9-11: A Reflection on Trauma and Meaning, By Gary L. Hellman, Psy.D, LP, LMHC
PSI’s Trinity Counseling Center is located two blocks south of the World Trade Center, was well within the “red zone” after 9/11.
I was downtown that day. I saw the South Tower fall and raced around a corner not to be engulfed in smoke and debris. I fled with many to Staten Island and spent the night there with the Rector of Trinity Church and a small cohort of senior staff. On the morning of 9/12 we took a cab across the Verrezano Bridge and the Q train back to Union Square. Our office was well within the “red zone” and cordoned off. I walked from the Village to St. Paul’s Chapel in the afternoon and was allowed to tour the area with a police escort and then in the days and weeks following worked alongside volunteers who listened to the rescue and recovery workers who were the “first responders.”
We met the needs as they arose during that time, a session at a time: sitting with firefighters, police, and clergy in the middle of the night at St. Paul’s Chapel while they cried; meeting with schools administrators and teachers who were still afraid to get on the subway in the morning; working with commercial companies who were trying to carry on; and sitting with and being present with survivors of that day and the families of those who lost their lives.
9/11 exposed all of us – staff and patients – to the trauma of not being able to contain or split off our humanity and make it sit comfortably in any dispassionate “professional context.” This is what probably sets us, and the pastoral counseling movement, apart from a more generic “mental health center” – a human dimension that seeks to be profoundly present in every situation.
I think this may be one of the cornerstones of our identity. We are aware that we are holding a relational place that includes both therapist and patient in a crucible of caring. This is what I call Spirituality. It is not some specific language of religious inclination or dedication; rather, it is the living experience of common humanity between patient and therapist in every exchange of listening and of hearing.