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What help have I to give: A therapist's journey to Ground Zero

Schor, L. I. (2002). What help have I to give? A therapist’s journey to ground zero.
Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy.
What Help Have I To Give? A therapist’s journey to Ground
What follows is not intended to be a time capsule or a part of what was hauled
away. It is a reflection of what seemed alive and dead at ground zero. It is something that,
for me, is still living and dying and shaped and shaping every day. I offer my voice and
attempt to echo the voices of the living and the dead, the poets and children, and the
police officers and firemen.
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
From, An American Tune
By Paul Simon
So, where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001? How did you receive
news of the terrorist attacks? What did you feel inside? How did you make sense of what
you were hearing and seeing? What was it like being with your friends, family, and
clients in the days and weeks following the tragedy? What have you found? What have
you lost? What has changed and what remains the same? What are the questions Life
now asks you?
As for me, I was pulling into the parking lot at the university when my wife called
on the cell phone and told me that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center. I
remember imagining a small aircraft hitting the building and anticipated seeing the report
on the nightly news and knowing some people had probably been killed. I know I felt no
sense of personal tragedy as I entered the classroom at nine o’clock to provide group
supervision to my practicum class. In retrospect, this was my last moment to bask in the
naiveté of the American Dream.
I must make it clear from the outset that I am neither a victim nor a hero, in any
conventional sense. I am not a rescue worker, and I did not participate in the clean up. I
am a witness, although I did not witness the terror of the attacks, only the horror of the
aftermath in the weeks following September 11. I can try to tell you what it was like to be
at what came to be known as, Ground Zero.
Because of my particular combination of education, training, and circumstance, I
had the opportunity to do what so many Americans wanted to do: go to Ground Zero and
try to help, or just see it, or something. I was and remain somewhat unclear about my
motives (altruistic and otherwise) for going. Certainly, I wanted to help, but there was
also morbid curiosity and the social scientist in me. I knew there was an opportunity to
witness people as they have never (yet all too frequently) been. How else can you learn
about human suffering besides seeing it up close and personal? I have had some training
in disaster work; but nothing in my personal or professional background suggested that I
knew how to help people with something like this. Nevertheless, after a few phone calls, I
was deployed as a mental health worker for a disaster relief organization. And so it was
that on September 27, 2001, I was on an airplane flying to New York.
As the aircraft begins to descend, I gaze out the cabin window wondering if I will
be able to see evidence of the terrorist attack. We make our final approach and lower
Manhattan comes in to view. I am surprised by incredibly bright light emanating from the
ground. I see the Empire State Building, which is now and again the tallest building in the
city. I check into my hotel where I am told to report to the command center in Brooklyn
the following morning.
When I arrive at the command center, I am startled by the security. Bags and ID
are checked. I go through an extensive orientation and health screening. After a brief
interview with the Disaster Mental Health Services coordinator, I am given my
assignment. I will be working the night shift (midnight-8:00 a.m.) at the Respite Center, a
block or so from the World Trade Center.
I receive my identification badge; which reads, “Access Ground Zero.”
Something odd and powerful strikes me as I gaze at my badge. I see my name and my
face and the words, “Ground Zero.” I feel something well up in me. Maybe I didn’t really
expect it to officially be called “Ground Zero.” Maybe I had come to associate that term
with nuclear explosions. “Maybe when you die,” I wonder, “and have been very bad, you
go through some sort of processing. Perhaps you feel increasingly disoriented and as you
gaze at your papers you see that your destination reads, ‘Hell.’ You don’t know exactly
what will happen next, but you know it will be full of death and pain. It will be burning
and there will be an awful stench.” Yes, I can now imagine what that would be like.
It has been a little more than two weeks since the planes crashed, the buildings
collapsed, and all those people died. It has been more than a week since the last survivor
was pulled from the rubble, yet they still call this a “rescue” operation. Perhaps, as in our
therapy settings, we sometimes conspire to tell each other and ourselves what we so
desperately want to hear. There are still “missing” posters all over the city, although the
only people who still believe anybody will be rescued are the family members who cling
to pictures and descriptions of loved ones as a last refuge of hope. With each passing day,
candles and flowers increasingly surround the posters as they evolve into shrines. The
posters carry messages like:
John Doe, age 41, six feet tall, 180 lbs., blue eyes.
Wearing a green polo shirt, khaki pants, and a gold wedding ring.
Scar between eyes. Works at 2 World Trade Center 104th floor.
PLEASE call if you have any information.
The signs are beginning to disintegrate along with the hopes and lives of the
people who are unable to accept the unbearable truth and continue to wait for the
miracle that will never come.
Our bus passes through several security checkpoints on the way to the Respite
Center. We exit a few blocks away and complete the journey on foot. As we make our
way closer, I look down an alley and catch a glimpse of the smoldering debris. The smell
of burning chemicals, dust and ash, and something awful and unnamable begins to take
hold in the back of my throat. My eyes start to burn; but somehow this feels congruent. It
should hurt to look at this. I approach the great source of light I had seen from the sky.
Only now it is obscured by a greenish-brown effluvium that rises from the debris piles,
and whirls through the streets. There is a dizzying array of activity. It is all very strange
and full of contrasts. There is a constant drone from the generators powering the lights
and the engines of the cranes; but otherwise, it is eerily quiet. Beyond the bright lights,
there is only darkness. Tonight, I will learn the unspeakable horror of what is true.
Tonight, I will see for myself what happened here.
The Respite Center is a block from where the World Trade Center towers once
stood. At the entrance is a National Guardsman who checks everyone’s ID, even the
fireman and police officers. There are differing categories of law enforcement personnel:
state and local police, some bearing markings of specialization such as Canine Rescue or
Emergency Service Unit. There are also members of the FBI, Secret Service, Coast
Guard, NTSB, Mayor’s Office, Disaster Mortuary Operations Recovery Team
(DMORT), EPA, FEMA, OSHA, along with “Haz-Mat” teams and those referred to as
“construction” workers. I see men wearing coats bearing the four letters the world has
come to recognize: FDNY. Three hundred and forty three of their dead brothers lie
amidst the smoldering rubble; courageous men whose fate was sealed by their ability to
overcome all human instincts to flee, in an effort to stop a million tons of burning steel
and almost three thousand doomed souls from the fiery collapse.
As I begin my first shift, I think of the words I try to hold as my mantra in my
work: “What help have I to give?” I listen for an answer from within, but nothing comes.
It feels like my first day of practicum, and my supervisor asks, “Are you sufficiently
prepared to do this?” Even after more than ten thousand client contact hours, the answer
is, “No.” Still, I must try. I wonder about attempting to do some sort of assessment, to see
who might be in need of psychological services. It feels like I am swimming in the ocean
searching for water. I do not know whether to be more concerned about the people with
blank stares, the ones who seem about to burst into tears, or the few who are seated with
friends laughing and talking about sports.
At the outer entrance to the facility is an eyewash area preceded by a narrow
walkway with a half dozen hoses and a sign instructing mandatory boot washing before
entering the building. This is not just to keep people from tracking dirt into the building.
This is a biohazard area. The dust (a rather benign term for 100 tons of asbestos and
particles kindly referred to as ‘organic matter’) is everywhere. I decide to post myself at
the outside entrance in an attempt to give what I came to give under the guise of
monitoring the shoe wash area.
I muster the guts to try to connect with my “clients,” and so I grab a hose and
offer to rinse the boots of the weary people as they approach. Some seem appreciative as
it is slippery and they can hold onto the rail as they lift one boot and then the other. From
this vantage point I can see the trucks hauling away debris, which will be sent for
“sorting” to the landfill on Staten Island, ironically named Fresh Kills. The debris takes
only two forms. There are flatbed trucks carrying enormous twisted steel girders that
have been spray painted with “WTC 7” or WTC 4,” and there are huge dump trucks,
heaped full of the still smoldering gray substance that coats everything. There are no
pieces of furniture or shards of glass. Twenty feet beneath the piles the temperature
exceeds one thousand degrees. Yet, even a few blocks away there are still millions of
pieces of paper, boring pages of contracts that somehow escaped unscathed. A while
later, I decide to go inside.
The Respite Center doesn’t seem like much to me, but they call it the Taj Mahal.
On the ground floor is the kitchen, dining area, nurses station, a room with reclining
chairs, and the logistics room. This is an area like a little store stocked with donated
supplies ranging from safety vests and gloves, to socks, boots, and donated sweatshirts
commemorating last years’ World Series. The shirts bear an image of the New York City
skyline highlighted by the twin towers. Upstairs are rows of uncomfortable cots, but each
one has a stuffed bear and a piece of candy on the pillow. I am asked to help throw away
all of the wool blankets. “Asbestos Magnets,” I am told.
There is no psychotherapy kiosk. I have no special status or marking to identify
myself as a mental health worker. I make my rounds. I bus tables and offer coffee. I sit
and try to make conversation with those who seem most alone. Sometimes I tell them I
am a counselor, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I ask them what they are doing and
sometimes I just listen. Sometimes they tell me about their experience and what they are
Throughout my career, there have been things my clients tell me that professional
ethics obligate me to keep secret. This is different. This is not about confidentiality or
even respect for the dead. Some of the things people tell me are so awful that if I tell
them to you, I will assault your psyche and you will probably have nightmares. You may
think you want to know, but you are wrong. You don’t.
There’s an unceasing wind that blows through this night
There’s dust in my eyes that blinds my sight
There’s a silence that speaks so much louder than words
Of promises broken
From, Sorrow
By Pink Floyd
I’m sorry, Mrs. Doe. Your husband is not coming home. They are not finding
survivors, or bodies clad in green polo shirts and khakis, or even whole faces. I will hear
people make the distinction between body parts and body matter: the former refers to
something you can put in a bag, and the latter requires a spoon. Welcome to the inferno.
Welcome to Ground Zero.
And there are more secrets to keep. Each day, boxes of cards and letters of
support arrive. They are mostly made by children and intended both to offer solace to the
workers and provide a means of cathartic or symbolic expression for innocent little artists
and authors. I sit at a table and begin to read them. There are cute crayon drawings of
rescue dogs and fire trucks. There are disturbing pictures of people jumping from the
flaming buildings. But more troubling than the images are some of the messages:
“Dear Hero, how many people did you save today?”
“ I hope you find all the missing people. Don’t forget, we’re counting on you.”
“Dear fireman, I hope none of your friends got hurt.”
Suddenly, I panic. I imagine firefighters burdened with survivor guilt, and drowning in
helplessness: I feel a strange need to try to protect them. I frantically search the piles of
cards, pulling the ones I fear might trigger the first post-September 11 suicide. I spend
more than an hour engaged in this strange form of censorship. I am trying to keep
something hidden, although I am not entirely sure what, or from whom.
During the first few nights, I notice something rather curious. In the midst of my
conversations I am asked, “Have you been over there?” From a block away I can see,
smell, and taste the death and devastation. Yet, they still ask, and when I tell them I have
not been closer, they give me that dismissive look I have gotten from Vietnam veterans or
rape survivors. It is a look that implies I could not possibly understand. The third night I
share this perception with one of the NYPD Emergency Service officers, who was the
only member of his team to survive the collapse. He says he knows what they are talking
about and asks me to meet him at the corner in a few hours.
Later that morning I stand where I was told, not knowing what to expect or why I
have received this strange invitation. A police van pulls up and my friend gestures me to
get in. We go past the final security check point and proceed a few hundred yards. He
stops the van and motions for me to get out. I am now standing between the North and
South towers. This is the ground zero of Ground Zero. Before me are the iconic twisted
spires of wreckage that the world has seen. It neither looks nor feels real. The larger of
the two is about nine or ten stories at its peak. The other is somewhat smaller and appears
to be sitting atop of a fifty-foot pile of ash. There are no visible fires. The smoke rises
mysteriously from various spots like a geyser field at Yellowstone Park; it seems almost
alive, as it is all that moves. The rest seems frozen in time.
There are no sounds save the cranes and generators. The smell has worsened by
an order of magnitude. There are very few people, a few groups of five or six law
enforcement personnel, some firemen spraying water at the base of the cranes, and the
occasional mortuary worker who could almost be mistaken for a businessman
purposefully headed for a meeting. But, instead of a briefcase, he is carrying a red plastic
I slowly turn completely around. What is astonishing is the fact that everywhere,
in all directions, the devastation is equally horrific. The remains of the World Trade
Center towers are but a small portion of the destruction. In addition to the half dozen
other buildings lying in ruin, every structure in sight is eaten away. Everything bears the
brownish gray coating of fire and doom. This is not like Pearl Harbor; this is like
It cuts to the very core of one’s being. Beyond words, beyond even emotion. If the
entire planet had been destroyed, it wouldn’t look any different from here. I am aware of
my own silence, and suddenly I feel as if I have never been more alone. It is as if I myself
am dying. It feels like my home, my work, and my loved ones, are all slipping away as I
breathe my last painful breath. I have never been so far from home. I am among the dead
as I stand on this sacred ground.
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was
I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
From, Not Dark Yet
By Bob Dylan
Yet, just as the television images do little to convey the horror of this place, what
I am seeing is undeniably removed from the sea of tears and unfathomable heartache of
those most closely touched by this tragedy. Brokenhearted souls who must search among
the rubble of their lives and either find what is worth living for or fall into the vast pit of
My journey back to the Respite Center seems like much more than a few hundred
yards. As I exit the van, something occurs to me. I understand what my clients meant.
From a block away I can witness it without being engulfed by it. From a block away, it is
over there. I turn around again and see yellowish green Ginkgo leaves dangling from
trees and buildings without broken windows. I see the moon, which is nearly full, just
above the skyline. I return eagerly to my duties, in a compensatory flight toward the
trivial. I help serve meals. I talk with workers. I sift through the next batch of “Dear
Hero” cards. I find one with a precious picture of a rescue dog. I see an officer from the
Canine Unit and hand him the card saying, “Give this to your partner.” He smiles. I wash
more feet. I stand near the exit passing out bottled water. When the firemen or police
refuse, I insist saying, “It’s the same stuff lions drink!” It is as if I am giving ice water to
people in hell. It doesn’t change their circumstance, but it provides a moment of relief,
for them and for me.
I notice that even the most miniscule act such as holding a door invariably results
in eye contact and a nod, a smile or a thank you. A few cops I had been talking with the
previous night come on shift bringing a bag full of ice cream for the relief workers. I
don’t understand. We are supposed to help them. I meet another NYPD officer who bears
a scar behind his right eye that can only be the result of a gunshot wound to the head. He
seems fine and I try not to stare. Instead, I give him a pair of boot insoles. He offers a
gracious smile of appreciation. I am touched but embarrassed by such extraordinary and
seemingly undeserved acts of kindness. They cling to their humanity like it is all they
have in their possession. We are all trying to do something for each other. In the very act
of trying to do something, we are doing something. I begin to see with increasing clarity
that something, anything, is infinitely more than nothing.
I never had to call Mrs. Doe. But, someone else probably did. I wonder if she let
out a piercing scream or stood silent as she received confirmation of what she already
knew inside. How did she tell her children? Did the Mayor give her a box of the same ash
that had caked the edges of my nostrils? Could she see that a nation mourned her loss and
prayed for her? Did she feel the gentle kindness of people who cared, but knew not what
to say? Will she somehow find her way toward a life in which meaning and purpose and
joy still exist?
I suspect she will. I believe this because, as a therapist, I must. I know it is
possible because I have had the opportunity to find moments of connection with people in
the midst of immeasurable sorrow. In those moments, I caught a brief glimpse of the core
of what makes us human. I witnessed the part of our soul that is capable of more than we
imagine. I saw enough to believe that, just maybe, love conquers all or, at least, enough.
If we are to truly and authentically accompany our clients on the therapeutic
journey, we cannot do so from a block away. We must be willing to breathe deeply the
horrible stench of their traumas. We must allow their humanity to connect with our own.
We must not reject their experience or their invitations. If we look deeply enough, we
may see that as our clients are changed by therapeutic relationships so are we. At Ground
Zero I learned that it is indeed a privilege to add a bit of their burden to my own little pail
of human suffering.
Reflections and implications for therapeutic work
Whether we are aware of it or not, terror exists every day. Empires crumble,
structures collapse, and ordinary people receive news that their loved one is never coming
home. But life and time and space pass and events become woven into our experience
and our souls. Sometimes it is hard to remember just how awful things were. Sometimes
it is hard to forget. Some people can’t find the past; others can’t find the present.
I remember gazing at the destruction thinking, “This is the worst thing that has
ever happened.” I was certain that nothing would ever be the same again. There was a
palpable sense of despair among the firemen, police officers, and rescue workers. It
seemed there would be no more rescues and there was no one to save. None of the
estimated six thousand missing and presumed dead would ever be found.
This was not the worst thing that has ever happened. Nearly every person who
could have been saved was saved. For most of the people at or above the point of impact,
death was inevitable at the moment the planes crashed into the buildings. But, nearly all
of the others (except for the firemen) escaped. The firemen and rescue workers had
successfully completed their job before the buildings collapsed; they just did not know it.
Thousands of the missing were, in fact, found. They were found at home with their
families. They were, in many cases so immersed in being alive that they neglected to
inform the authorities. This was not everyone’s tragedy in equal measure.
At times, I have been shocked and even angered by the extent to which things and
people have gotten back to normal. I am trying to be more respectful of peoples’ need to
reclaim normalcy and live in a world that seems manageable. I am more aware of the
cycles of denial and acceptance, of defense and pain. But I have been more reluctant to
participate in this cycle, to be seduced too soon away from terror. I am more skeptical but
less confrontational when I hear, “I have already worked through that issue,” or, “I
already know about theory.” I am aware that healing is often partial and sometimes even
temporary. I imagine that students may be inclined to see an invitation to dive into theory
as a demand that they dive into an empty pool.
Theory has lived differently for me. It has become less and more abstract. I have
come to appreciate that in the small and apparently superficial moments lurk deep and
profound opportunities for manifesting theory. Theories are alive wonderfully,
marvelously, and humanly in these experiences. Offering water and washing feet are
mirroring, idealizing, archetypal, and interpretive. “I see your courage, brother Lion,” or
“I know something of your long and difficult journey. You have arrived at a safe haven
where you are cherished and loved. To me, you are not dirty and contaminated and toxic.
By washing your feet I welcome you.”
I know the terror of diving into a seemingly empty pool. I desperately needed to
cling to the life preservers of frame and identity that come with the consulting room or
the classroom. I imagined I could “do counseling” better had my role been more clearly
defined, maybe like physicians with their stethoscopes and their lab coats and their
operating rooms. But the absence of these accouterments shifted my focus from “doing
therapy” to “being therapeutic,” from “intervening” to “accompanying.” This has
influenced my way of being as a teacher, counselor, supervisor, and friend. The question
isn’t, “what does my nametag say?” but rather, “How am I living out and demonstrating
my best and kindest and wisest intentions here.”
My experience of truth and honesty has shifted. In some ways I am more open
and direct. Yet, I know that my clients and supervisees withhold certain elements of truth
from me, and I from them. We have our reasons.
I aspire to be similar to the officer who conducted me to the heart of darkness. We
both knew that we were going someplace difficult and maybe even impossible. But my
companion did so with such kindness and subtle grace that when he insisted I get out of
the vehicle and have a look around, I did not resist. I sometimes feel like that in
supervision and therapy and the classroom. I am inviting a particular journey, and
sometimes they come along.
I wonder if our genuine attempts to bear witness to our clients’ suffering engender
a reciprocal willingness to join us as we plant the seeds of hope. As they brave the
distance of time, space, and experience, survival and even life itself sometimes emerge.
Through the therapeutic journey, our clients may learn to be with their pain, while not
being so engulfed by it.
I’m not sure what changed on September 11th. We weren’t really more secure or
further from the possibility of terror on September 10th. Even though my work sometimes
feels almost as lonely as it did at ground zero, and the landscape nearly as desolate, I feel
less afraid. When I take a step back, open my eyes, and take a deep breath, I feel closer to
home. As I have shared my experience with kindred souls, and as others have struggled
to bear witness to my journey, I no longer feel so isolated. At least for the moment, we
have each other. This seems more clear and true than ever.
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