After 9/11: Childhood Trauma and Addiction

By Helaina Hovitz 09/11/17

Outside the school building, the burning smell instantly stung our eyes, our nostrils, as the buildings vomited paper and people.

Helaina Hovitz in her neighborhood, in front of the WTC
The author in front of the new WTC.

At 15, I didn’t drink because of the trauma I went through.

I didn’t drink at 18 because I left the house thinking, “I want to escape.”

I didn’t drink at 20 because I wanted to “forget.”

I didn’t drink at 22 because I wanted to end up in the ER, but that happened, and nearly six years after getting sober, and exactly 16 years after living through the events of 9/11 firsthand as a child, I know these things to be true.

I was a 12-year old in middle school three blocks away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, separated only by a highway and a few sidewalks. After the first plane hit, we were led down to the cafeteria and told not to stop at our lockers. We weren't sure what we were waiting for, we were all speculating about what was going on, but at that point, I wasn't afraid. Not yet. Some kids who had working radios on their portable CD players said two planes had hit the towers.

When the bomb squad burst through the doors, along with droves of hysterical parents crying and screaming, I knew my parents wouldn't be among them—they were still at their far-away jobs. I did see Ann and her son Charles, who I walked to school with every day, who I instinctively hustled over to, knowing they could get me home so I wouldn't have to evacuate to wherever the other kids were going.

Outside the school building, the burning smell instantly stung our eyes, our nostrils, as the buildings vomited paper and people.

The crowds were almost impossible to move through, but we had one objective: Get home to the east side, to our neighborhood, which was also just three blocks away from the World Trade Center, on the other side of town.

But police on the west side kept refusing to let us through, directing us uptown only.

Soon, we were running from a giant cloud of smoke and debris that Ann told us not to look at. "Just cover your faces, don't look back, and run!" The scene for the next hour, as we tried every possible way into our own neighborhood, was the stuff that nightmares are made of: bleeding bodies, people covered in debris, piercing, blood-curdling screams and cries. I was covered in debris and kept forgetting to pull my shirt over my face to protect it. We spent an hour navigating the horror, trying to get home, normally a ten-minute walk from school, but police blocked every possible way. Once we finally made it back to our apartment, we found our neighborhood had become a war zone.

Research studies have found a strong connection between substance use disorders and post traumatic stress disorder—in women, specifically. It’s even more prominent when the trauma happened in childhood.

Beyond the stats and the assumptions and the stigma, here’s what it looked like for me, as a teenager through my 22nd year on earth.

Most people are vaguely familiar with the immediate signs and symptoms of PTSD: nightmares, anxiety, overactive fight or flight response, constant flashbacks, pervasive feelings of fear, trouble concentrating, feelings of guilt, irritability, outbursts, always being hyper-alert for the next thing that will hurt you or others.

But what about the signs that are seemingly six-degrees-removed from those initial symptoms, the ones that become more complex and impact our personal relationships? Some people recall all too vividly every detail of their experience, others numb out and dissociate.

But it becomes more than that over time: an inability to trust, a baseline of anxiety and scrambling to control everything to grasp at a feeling of emotional security and feeling safe, that adrenaline response that sends you from 0 to 100mph reacting to any number of eternal or emotional triggers relating to the actual trauma itself and telling you you’re going to die, or the emotional triggers that send you into a tailspin.

For me, I drank to feel "part of" the normal world, to feel confident, and pretty, and worth something. I drank to feel lighter and to quiet the anxiety and the chatter; we drink so we can put ourselves at risk and get that adrenaline going again, since our body is so used to producing it in overdrive, or so something does happen to us "by accident" when we make bad choices or get hurt because really, sometimes it gets so bad we want to die. 

I missed my chance to form a solid identity and find my place in the world, and for the most part, the ripples of developmental trauma turned the normal challenges of adolescence into a living hell, the kind that causes young people to take their lives.

But I began to lose those things that I thought drinking gave me, and I scrambled to get them back.

And then I started to realize that despite being disciplined—the kind of college student that turned in her papers early for feedback to maintain her high GPA—and despite the awareness that I could not safely have more than two drinks in a sitting, I constantly kept reaching for more. I cut it out entirely, I switched drinks—the same story we all know—but for a 21 year old who otherwise had a life on paper that was nothing short of utterly impressive, it didn’t seem like there was anything to do but keep trying to control it myself.

The realizations came in bits and pieces that I didn't know what to do with. I couldn’t control it half the time. People around me were becoming worried. I was hurting my boyfriend in more ways than one. My DBT therapist pointed out that as much as I was making progress, the “episodes” or severe trigger reactions seemed to only still happen, in large part, while I was drunk or high, i.e., when I had even less control over my own mind and those fight or flight instincts and reflexes that were still pretty faulty. It was only after the night of a perfect storm, with the best of intentions and the worst of outcomes (though none of the illegal or shocking kind), that I finally decided to find out just what kind of help was out there.

In a way, I don’t see myself as internally any different than that image we conjure up of a veteran hunched over their drink at a bar, struggling to get by every day living with what they saw, with how they feel, the nightmares and the security checks everywhere they go—the difference, of course, being the duty they served and their bravery and dedication so that we can have our freedoms. But on the inside; inside, survivors all find a way to cope. Just because a body stays in motion does not mean we’ve completely survived, and it doesn’t mean that we automatically bounce back. Our brains change. Our souls change. And when those patterns run deep and rut into your brain and become the new normal, we need help untangling those wires, getting sober, and re-learning how to live with healthy tools at our fingertips.

I asked for help at 22. It wasn’t easy. It was one of the hardest things I ever did, despite being just a “social” drinker, despite having it “all together” otherwise. It was worth it, though: the person I am now has more fun and feels more content than the broken teenager scrambling to find any sort of happiness or peace of mind, uncomfortable in her own skin. Always reaching.

It wasn’t my PTSD that caused me to drink: it was the after effects that made my own body and mind such a terrifying place to be that I needed a break. Now, I can give that to myself without reaching for anything but the phone.

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Twitter, Facebookor

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Helaina Hovitz Credit Celestina Ando Photography_0.jpg

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women's Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or