15 years later: how post-9/11 anxiety shaped my childhood

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My memory of 9/11 is monochromatic gray. A gray plane flying into a gray building against a gray sky, smoke billowing everywhere. But the months, even years, following were bright with red, white, and blue.


To a 9-year-old like me, it was like the Fourth of July every day. Window flags placed on cars flapped in the breeze, their scarlet stripes fading to pink over time. Star-spangled banners waved outside every house in my Orange County neighborhood. In class, we said the pledge of allegiance a bit louder. I got shivers across my shoulders and sometimes tears in my eyes whenever I recited “with liberty and justice for all.”

It’s hard to remember whether my school recommended wearing patriotic clothes or if I chose the look myself, but several days after 9/11, I rocked capris printed with stars and stripes, an Old Navy shirt plastered with a vinyl American flag, and a red, white, and blue bandana. Several parents stopped me before and after school to tell me how much my patriotism meant to them (though, back then, I didn’t really know what that word meant). My flashy outfit told the world I was brave, and successfully hid a feeling that was completely new to me: I was fucking terrified.

Media coverage of 9/11, which seemed to follow me wherever I went, indicated that nearly 3,000 people had died and first responders were searching for survivors amid the rubble. My dad died when I was an infant, which my mom was always open about, so I understood that one person could die. But thousands at the same time seemed impossible, and they didn’t just die—they were murdered.

So, at age 9, I learned people could die for no reason at all. Maybe I would die for no reason at all, too. My anxiety kicked into overdrive at outings to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and the county fair since the people on TV said highly populated areas would likely be targeted by terrorists.

As 2002 arrived and residents of New York and D.C. continued to grieve, across the country in California, I processed this trauma just as I had in those first few days after 9/11. I hid under the cloak of patriotism, as intrusive thoughts of death kept pushing their way into my mind.

When my mom went out to buy groceries, I told myself she would die on the way there; a car would hit her head-on, and I’d never see her again. I agonized every moment she was out of sight, often staring out the window, and waiting for the sound of her Pontiac Sunfire turning the corner into our driveway. Whenever the phone rang in class, I thought it must be for me. I pictured the teacher answering the phone, and turning gravely towards me to say that someone in my family had died. But the call I dreaded never came.


I couldn’t sleep. Every groan of the house settling, every hiss of the sprinklers outside, seemed to be an intruder. I was convinced someone, somewhere, wanted to kill me and my family. At least once a week, I woke my mom up, and begged her to sleep in my bed.


As I moved up a grade level and paid more attention to the news, I kept track of America’s terror-alert level every single day. It often remained “yellow,” denoting an elevated risk of terrorist attacks, but those high-risk “orange” days left me more unsettled than usual.

The media helped me understand what was happening as much as it confused me. There were two wars being fought in deserts, which I associated with grainy night-vision footage and reporters in khakis. I wasn’t sure which one of these was the War on Terror since I didn’t know where Terror was. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Benson, had us write letters to then-President George W. Bush. I wrote that I was proud of him, that I knew he would protect us, that America would win like we always do.


“After all, we haven’t lost a war yet,” the letter, punctuated with smiley faces around my name, concluded. Later on, after reading it, Mrs. Benson quietly told me that we had lost the Vietnam War decades ago. I had no idea.

Every night at 9 p.m., my mom let me watch reruns of The Daily Show with her. After only watching a few episodes, I started to regret telling President Bush I was proud of him. Thanks to Jon Stewart, I learned that adults with the most responsibility aren’t always right.


Over time, my recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance lost its gusto. Then I entered middle school.


My eighth-grade history teacher, a man whose uniform consisted of Polo shirts, Bermuda shorts, and Top-Siders, was the only adult I personally knew who explained why America was at war. But he wasn’t even right.

“We’re fighting in Afghanistan because they bombed us on 9/11.”

My fists came down hard on the desk, in protest, startling everyone around me. “This is an oil war,” I yelled. (I’m still not sure where I got that from.)


Eventually, the cloak of patriotism fell off my shoulders. I reinvented myself as an anti-war hippie in high school. I joined a handful of retirees protesting the war outside of my local mall. I listened to Bob Dylan and John Lennon nonstop. I thought Ralph Nader was cool.

But despite my outwardly bold persona, I couldn’t shake my childhood fears when I began flying alone at 18. Even today, at 24, I still feel them creep up on me whenever I’m in a large crowd, whenever I board a plane, whenever I’m in a tall building.

In my final year of college, I had an English professor who lectured on post-9/11 literature. He explained that the War on Terror was a war against time rather than countries; America was fighting to stop unknown attacks in unknown locations at unknown times (this style of fighting blind was unprecedented, and my generation was the first to grow up in its midst). At that point, I realized my relentless thoughts of death stemmed directly from media images of fear and paranoia I had subconsciously internalized as a child. For the first time, my adolescent anxiety was properly explained to me as an adult. More than a decade of frantic worry finally made sense. I held back tears in class, thankful for the impersonal nature of college classrooms.


When national trauma occurs, we send our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. We try to analyze the perpetrators’ mental health without ever having met them. We mourn and remember and then move on.


But we rarely ever stop to talk to our children, to tell them they shouldn’t be scared. No adult ever asked me how I was feeling, but I don’t blame them. You don’t think to ask a kid, “Hey, are you having any residual anxiety after being shown mortality on TV over and over again?”

In a world where terrorist attacks and mass murders occur in rapid succession and feel never-ending, we should have frank conversations with our children about these traumas—even if it’s as small as asking them how they’re feeling.


Martina Dorff is a freelance writer and editor based in California.