How 9/11 sent ripples of mental illness across the world

How 9/11 sent ripples of mental illness across the world

By Liz Lockhart

The world was robbed of a sense of security the day that the Twin Towers was attacked.  Our naivety was stripped from us and we are poorer for it.

A reader contacted me to tell me how her family was affected in the aftermath of the trauma of 9/11 and although her story is extreme it demonstrates the devastation caused to mental health that day.

Do you remember that here in the U.K. our supermarkets ran short of bottled water and tinned foods in the wake of this, the worst act of terrorism that the world has ever seen?  Can you remember how we worried that Britain could be next on the list?  Do you recall the attitude that it may have been unwise to foster the close relationship that the U.K. had with the U.S.A.?

Debbie wrote to Mental Healthy to tell us how the devastation in New York had reached out and touched her family with a truly malevolent hand.

Debbie’s Story

I want to share my account of how 9/11 damaged my family here in the U.K. because although it is extreme I think there was an element of it running through many people across the world.

My life on 11th September 2001 was a happy and busy one.  Two years previously I had moved with my young teenage daughter to the sea side in southern England.  My oldest daughter, her husband and their year old son had chosen to move down too to be close to us.  My son-in-law, Barry, decided to go into business close by and asked me to work along-side him to build it up.  I was working harder than I had ever done before and knew that the business was doing well enough to provide a stable future for my growing family.

Barry was not putting in the effort that I would have liked to see.  He seldom showed up at work and when he did his presence was more disruptive than constructive.  He was charismatic but disorganised, and this had not proved to be a positive influence on the workforce.

By the summer of 2001 my oldest daughter was expecting their second child, due in October.  I could see that the responsibility of parenthood was sitting heavy on my son-in-laws shoulders and yet he had a wonderful opportunity with the business which he chose to neglect.  My work-load grew as the business expanded and flourished.

Then came 9/11 – the chills of that day still run down my back if I allow myself to visualise the images that unfolded through our television sets.  As I grieved for those lost in America I had no idea that the ripples would vibrate outward to hit my family too.

My son-in-law’s behaviour became erratic.  He was obviously in a very unstable state.  He came to my home that evening and couldn’t sit still while he poured out his fears.  He was worried about germ-warfare which he saw as inevitable.  He asked if I knew where he could get his hand on vaccine against Anthrax. He knew that the U.K. would, inevitably, become the next target for Al Qaida.  He wanted to stock up on tinned food and bottled water to protect his family.  He paced the floor while he fretted for the safety of his young son and his unborn baby asking ‘What kind of a world am I bringing them into?’

The next day I was approached by work colleagues who had noticed Barry’s unusual behaviour and were concerned.  He had approached one of them to ask if he knew where you could buy a gun.  Barry came to me within days of 9/11 to say that he was going to steal a boat and take the family away from what he saw as unquestionable danger.  ‘Where will you go?  Where do you think is safe?  If not Britain then where?’  I asked.  ‘Switzerland seems like a safe bet to me,’ Barry replied.  ‘We want you to come with us.’ 

I, quite, naturally, declined but try as I did, I could not dissuade or comfort Barry.  This manic behaviour lasted for months.  We tried to get help for him but all our pleas fell on deaf ears.  Gradually he seemed to get back to some level of normality although normality for Barry has never been quite the same. 

Early the following year my youngest daughter was preparing for her birthday.  ‘What would you really like as your birthday present?’  I asked her.  ‘Can I have anything at all Mum?’ she asked.  ‘Yes, anything within reason.’  I replied with a feeling that she already had something in mind.  Her request shook me and the years that followed were a nightmare.  ‘What I would really like, Mum, is two gas-masks - one for me and one for you.’

9/11 changed the lives of thousands of American citizens - it put fear where once there was security.  I could never have imagined how an act of terrorism in New York could also change the life of my family here in Britain. 

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