same space topically.

Fact: Our current president is reckless with his actions, his speech, his tongue, his pen. He is scaring the crap out of many of us, including many of those who voted for them.

I never followed politics before this election. Not closely, anyway. I tuned in to important presidential addresses and celebrated certain victories, like the end of a war or the implementation of healthcare, or about a zillion other things Obama and his administration accomplished while having to clean up the pile of crap left for him by George W. Bush, and that was a big pile.

But we have to pay attention now. We all did, we all do. People think that the best way to protect themselves is to stay informed, as if that will help them know how to act, if and when the time comes. We’re all living, in a way, in this place of limbo where the fight-or-flight response to something threatening, dangerous or traumatic kicks in. And a lot of us feel helpless and powerless.

Our president is dividing people, inciting racists and bigots and prejudiced people to unleash personal hell upon fellow Americans. He’s endangering the very welfare of this planet. He’s playing with fire when it comes to foreign countries like North Korea and Russia.

I am not a political journalist. I am a young woman who survived 9/11 as a child and grew up in the aftermath wondering how it is that everyone “forgot” when “Never Forget” was all over everyone’s car and chest and lawn. What did they think we were supposed to remember, and where are they now?

09_11_helaina_02 Writer Helaina Hovitz is the author of "After 9/11: One Girl's Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning." Helaina Hovitz

When I was 16, I watched a documentary in high school called Shut Up and Sing. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks got a ton of death threats for calling out President Bush. And that kept me, up until the last minute, from writing this piece. I don’t read comments and I don’t pay attention to trolls. Frankly, I usually have little reason to, as I write positive stories that don’t incite controversy, for the most part. So that wasn’t it. (Although I did accidentally see a comment on another Newsweek story I wrote that said something to the effect of suggesting that at age 12, I should have been running into the towers with firemen instead of running for my life. Excellent point, anonymous wise man. I will have to have a think on that one.)

My hesitation was this: We’re living in a time, for almost a year now, where the worst of people is being brought out, and we have a man holding the most defective moral compass I’ve seen in my lifetime leading our free world. Our president said he could take out a gun and start shooting people on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. What does that tell me? It tells me that I should stay the fuck away from Fifth Avenue, for one.

And that I need to keep focusing on the good in the world that I’ve chosen to both try and put into it myself, and write about in my career.

Please remember this: "United we stand" was a suggestion, not a command. It was a description, not an order. Where we’re standing and who we’re standing with, that’s all we can control when so much feels out of our control right now.

Is Trump triggering me? Sure. But I’m willing to bet he’s not triggering me, despite my own past experiences, any more than the rest of us.

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, writer and author of the memoir After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Forbes, Women's Health and Teen Vogue. She is currently the editor of content collaborations at Upworthy/GOOD. Twitter: @HelainaHovitz, www.HelainaHovitz.com and Facebook.com/HelainaNHovitz.

Join the Discussion