As a middle school student, 28-year-old Helaina Hovitz lived through the chaos and destruction of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City. Her long struggle to recover from post traumatic stress disorder led her to a place where she finally felt healthy, whole, and ready for love.

By Helaina Hovitz
Updated September 11, 2017
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It was my second day of seventh grade when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, three blocks from my middle school. We were led down to the cafeteria and told not to stop at our lockers, and while everyone was speculating about what was going on, I wasn’t afraid—yet.

But when a police bomb squad burst through the school doors, along with hysterical parents racing to pick up their kids and bring them to safety, things changed. I knew my parents wouldn't be among them—they were still at their jobs. I instinctively hustled over to a classmate and her mom who lived in my neighborhood who I knew would help me get home.

Outside the school building, the smell of the Twin Towers on fire instantly stung my eyes and nostrils. As we made our way through the crowds, the first building fell, and we were now fleeing from a giant cloud of smoke and debris. My classmate’s mom told us not to look at it: "Just cover your faces, don't look back, and run!" The next hour was the stuff of nightmares: bleeding bodies, people covered in debris, piercing screams.

Though I was physically okay after that terribly day, emotionally, I was not. I became anxious, stressed, and depressed. I began drinking to cope with what felt like a constant state of being in flight or fight. Finally at age 19, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Once I had a name for what I was experiencing and the right therapy, I started to make progress healing. I graduated college and began my career as a journalist.

One of the most telling tales of my progress is my recent marriage. Not because putting “a ring on it” is any indication of success or the quality of a person, but because it shows me how far I’ve come from being broken—and haunted by trauma that deeply affected my self-esteem and ability to believe that I could be whole, confident, and trusting.

A promising new relationship

Lee and I met three years ago; he’s a public relations director, and he pitched me an idea for a story. After serious relationships with a couple of different guys through my late teens and early 20s who mistreated me, I was about to take a six-month break from dating. I was looking forward to being single and learning who I was.

But I could tell that a relationship with Lee would be different. I had a more solid sense of myself and why I deserved not to be treated poorly, and I had a better handle on the intense emotions and reactions that characterize PTSD. I had been in recovery for my drinking, and I felt I could survive the grief of a breakup without scrambling for something to numb that pain.

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I’m a journalist who writes about her personal life and darkest moments, so I decided to tell Lee about my PTSD on our first date. I explained what high school was like for me, the trouble I had growing up, and my fight to find the right kind of help to “fix” my issues. He admired my honesty instead of running from it, and he shared some personal details about his own life, his family, his work anxieties.

To make sure he knew what he was getting into, I asked Lee to read the manuscript of a memoir I wrote and ended up publishing earlier this year. It didn't deter him from wanting to be with me, and we lived together for two years before he proposed marriage. Still, reading about my coming to grips with PTSD was nothing like experiencing it firsthand. The closer we became, the fuller the picture was that he got of me and how trauma has shaped me.

Helping my fiance understand PTSD

People with PTSD often have triggers, things that can make them feel like they're reliving the trauma they went through. Lee had to understand what mine are. Those included being trapped in a crowd, as I was fleeing school on 9/11; hearing fire engine sirens just like that morning; or even getting lost on the road. When mine were set off, he tried to interact with me more gently, ask more questions, and approach things with sensitivity, compassion, and kindness.

I explained other lingering side effects of PTSD, including why it was such a big challenge for me to learn to sleep alone or hang out by myself and feel sure that something bad wasn’t happening. These stem from one complex symptom of trauma, which is fear of abandonment. During the chaos of that September morning, I was terrified that if I didn't stick close to my classmate's mom, I would die. After that, I became deathly afraid everyone I cared about would die, and therefore leave me.

So while Lee had to get why I sometimes felt that his going on a business trip or playing basketball with his friends made me feel abandoned, I had to accept that people sometimes have to travel for business, and that it’s healthy to have hobbies not shared with a significant other. While that seems like a pretty obvious observation, for someone who spent years listening to an internal monologue that interpreted these things as abandonment, it was a hard adjustment.

People living with trauma, especially if it's untreated, feel everything more intensely. There's more mistrust, more anxiety, more of a reaction to something that they feel is sad or mean or rude or insulting, more sensitive to scenes in movies or bleeding headlines. And around the first two weeks in September, I can be more sensitive or reactive to things I’d normally laugh off or let roll off.

That means Lee had to accept that he might need to wear his thickest boots to walk on eggshells. When I was triggered by a 6-alarm fire in my neighborhood last weekend, he just asked me, “What can I do?” When I said I didn’t know, he said, “Okay, I’m here.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Newlywed—and moving forward

We made it through that time of understanding and adjustment—we being Lee, and then a team of me, my two sponsors from 12-step programs (I’ll be six years sober in November) and my two therapists. Yet shortly before we got married this past June, and the wedding stress had me operating a few levels above normal, we thought it’d be good to see a therapist in place of the typical marriage counselor some couples might talk to.

At one visit, the therapist explained to Lee that my needs or reactions would probably seem dramatic to him. “If you drop something on the floor, you might pick it up and go on with your day. But if you drop something on the floor and it freaks her out and she has a strong reaction, you don’t have to understand or agree with it,” she said. “But you do have to know she’s not being dramatic or choosing to start a fight. It feels that intense to her, and you love her. So that’s when you decide how you want to respond.”

During that exchange, something clicked even harder into place for Lee then, and he said out loud to her—and to me—that he would stand by me no matter what, that he loved me and would always put me first. He actually enjoyed our therapy sessions and felt happy when we left. I felt lucky.

To be clear, PTSD is not who I am. I am not defined by that label. Most of the year, I’m in great shape, and the PTSD stays dormant unless it’s woken up intensely, in the perfect-storm combination of a fireworks show, for example, bringing me back to the noise and chaos of 9/11. Overall, though, I’m my new, normal, adult self. I’ve moved on and grown as a person.

Yet in a way, overcoming and still confronting my PTSD has made our marriage stronger because we’ve faced things some couples never dive deeply into. Nobody can accuse Lee and I of not being great communicators; we reach out with what we need when we need it in a healthy way, which is a key to a lasting relationship. We don’t secretly harbor resentment or anger and lie to avoid talking by saying everything is fine. We speak kindly and honestly to each other, and it strengthens our bond every time.