With the recent news from Brussels, it’s hard not to think of our own national tragedy. Looking back fifteen years gives us a perspective on the events of 9/11 that we didn’t have at the moment. It can be difficult, but with motivation and understanding, we can all begin finding our truth after terror. Hopefully, this first person account from someone affected by 9/11 can help you start to heal.
The living room is an embodiment of feminine comfort: soft fluffiness everywhere, furniture that hugs you, a light-filled womb of warm-colored plants and foods. As 47-year-old VinnieCarla Agnello talks to me, she snuggles on a pillow-decked couch, swaddled in big white blankets with two snoring dogs, one of which burrows into her chest like an infant. We’re talking about her new memoir, Out of the Blue: A Suddenly Single Mother’s Memoir of Love, Intuition, and Healing (Amore Press LLC).
Fifteen years ago things were very different. VinnieCarla was a nurse with two babies and a husband named Joey who was a firefighter and her best friend. Together they enjoyed a modest and idyllic life in Belle Harbor, Rockaway, Queens—home to many firefighters’ families—until 9/11/01 when her happiness and mental health were shattered. What followed—the subject of her book—is a virtual house-of-mirrors journey from magical thinking, and denial of Joey’s death, to becoming the focus of the projections of a traumatized public, to a backlash, to finding truth after terror.
It is hard enough to go through a private trauma, but what happens when your most intimate pain becomes the subject of international attention, both idealized and resented?
“There was this outpouring from the media of ‘look what these men did’ and ‘they’re heroes,’ and for me it was very practical: This was my husband, this was the father of my children,” says VinnieCarla. “But he got amplified into this big international sensation. And then three or four months later, there started to be this backlash—negative press about the compensation fund and talk about all the money.
“At Joey’s memorial I didn’t feel comfortable grieving in my own way because the paparazzi were there. I remember trying to keep my head up. And I must have looked down for one second—maybe I couldn’t keep my neck up anymore—and that’s the picture they went for: a young mother with two little ones who’s looking down, not holding it together.”
“I don’t think that I understood what shock was and what a brain scramble it is,” she explains. “I’m a multitasker. I could juggle backwards. Sharp as a tack. But after 9/11, after not having slept or eaten in three weeks—I wrote about emptying the dishwasher and how long it took me: ‘What’s this? Oh, this is a plate! Why am I holding it? Oh, this is clean.’ It was a monumental task to do anything. This is your brain scrambled; you’re not thinking about emptying a dishwasher. The lowest part of your brain does that.”
Even though she couldn’t recognize the depth of her own grief, the combination of hearing other people’s surprise at her appearance and inertia, added with her history of dealing with a mentally ill mother and her alarm after she lost her temper with one of her children, motivated VinnieCarla to seek help. She hired a babysitter, put her boys in daycare, and started therapy. She underwent EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), an eye movement therapy that forces both sides of the brain to stay functional during the retelling of an event, which brings a release. When a kind of numbness set in, she consulted a homeopath and subsequently began talk therapy. She wanted to heal without meds.
“If I was going to truly heal, I was going to walk in it,” says VinnieCarla. “In Joey’s memorial, we used the Bible verse from Ecclesiastes: There is ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.’ And I just really, really embraced this. It was the time to cry and there was a reason for it and I didn’t want to fight it.”
For many years VinnieCarla had wanted to write. One of the most interesting things that happened for VinnieCarla was the process of writing itself. “It helped heal me,” she says. “All the therapy in the world doesn’t compare to writing something.”
Today, VinnieCarla has moved on. Her sons are teenagers. She has new love in her life and she recognizes the great wealth she now has of insight, understanding and compassion for others.
I ask her whether she is healed.
“Healing is not a vertical line,” she answers. “It’s a longer process than people think. I think part of healing or having said I’m healed is knowing that you’re never healed 100 percent.”
Change, transformation, healing—in this case, they are synonymous. And, according to VinnieCarla Agnello, finding truth after terror requires that you accept that you’re never going to reach the finish line. “The pain is always going to be there,” she says, smiling, “And how do you live with that pain? I know now, well, this is kicking up my dirt. Let me be easy with myself today. I have tools now.”