I wrote this essay as part of a grant application back in 2007. I’ve edited it only slightly. The quote was one of a few we could choose from & elaborate upon.
“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time, the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”
Woolf has always been for me where the personal meets the political, but her sentence became personal in a way I never expected and certainly never wanted.
Two planes flew into those two towers, and my sister was in World Financial Center #7. I talked to her at 9AM that Tuesday morning, heard that she would be running the evacuation for her company, and then didn’t hear from her again until 3PM, when her cellphone finally started working again, just as she was crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot.
I was fine after that, like so many people in New York were fine, if not being able to leave the house to buy a gallon of milk constitutes fine. I found I couldn’t leave the house alone. The subway was nearly impossible without Ativan. I quit my job, and I wrote a novel.
My book and my kittens were the only things that kept me alive in 2002. I got to know my own walls better than I’d ever wanted to. They were what made me feel safe; they blocked out the people, and the places, of the who I had once been.
One day I remember clearly looking up at my husband and saying simply, “hello.” He looked at me cautiously and cried. I hadn’t been around for a while, he told me, but it was good to have me back. I was still in a deep hole, but now at least I knew I was; I could see something like a shaft of light overhead.
For the second time in five years, I started the slow recovery process of putting down my fear. Me and the vets, I used to joke, were the only ones alarmed by traffic helicopters, even when we knew what they were and that they arrived at rush hour every day at the same time. What you know doesn’t matter when you have PTSD; all that matters is how you feel, and how you feel is scared.
That’s what it took for me to write: fear, and nothing left to lose. It wasn’t so much that I’d gained any confidence in my writing. I didn’t have anywhere else to put the whole world of me besides on the page; restricted from going out in ways unlike any Brontë, I charged and re-charged and over-charged the bricks and mortar I lived within. I wasn’t just scared by suicidal terrorists – I knew it was still more likely to die of a car accident than a bombing – but the war drums were being beaten again, this time loudly. The one thing that I couldn’t stand was the sense of powerlessness, which is of course a key aspect of PTSD. Fear creates shock which creates immobility which creates, usually, an overactive adrenal gland and a hyper amygdala. I’d already spent a lifetime voting, working voter registration jobs, keeping a green home; I’d donated money to every organization I thought was doing any good, but the sense of powerlessness I felt when we went to war in Iraq was something new, something more. It was about my home, my city. It was too much to live with but too big to be able to do much about personally.
So I wrote. I wrote about transgender people. I wrote about them because my husband is transgender and because right now, they are the only set of Americans who it is legal to discriminate against both federally and in most states. I wrote because the secular, democratic world I believed in was being beaten into submission by the Religious Right on one hand and the violent end of Islam on the other. I wrote about being queer, because we’re the ones they all love to hate; they’re the one thing the fundamentalists agree on. In my own way, I wanted to take on a fight that meant something to me: to make the world safe for people who are not safe, nearly anywhere, because that’s what the New York I love is about, the one that has room for people of different cultures and religions and races and sexual orientations. It was my New York they were after, and I couldn’t stand idly by and watch them change it.
Some days I felt like I was squeezing the walls for what I had stored in them: the anger and terror and heartache I couldn’t face and let soak into the old thick walls of our small apartment. They were saturated, super-saturated, with the emotions I couldn’t bear for too long, and slowly, as if peeling away multiple layers of old paint, I started removing them. I only took on as much as I could handle. Some days that still wasn’t much: a few chips of fright, an ounce or two of shock, a veneer of rage. It would be a long time before I exorcised all of what I stored in our walls, and that time hasn’t come yet.
What I had to find again, under all the hard emotions of PTSD, were the things I felt I had lost, that for a while, I felt the world had lost with me: love and trust and bravery and justice and decency. Those virtues were there, too, soaked into the walls, stifled under the other layers of rage and revulsion the ugliness of the world had painted on them. They don’t come off as easily, luckily. They are, in some sense, the mortar that holds an old brownstone together, and it’s to those things that I harness my pen.
But I long for the kind of privilege that would give me permission to write what I want, and not write what’s needed. I talked with an old friend who has had two novels published well, who got the tenure-track teaching job with only his M.A., and he is yearning to give up writing because, as he put it, “I got into this to change the world.” Instead he made money. I told him about about the hundreds if not thousands of emails I get from appreciative readers. They thank me for saving their marriages, or their lives, or both. They thank me for “being out there” in a way so many others can’t. They thank me for writing the things they were thinking, and making them feel not so alone.
It is a remarkable thing to get emails like that. My faith in humanity is perhaps greater than my friend’s as a result. But every month I wonder if it’s time, at long last, to give up the work I do for others, and the writing that does others good, in order to work more, to make more money, to make enough money. But month after month I answer the question with the same ‘barbaric yawp’ of a Yes that I started with, because my writing has become not just a balm but a buttress, and now not just for me but for a lot of others.
I still can’t get on a plane without a lot of medication, and even so I avoid it, choosing to travel long hours by train when I’m asked to speak. I still sometimes need to get off the subway and re-teach myself how to breathe, and my heart still thumps in my chest when I hear the traffic helicopters overhead. For now, at least, I know that I’m fighting the good fight, a personal fight for love and justice and freedom, with whatever wits I’ve got.