I Can’t Remember The Day The Twin Towers Fell
By Rachel Custer
My friends and family act as my memory during this time; the historians who try to help me piece together what my life was like then.
Content warning: suicidal ideation
I t’s 2006, maybe. I’m 25. The gas station clerk is gabbing with a state cop about the heroics of first responders. All I want is my coffee. She tells me, in the hushed reverence reserved for church: “I’ll never forget where I was when the towers fell.” The man with greasy hair has finished filling the tank on his moped and echoes the sentiment. While I pay, they lose themselves in remembrance.
They don’t notice when I leave.
Admission: I remember and feel very little about the events of 9/11.
Before you gasp, before you throw your rocks, know that this isn’t about any lack of sympathy for those affected by that terrible day. It’s about where I was, and who I was, then.
Allow me to explain.
Of course I’ve seen the towers fall. Who hasn’t? Every year, there are the airplanes, and still photos of the man cartwheeling toward the street so far below, and the conflagration in the window from which he jumped. There are tributes to the brave men and women who ran into the building while others were running out. Terrified onlookers covered in smoke and the ashes of human remains. War coming to us, death to ours.
And people feel. Normal people feel. Right? They feel for the victims, for the survivors, for an entire city. They feel what they felt as they watched it unfold the first time. The images transport them back to that day, and they are once again shocked, confused, and scared out of their minds.
But if somebody knows where I was when the towers fell, it’s not me.
People feel. Normal people feel. Right?
I mean, I can guess where I was, approximately, given the date. In 2001, I was 20 years old, which meant I had already dropped out of college due to extreme anxiety. At age 20 in September, I was a year and a half past being raped, and a year and a month past the prosecutor accepting a plea deal that gave the rapist “time served.” I was roughly a year and eight months out from the breakup with the first man I ever loved. The only man, it would turn out.
My friends and family act as my memory during this time; the historians who try to help me piece together what my life was like then. “When your sister moved out for fear of finding you dead, you lived in this apartment.” “We bought you the trailer in this month, because you refused to come home.” “Your sister didn’t recognize you when you went to her graduation.” “You stayed in bed that whole year. You lost 75 pounds.”
You stayed in bed that whole year. You lost 75 pounds.
That was 2001. The year depression chewed my life, and swallowed my life, and regurgitated my life in gray.
Here’s what I personally know of myself, circa September 11, 2001: I was 20 years old, just barely, and I thought I had lost it all. Looking back, I recall just three memories from that time.
One. I get out of bed long enough to spread mayonnaise on a piece of white bread, and to make a sandwich of the cheap round turkey somebody had put in my refrigerator. I go back to bed.
Two. I am awake, briefly, and sit on the end of the couch. The television is off, and I stare without seeing in the direction of the door.
Three. One of the adjacent apartments becomes infested with bugs, and they invade our place. Maggots cover the ceiling. My mother tells me that was the last straw; they move me out the next day.
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Here’s what I do not remember — the nationwide tragedy that is now simply known by its date: 9/11. At least, not in the way others seem to remember it.
A small story within a story: Toward the end of this somehow excruciating nothing, I tried to escape. I ate nearly 200 pills. I remember counting them then, but I forget the exact number. I ate enough pills to end my depression forever. Then I called a friend and asked her to wait with me until I died. My parents tell me my skin was gray.
Obviously, the friend found a way to get my address and to send help, and the doctor told my family if I lived through the night, I’d probably be fine. I lived, and a new psychiatrist detoxed me off of the 11 psychiatric medications my old psychiatrist had put me on. I had to be kept inpatient for some time.
My parents tell me my skin was gray.
After that, we tried every form of therapy there was to draw me forth from the nearly catatonic nowhere in which I lived. Eventually, something (or things) worked well enough to get me out of bed and eating again. I returned to, and finished, college and received a graduate degree. Though I still struggle with depression, I’ve never fallen as far into the void as I was then.
Here’s why this story matters. While I was detoxing, I was smoking a cigarette (patients still got smoke breaks then), and then I was on a mattress on a floor, puking into a trash can. Six hours later. I’d had a seizure.
And that feeling — that where am I, when is it, why am I here confusion — that, for me, is 9/11 every year. I remember other people’s memories, and documentarians’ facts, and the constantly replayed videos. There are flashes of memories gathered secondhand, built on stories told to me by others, but it all feels more like dreams between lost time than a narrative. It feels like waking up six hours later, somewhere else.
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But what I realize, now, is that this doesn’t mean I am distant from that day. Depression that deep is a purgatory of fear from which one never fully escapes, in the same way that people who lived through the attacks must carry the memory of that day’s terror in their bodies always. Like the guilt of the survivor who just happened to be late, or who had just left the building, or who just managed to live somewhere else, depression is the heaviness of unspeakable dust settling into your skin, and the panic of trying to catch your breath.
I don’t remember the events of that day perfectly, but I see the scars that it left behind. And where I do connect, what seems to make sense, what seems real, is the people. Wide-eyed and staring, trying to run.
The people, dreaming their ways through gray ash.