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No Shame in Asking for Help

James is a systems analyst and single father fromLondon, Ontario. He describes himself as “a casualty of the war on terror.” James was working in New York on September 11, 2001. This day defined his life forever.

Just after 8:46 am, he stepped off the subway at the World Trade Center stop on his way to work. He had taken the seven-minute ride to work from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. He heard some unusual snapping sounds from somewhere in the underground hub. Also, the faint smell of electricity was in the air. He figured a construction worker probably made a mistake. He stopped to buy a hot chocolate, a newspaper and headed toward the escalators. 

When he reached ground level, a policeman yelled, “Get out of here.” No one paid much attention but suddenly there was a big bang and smoke filled the foyer. People start to run. James moved toward the Liberty Street exit. Two elderly women struggled in front of him. He approaches them both and took them by the arm and the linked threesome moved toward the door.

Outside it appeared to be snowing, but it was burning paper and the street was covered in debris, glass, chunks of concrete and more paper. He found a safe doorway where the women could be protected and then proceeded to work a few blocks away at the One World Financial Center across the street from the Twin Towers.

He heard that a plane had flown into a building. It was now 9:00 am. “There was crap falling all over me,” he says. He was looking up at the building burning like a candle and thought, why aren’t the sprinklers working? Then he heard a strange roar. A huge passenger plane came from the south and ploughed into the second tower. People were screaming. Some fell to the ground. An officer told everyone to get out. James ran to his own building and his colleagues were running out of it, telling him to turn around. 

One image is seared into his memory. A woman appeared hundreds of meters up in the hole created by the plane. She and her partner were holding hands and slowly they made their way to the ledge of the window. They held hands all the way down. “It sounded like a sack of potatoes,” he says. “Here were two human beings who wanted to be together. They expressed a faith in each other. Whether they were married or not… Does it matter? If they were friends, they were the best of friends.”

James was overwhelmed. He finally got a ferry out of the city about 10:00 am. Half way across the river to the New Jersey side, the south tower fell. He got off the ferry and found a park bench on the waterfront. At 10:28 am he saw the north tower fall and the dust cloud envelop the city.

Then James walked into a local bar for the first drink in his whole life. “I didn’t realize how profoundly that day had rattled the paradigms I existed under,” he says. “I was a good church boy. I didn’t drink and was raised to work hard, support my family. That day I had 6 Long Island Ice Teas in 3 hours. I wanted an anesthetic, to forget.”

In the immediate aftermath, James worked in the building across the street, every day seeing bodies being pulled from the rubble. “Again, I didn’t realize how much that affected me. I was very good at blocking,” he says. “He thought he was managing well. He was doing some phone-based counselling through the Red Cross 800 number. A corporate weekend warrior, he traveled back to Ontario on the weekends to be with his family, but he was still in denial of his suffering. His family could see he was not the same person. He was fearful of taking elevators in tall buildings, of planes flying low and airport security officers carrying guns. He began alternating between bouts of extreme isolation and striking out in anger. His family was at its wits end. They had no idea that this level of anger was a symptom of PTSD.

James's coping mechanisms finally wore down, and, on a plane on September 11, 2005 he lost it. He thought he was having a heart attack. “It took me four years to the day before I had a full reaction.” Afterwards, he says, “I had more anxiety attacks. As my blood pressure was rising, I was dipping deeper into depression. I was suffering from hyper arousal all the time and it was exhausting.” James had to take a medical disability leave and lost his job when he returned. His marriage broke under the strain. He is now the custodial parent raising his children.

“PTSD is not a single event,” he says. The divorce, the loss of his children and then the reestablishment of custody, plus the loss of employment were accumulative. I knew his mother and could see the pain in her face when she talked about her son. He had been locked up for a long time.  

How did James ultimately get help? James said he told his doctor he couldn’t sleep. I’m having nightmares. I’m having flashbacks to New York on 9/11. The doctor gave him 14 days of sleeping pills and said have a good night’s sleep. The next step was antidepressants for 12 weeks. From his experience, James says, “Family physicians don’t have a clue.”

Asked if his pastor could be helpful, James says that he also doesn’t know how to deal with PTSD. Again, in James's experience, the pastor’s response was, “Let’s pray for you” or “Look to God for a miracle,” but that didn’t do anything for the anxiety attacks or the sense of impending doom. It actually left him feeling dismissed and abandoned.

James is now in the middle of counselling. He has learned a lot since he found help. He didn’t even think he had a problem until his company put him on that plane on September 11, 2005. He believes strong denial is symptomatic of many men. He calls it “a guy thing, a cultural bias. Guys like to repress. Asking for help is considered a sign of weakness and no man wants to admit weakness – come hell or high water.” James's prime advice now to all the men out there who may be suffering from trauma is, “There is no shame in asking for help.”

James is in a healing place. “In the midst of all this, I have a thought, an analogy,” he says with insight into his own blindness. “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.” Nothing in our culture trains us to understand this.