It’s been 16 years since 9/11, and 16 years since I was 16

Have you had your lucky birthday yet? That’s when you turn the age of whatever your date of birth is. My birthday is March 15. I turned 15 in 2001.

Was it lucky? I don’t really remember. (Isn’t every birthday inherently lucky? You made it another year.) I do remember, though, how different I would feel a year from then in 2002 when I turned 16.

I guess technically I was 15 when the terrorist attacks happened in New York. But I remember it as if I were 16. Because that September was when a lot of things changed, for me and for the country.

A few days before Sept. 11, 2001, I had my first encounter with death. I was lucky enough to never have had to consider it as a reality until then. All four of my grandparents lived until I was 29. But in 2001, a boy I grew up with died in an ATV accident. He was struck by a car as he tried to cross a country road. He was thrown from the four wheeler he was riding. The accident killed him and his elementary-aged cousin who was riding with him.

Soon after his funeral, I was in biology class on Sept. 11 when the air changed. An older student came into the classroom, whispered something to our teacher. His face went white. That look of confused panic was on every adult face that day. From the teachers to my mom to the priest we saw that evening when my mom took us to church to pray.

Trying to grapple with death on a both a macro and micro level in a matter of days made me go from 15 to 16 pretty quickly, even if the dates didn’t line up perfectly. Sixteen is a rite of passage represented by much more than a number.

That September was pretty important for other reasons too. Namely, I was a newly minted varsity cheerleader and had just been asked to homecoming by a boy whom I had been unhealthily obsessed with since seeing him practice shotput in the middle school gym two years before. Mmmm, gym shorts.

He broke up with me pretty quickly afterward because I was a crazy, well, 16-year-old and we had absolutely nothing in common except that we were both horny teenagers, but also because I had told him I wanted to stay a virgin until I was married. (Ha.)

In hindsight, I see how this was related to September 2001. A Catholic girl with mere fledgling hints of denial, I wanted to shut down any part of me that might go to hell when I died — because for the first time, death seemed real. If that meant not having sex until I was married, so be it.

I was afraid of dying. Quickly, this would feed into a greater fear of not living.

Hindsight is a great thing. We can easily find answers to why we acted or responded a certain way by zooming in through the lens of time.

Looking at 9/11 now, in 2017, I wonder if we collectively would have reacted the same way? I worry there’d be a sense of righteousness in the attacks — let those elite liberals die already. I mean, there were even hints of that from some liberals when Houston was hit by Harvey, most notably this professor who was fired for saying basically that on his private Twitter page.

I wonder what kids who are 16 now think about 9/11. Does it seem as far away and irrelevant as things from 1986 did when I was 16?

As I binged on Netflix the other day (Ozark. Watch it.), I thought about how ancient DVDs felt and was greeted with a very clear memory of watching DVDs in my dorm room before the start of sophomore year of college.

I had an old clunky TV that would spit out the disc tray with a groan after hitting the eject button twice. I had never had my own TV before and this shitty gray thing was my favorite possession. It was representative of the freedom I felt being out on my own — finally.

I was watching and pretending to understand Miranda July’s “You, Me and Everyone We Know” with a friend, a girl I adored then and now for her uncool but unflappable adoration of Britney Spears. Unlike me, this friend had managed to stay a virgin until college and talked about it unapologetically.

She also pouted at boys a lot and had yet to notice she only seemed to befriend girls about five shades less attractive than her, self included.

And I had yet to notice I noticed things like that.

At 19, I felt as uncomfortable and as unpretty as I did at 16. That wouldn’t go away until I was about 26.  

That college scene was 2005, which, to me, doesn’t seem that long ago. When you’re the one who has lived through the decade, the decade feels impossibly fast and interconnected. You’re distracted by everything else. By work, by life, happy hours and hours of hangovers.

Our country has sped through changes these past 16 years. Self included. In 2001, New York felt impossibly far away. Now, it feels closer to me than rural Ohio, where I was at 16.

Will we feel that way about what’s happening now soon enough? Is this key to keeping things in perspective? Everything gets better with time.

Does it?

It’s strange to think of the micro, personal level of growth that’s happened in half my lifetime, and reconcile that with how many people use ancient texts to define current lives, current times. To remain virgins, for example. To blame disasters, natural or manmade, on God or karma or kismet.

We’re different now. And we’re exactly the same. It’s maddening.

I think I’ve always known the only way to cope with all this big picture dissonance is to fix things internally. We all do that — find ways to find control. Looking at photos of me at 16, I’m struck by how much I don’t recognize that girl, and at the same time feel like the very same person.

I’m still trying to figure out the best ways to use a curling iron and how save my soul.

With time and knowledge on my side, though, I can see the manifestations of her coping mechanisms and recognize how they’re still here in my 31-year-old brain.

I overload myself. Still. Go overboard to placate feeling underwhelming and unworthy. It’s a coping mechanisms of extremes. Giving myself too much to do has long been a way I subconsciously hide from myself.

In the early 2000s it was signing up for any and every extra-curricular, a solution generously supported by societal rewards of approving adult head nods and various applause and honors college placement and even a senior superlative of “Most Involved.”

I’ve carried on like this for an additional 16 years. My tendency to go to extremes as a way to fend off death, to not recognize my limits and establish clear boundaries, is a major reason I live sober now. The more insidious, less outwardly destructive aspect of this tendency, though, has always been overwhelming myself with work to do, and it’s something I still have yet to break.

Overworking myself stems from a lot of fears. Not just this one to live life to the fullest because death seems so near. There’s the very female Millennial and American need to be ambitious to be of value, something that’s slowly shaking out to prove hurtful in its own ways.

It’s also influenced by a fear of money, particularly not having any, something I’m reminded of when I look at my picture from that 2001 homecoming and see a person totally in love with the dress she scored for $10, her dress budget, at Gabriel Brothers. I think therein lies a hint at why I spent so much money on my wedding dress and wanted to get photos in that same yard. I needed proof that I had taken myself far from a lot of insecurity.

So what will solving this look like for me? Saying no will be a good start. No to extra assignments, no to myself. Staying present in and honest about my time.

I’m beyond ready to get over the fear and survival techniques that took root in me 16 years ago. And I think we as a country are ready too.

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