Devoted Blog

Fight the Freeze

September 2, 2020

Blogger: Jess Newton

I grew up on a farm on a dead end dirt road an hour outside of Boston. We had three channels on tv and my favorite toys were our horses, dogs, goats and cats. I turned 15 years old in the summer of 2001 and had just began my sophomore year in high school and second year on the field hockey team. Life was simple and good and predictable. I liked that, especially the predictable part.

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was sitting in my History of Jazz and Rock class when another teacher entered the room and whispered something to my teacher. We could tell whatever she heard wasn’t good. The color drained from her face as she gasped and backed out of the room without saying a word. What had happened? We all looked at each other in silence. A few long minutes later, she came back to our classroom and explained that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City and it appeared to be an act of terrorism. What did that even mean?

The rest of the day was a blur. Even though the sun was out and the sky was blue and filled with those big beautiful puffy white clouds, field hockey practice was canceled so I rode the bus home and immediately turned on the news. How the day started and ended made me feel like I had lived in two different worlds. Now life seemed complicated and bad and unpredictable. My head was spinning and my heart hurt.

I realized I must have fallen asleep when I woke up completely soaked in sweat on the couch after a terrible nightmare. New York City was a 3 hour drive from my house and the plane that flew into the first tower took off from Boston. Everything felt so close. I had dreamt that my town was under attack by terrorists. I felt completely defenseless and helpless to save myself, my family, animals and neighbors. All of a sudden, I knew what terror felt like. I knew what suspicion felt like.

Life as we knew it changed forever. The trauma that arose from all of the events that unfolded that day are too numerous to recount. In the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, author Bessel van der Kolk says there are three options we have when faced with a threat: fight, flight or freeze. How we respond determines how we interpret, process and remember traumatic experiences. Kolk explains that when we freeze in the face of danger, we are fighting the self preservation messages our brains are screaming at us and it damages our souls. Our bodies can no longer trust our brains because we didn’t get out of harm’s way. This is one way PTSD can develop.

At that time in my life, fight and flight weren’t options. I did however have the choice not to freeze. In the aftermath of 9/11, millions of ordinary Americans became heroes by not freezing. While the trauma that arose from all of the events that unfolded that day are too numerous to recount, so are the individual heroic acts of bravery and help that occurred between strangers on the planes as they were about to crash into the towers and afterwards in the rubble and on the streets. If we can’t fight and we can’t run, we always have the choice whether or not we freeze. Mister Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would hear about something scary…my mother said, always look for the helpers. You’ll always find somebody who’s trying to help.” When the world seems like it is crashing down and it seems like enemies surround us, we can always turn our heads to find a helper — and then join in. Just showing up in a moment of crisis, big or small, is all that it takes to fight the freeze and it benefits both the helped and the helper.

The sentiment that arose from that day was NEVER FORGET. On this 19th anniversary of 9/11, let’s remember two things: the lives that were tragically and senselessly lost and pray for their families, and secondly: that in response to the largest act of terrorism our nation had faced, the camaraderie and unity of the American people was somehow stronger than ever. We still have that choice today even when the world feels divided politically, racially and we are faced with the terrors of a pandemic. I am asking myself: what intentional act of helpfulness, big or small, can I complete today for my family, friends, neighbors or even a stranger to fight the freeze, trusting it will help both me and them and bring a sense of unity and camaraderie to humanity?