Sunday, September 11, 2011

9-11, A Crisis Counselor's Memories

I had no idea on the morning of 9-11 that an unthinkable, horrific event was about to occur that would devastate and emotionally wound every American old enough to understand, and would change my life, sending me in a new career direction.

I didn't know about the plane's hitting the Twin Towers. I was doing a phone session when my client mentioned it to me. He described what was happening, and I remember not really understanding. After the session, I turned on the television, just in time to see the second tower fall.

There weren't words to describe my reactions. I, and everyone else, tried to describe what had happened--to label an experience far beyond what anyone had ever witnessed. Shaken, horrified, traumatized, surreal, angry, fearful, confused were common reactions. After watching television for a while, I called all my clients and arranged for phone, instead of in person, sessions. I didn't want to leave my house, and neither did they. In between the sessions, I turned on the TV. I stayed glued to the television for the next two days.

Thursday, Lisa Reinhart, my partner (at the time) in my psychotherapy office, called me to see if I could worked with her, doing crisis work. Lisa had worked for United Behavioral Health as a corporate crisis counselor for about a year. From time to time, she'd told me stories about what she did, which at the time of 9-11, was my only knowledge of crisis work. Right after 9-11, UBH was desperate for extra counselors because they were stretched so thin. Lisa could vouch for me. So because of the emergency circumstances, UBH had me join the team. We were sent to work with the employees of American Airlines, who'd lost two planes and their crews in the tragedy.

That Thursday, Lisa and I went to a hotel, to debrief (do crisis counseling) with the flight crews from other cities. With all the planes grounded, the crews were stranded, unable to return home to loved ones. Lisa led the educational session, then we broke into groups for more personal sharing.

The next day, Friday, Lisa went back to the hotel, and I was sent to LAX, which was just starting to allow limited flights. People were being processed in a parking lot off the airport site, so there were long lines of people trying to get home. Police officers were everywhere. I realized that I didn't have any official paperwork to show I was allowed to get into the airport, and started to pray that I could get in.

I went up to a policeman in front of the line and told him I was the crisis counselor. I showed him my driver's license and business card, and explained why I was here. After scrutinizing me, and seeing that I looked harmless, he said, "I'll let you in, but you might be turned back at the next checkpoint." Relieved, I stepped on board the shuttle that would take me to the airport. The man at the next checkpoint also let me through, and the shuttle dropped me off at the American Airlines terminal.

Inside the terminal, few people were about the usually bustling building. My footsteps echoed in the emptiness. In the Human Resource office, the manager was out on disability, so there was only a part time assistant and an intern. Everything was in chaos. I'm good at organizing chaos, and I waded right in. I organized counseling groups, and found places we could use as private offices, set up phone sessions, and developed flyers to distribute to employees. I drew up a schedule so there could be coverage where needed, 17 hours a day.

Luckily, the psychiatrist American Airlines uses came in to help. He was a skilled trauma counselor, and in the first group we co-lead, I was mostly silent, watching how he took people through the various steps that are an import part of a debriefing. The Red Cross also sent counselors, and a few more UBH counselors arrived. One of them brought me copies of debriefing handouts she'd gotten from taking a crisis counseling class, and, in-between working with people, I studied them.

Late that night, the crews started flying home. We met the first plane, returning to Los Angeles, thinking the crew might need to talk to us. But most wanted to go straight home. They agreed to come back another day for debriefing. After that, we didn't meet the planes.

The flight crews were scared to fly again, angry at the terrorists, grieving for colleagues they knew and didn't know, and experiencing the-it could have been me--syndrome. Their world had turned upside down. All their training in hijacking situations was wrong for the-plane-as-a-bomb senario, and they felt helpless and out of control.

The staff at AA were overwhelmed and overworked. They had planes grounded all over the world. For a long time, they didn't even know where everyone was. They were flooded with employees calling and needing help, but couldn't stay on top of everything because of the sheer number. They were just as traumatized as everyone else, but too busy to do anything about it. They couldn't even squeeze time to talk to the counselors until the second week.

To provide coverage, we had groups scheduled three times a day at a nearby hotel and in the airport. Employees could make an individual appointment or could also drop in without an appointment. They could also call in for phone sessions.

As the next week rolled around, I moved all my clients into evening slots, or canceled them all together. I couldn't afford to completely give up my practice. I knew I'd be paid for the crisis work, but the check wouldn't come for a month or so. My clients were very understanding and glad to give up their time or move it around because they wanted to support me in doing the crisis work.

I worked about 15 hours a day, then had the commute home. I forced myself NOT to turn on the television because I needed to sleep. After a few days, I realized the people who continued to watch television became further traumatized. Therefore, as much as I wanted to tune in to see what was going on, I didn't allow myself.

All the counselors soon found that regardless of their training, 9-11 had changed everything with regards to what is effective. As the week wore on, I started seeing what worked and didn't work, and adapting my counseling methods to fit. I even utilized my martial arts background. In one group, when flight attendants shook from fear at the idea of returning to flying where they might be attacked and killed, I had a tiny, older woman stand up and demonstrated a simple self-defense skill. The energy in the group immediately changed when the women realized that they weren't so helpless after all. We brainstormed some things they could do, such as throwing coke cans, that helped them let go of some of their fear and take back their personal power.

AA used up their contracted amount of crisis hours from UBH, and the intern started to send the counselors home. I called my contact at UBH and told him that I wanted to stay, and that I'd work for free. He told me that wasn't necessary because UBH was going to cover all the expenses. I started to cry from relief and from pride to be associated with a company that was doing such a compassionate and extremely costly (UBH had counselors helping out all over the country) good deed.

As the week stretched on, the Red Cross counselors had to drop out. They couldn't afford the extended time away from their jobs. The need for counselors trickled off. By week three, I was the only one there. I finished the week, and though I hated to leave, it was time to return to my own life.

My life had changed, and not just from the 9-11 experience that changed everyone. I'd discovered I loved crisis counseling and wanted to continue the consulting work as an adjunct to my psychotherapy practice.

I took some formal training so I'd have the right credentials, and continued to work for UBH. I also worked for other employee assistance programs,and as a private corporate crisis/grief counselor. In the last ten years, I've spoken to thousands of people during times of crisis and pain. It might be because of the death of an employee, witnessing an accident, experiencing a robbery, or undergoing a layoff. I've also done mental health relief work after Hurricane Katrina and for various local disasters.

Working as a crisis/grief counselor has given me the material and "expert" status that enabled an editor at Alpha Books to contract with me to write a book. The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving will be out November 1.

People ask me all the time how I can do such difficult work. I tell them it's because I help. People (for the most part) feel better after talking to me. I give a lot of my energy when I do crisis counseling. But since I don't do the work every day, I (usually) have time to recover between jobs.

I'll bet the terrorists never thought that good would come from their villinous acts. They had no idea how Americans would draw together and become a stronger country because of what they did. Thousands of innocent people paid the price. Families, friends, co-workers, and neighbors suffered from the loss. Those who lost loved ones will always grieve for them. The whole city of New York was traumatized, and has had to live with the aftereffects of the destruction. Many companies were directly or indirectly impacted, some going out of business. Their employees suffered from lost wages or jobs. The ripple effects of those acts were dramatic, deep, and lasting.

Americans are scarred now. But we are stronger for it. I'm glad I've been able to take something so horribly tragic and use it for good--for help, for comfort, for healing. I hope you have too.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all who have lost loved ones ten years ago today. They are not forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this with Jackie. I was moved.

    God, through my pain, has allowed me, when I am willing, to learn three things:

    obedience, resulting in discipline, dependability and patience;

    sympathy, so I can understand the pain of those around me and be helpful to them; and

    dependence on Him instead of on myself so I can continue to have a growing relationship with my Lord and live life triumphantly, in peace and in security.

    I believe that the highest calling we can aspire to … the service that our Savior did for us … is this: the service of love to our fellows.

    I've always been glad for our friendship and your service.