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“Then, bit by bit, things began to decline and soon there was a ghost sitting at the dinner table.”

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By Linda Genen

Like many others, our world was changed forever in September 2001. On 9/11 I was nine months pregnant with our firstborn. I was on my way to work in the NICU when my phone rang at 8:15 a.m. It was our best man, John, asking where my husband Bill was. He was concerned because Bill worked in the Twin Towers. I told him that Bill had just landed in Boston and had let me know he was on the ground, as that was our tradition when traveling. It was Bill's last trip, since our baby was due soon.

A plane hitting the World Trade Center was inconceivable. I had just been there three days earlier...

John told me that one tower had been hit. Initially the reports were that it was a small commuter plane, and I thought that must be a mistake. A plane hitting the World Trade Center was inconceivable. I had just been there three days earlier, visiting Bill at work on the 94th floor before we went to dinner.

I went to the hospital and found that most of the TVs were tuned to the news. The story that was unraveling live on CNN was unbelievable. I went into an empty patient room and sat on a bed, watching in horror as the towers fell. This couldn't be happening, I thought. At the same time, I was so thankful that my husband wasn't there that day. I immediately thought of our best friend, who was in the towers, and reached out to his wife. She had collapsed, as she had a view of the scene from her office window, and was taken to the hospital. I spent that night at work since communication via cell phone was not possible and I was on call in the NICU. At least I could keep busy caring for my patients.

The next several weeks were a blur. Bill lived with intense survivor guilt. He had lost his entire team and his best friend, and he felt guilty for their loss. One man even called Bill, yelling and screaming that it was his fault that his wife and unborn child perished in the towers. 

We went to memorial service after memorial service until I said I could not go anymore.

Our newborn was due any day and it was time to celebrate life. And we did, with a renewed focus on family and work-life balance. For many years, we moved forward, but Bill wrestled with a darkness that I wasn't aware of. Nine years later, Bill continued to have issues and I urged him to get some help, to talk about his losses. He did, but unfortunately the psychiatrist we found was not helpful and thought that Bill's anxiety and depression could be treated with Valium. This only led to Bill suffering from worse depression and he fell into a zombie-like state. I addressed the treatment path with the psychiatrist, since I am a physician as well. However, he dismissed me and stated that recovery would take time. Finally, Bill’s situation came to a breaking point. What started off as a slow decline escalated until I found myself driving my husband to the psychiatric ER at the very same hospital where I worked. As hard as that was, there was a sense of relief that perhaps now he would get the care he needed. He pleaded with me not to take him to the hospital, but the therapy and medications weren't working and I couldn't care for him any longer.

Then, bit by bit, things began to decline and soon there was a ghost sitting at the dinner table. 

We were having a difficult time with my husband's increasing anxiety and severe depression. And I say "we" because depression affects not only the person who is sick, but those around them. I had known Bill was struggling for a while, but he was functioning and doing all the "right" things—going to work and helping with the boys and around the house. Then, bit by bit, things began to decline and soon there was a ghost sitting at the dinner table. Not engaging with us. Physically present, but not mentally connected.

While Bill struggled to rejoin life and our family, I juggled our home life and my ridiculously busy work life. I kept most of this under wraps until I found that I, too, began experiencing signs of depression. I knew that having two parents fall apart was not an option for our boys. It was time to reach out for help beyond just my aging parents.

My fear of the stigma of mental illness was something that I had to get past.

The week that Bill was admitted to the psychiatric ward, I sounded the foghorn and called in the troops. Our neighborhood friends rallied and, along with my family, saved me. Friends from far away kept my phone full of supportive texts and understood when I didn't respond in a timely manner. My fear of the stigma of mental illness was something that I had to get past. If Bill had cancer and was hospitalized, I would have reached out sooner, but that stigma held me back. I didn't want our friends to view Bill differently, to judge him.

Thankfully, I can now write that we have emerged from the darkest days of our life. There is true joy in our relationship and in our house. Bill is a new person and aware of the triggers that send him down the rabbit hole. I am a massive proponent of self-improvement, mindfulness, and positive thinking, and will do anything to ensure that my children don't face depression or anxiety in their lives.

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