At the end of July, in 2001, I walked into my boss’s office on a Friday afternoon and let him know I was quitting. This news landed more like: “I want a divorce” than: “I’m not going to be your executive assistant any longer.”
I was his “other wife” and he was my surrogate husband. We had a classically codependent relationship, replete in its boundarylessness, intense camaraderie and complexity of mutual need.
I knew exactly how much 2% milk to pour into his coffee. I bought birthday and Christmas presents for his kids on my lunch breaks with his credit card. I had the names of his tennis partners programmed into my fliptop Motorola so I could reach them more easily every time his travel plans changed and we had to find someone to fill his spot for Monday evening doubles. He couldn’t walk down a hallway without my help.
I relished it.
“Mary?! Where is that file that was on my desk - you know the -”
“For the Mastercard meeting? It’s already in your briefcase, I packed it for you.”
“Perfect! I’d be lost without you!”, he’d call over his shoulder, perpetually running off to the next critically important thing, leaving me behind to (wo)man the fort.
All I ever wanted was to be irreplaceable. Instrumental. Essential. A saver of someone else’s life.
I didn’t feel worthy or capable of healthy, mutual love back then. It would be decades before I would. So I attracted these kinds of dynamics into my personal and work life. Over and over and over again. I was always rescuing someone. Always seeking the dopamine hit of: “I could never survive without you!!”
My news that July afternoon, 20 years ago, was a massive departure from our unspoken agreement. I was leaving. My boss was devastated. Did I want more money? More time off? Was I upset with him?
No, no, no.
I’d made a decision to leave New York for the month of August on a Buddhist retreat. I didn’t know what would happen after that - I just knew I had to go and I didn’t want any deadlines or commitments bookending my wild unknown.
I’d saved up 6 months of runway cash and because I was young, had no meaningful worldly responsibilities and lived in a rent controlled building, I could afford to take the chance of letting go of one trapeze bar without the other in clear sight. I would see where the wind wanted to take me.
The weeks leading up to my departure were extremely trying. I actually loved my job in the same way that we crave what we’re allergic to. A huge, unenlightened part of me didn’t want to leave. I had a steady paycheck, a reasonable work/life balance and free health insurance. Why was I jumping overboard when the seas weren’t even rocky?
My Soul told me there was more to life than what I was living. In Buddhism we say, you’re looking at the night sky through a straw. I knew I was only seeing a portion of the big picture of who I was meant to be and what I was meant to do with my life. I had to put the straw down and allow myself to consider broader possibilities.
I left for my retreat with so much complicated hope and dread in my heart. The weeks at the meditation center were intense but they fed me. I dropped down to a place I had never located within myself before. I got still. Profoundly still. I went beyond the chatter of fear and distraction and over thinking that normally filled me daily, like water pouring into a vessel. I made real contact with steady, spiritual, undaunted me.
By the time I left, on the last day of August, 2001, I felt like a newborn baby.
I hitched a ride back to New York with another retreat goer who lived in the Lower East Side and didn’t mind dropping me on 20th street. I was spared the expense and hassle of a bus ride. It felt like a gift from the universe. See? I was already being guided and supported in my intention to start this new chapter of my life.
I hadn’t even finished my post-retreat laundry when 9/11 happened. My bedroom was still upside down with piles of stuff I’d unpacked and only half sorted that Tuesday morning when I returned to my apartment, sweat covered, from a morning run. The landline rang as I was untying my shoes.
“Hello?”, I said.
“Turn on the TV right now.”
It was my best friend Leslie. I looked around for the remote.
“What’s going on?”, I asked. Her voice didn’t sound right.
“Just turn the television on. A plane hit one of the twin towers.”
I turned on the TV just in time to see the second plane smash into the other tower.
A few moments later, our call dropped.
The morning unfolded into the afternoon with the sickening slow motion pace of a nightmare one can’t wake from. More calls came. My roommate returned from work, having walked over 50 blocks to get back. Another friend came to our place from Tribeca, covered in dust. We tried for hours and hours to reach a dear friend who lived in the shadow of the World Trade Center, way down at the very tip of Manhattan. No answer. No calls able to get through.
I never took a shower that day. My sweat dried on my skin like ocean water, like salty tears. The TV stayed on for days. I don’t remember who slept over that night, or sleeping in general, during the nights that followed.
I remember moving pillows to the foot of my bed and keeping my blinds raised so I could look out through the darkness at the Empire State Building, beyond my bedroom window, so grateful it was still there.
And I remember this: feeling like the worst, most despicable fucking asshole for the way I’d been prancing around, post-retreat, like the universe was patting me on the butt and cheering for me with pom-pom’s as I pedaled off on my tricycle into my self consumed, all important, grandiose next chapter.
Who was I to think life loved me? To think I deserved magic and adventure and happy-making things? Why was I still alive when so many had been brutally, randomly killed that morning?
What was the point?
This is the number one, favorite question of depression: What’s the point? And it’s a trick question, to boot, because depression already has the answer rolled out onto the tip of your tongue. That’s right. You guessed it: There is no point.
My Soul whimpered like a kicked dog. Stay above the water, she begged. Don’t go under.
But I did.
I slipped under. I sank like a heavy thing. All of my buoyancy gone. I sank and the worst part is: I didn’t even notice that I’d sunk. I was in such shock, such trauma, such guilt, such pain.
I couldn’t feel anything in the weeks after 9/11. I don’t know when I finally finished sorting out my room or how I managed to get another assistant job. All of these things implied that I was agreeing to go on living but that’s not how I felt at the time. I felt very ambiguous about life in general.
Everyone I knew was struggling, existentially, in these ways, with no words, no handrails to grab ahold of. We’re ok, right? We’re not ok. No, we are. New York state of mind. We’re tough. We’re gonna build back. We’re gonna show those fuckers. Don’t give into the fear, that’s when you let them win. We can’t let them win.
I made a deal with myself: Ok, I won't give into the fear. I’ll go dead instead.
I’ll marry my shadow. I’ll start a business. I’ll have babies. I’ll move upstate. I’ll stay busy and distracted. I’ll bury my heart. I’ll stop meditating. I’ll stop doing the things that make me feel alive, that make me think. I’ll live over the past, like painting a fresh coat on an old wall.
It took a long time break that contract, that habit of abandoning myself. It took a long time to unravel the shame. To find the person who didn't perish that day but also didn't really keep living either. I didn't fully resuscitate her until my divorce, when I was finally alone with her again. When she could find rock bottom and push off, for real.
Every September 11th I consider the wound of Survivor’s Guilt and I connect the dots backwards, from the miraculous place I’m in now - living a life I dearly love, with people I dearly love and a career which deeply fulfills and supports me - all the way back to decisions I made 20 years ago from a reeling, unconscious, traumatized state of being.
Would I have married the person I married if 9/11 hadn’t happened? Would I have my kids? Would I have healed as much as I’ve healed had I not gone as far into the darkness of despair and meaninglessness as I did in those years which followed?
Who would any of us be without our despair?
Who are we when we live at the mercy of it?
Who are we when we learn to live beyond it?
How do we honor the dead? By deadening ourselves in an unconscious attempt to stay connected to them?
Or by living in the loudest, most vibrant, most Soulful, determined way, day after merciful day?
These are the questions stirring in my heart this weekend, 20 years after the fall.
Sending light and healing your way tonight friends,