Marilyn Puder-York, PhD, lives and works two blocks away from the World Trade Center. After the Sept. 11 attacks and building collapses, she and her family weren't allowed back in the area for four weeks, except for a 15-minute trip under armed guard. "We were like refugees," she said.
Sept. 11 started as a slightly unusual day for Puder-York. Since the bulk of her practice is executive coaching, she normally sees clients in their offices, but that day she was in her home office with a client she'd worked with for years.
"My husband knocked on the door and told us about the first plane that had hit the Trade Center. My client and I decided we couldn't work anymore." After the second plane hit, she knew she had to pick up her daughter at an elementary school, two blocks north of the towers. Her client walked that way with her. Her husband said he would man the phones and wait for her return to the apartment. "None of us sensed there would be further danger," she noted.
"We were a block and a half away when one of the buildings collapsed," she said. "I melted. I just disassociated and was paralyzed." Her client knew to get them behind a barrier. "He found an area of protection. He gave me his shirt and his jacket and put them over me. A thick, black cloud of smoke overcame us. I truly thought we were going to die." Her client, a man she had helped to empower through years of therapy, became her lifeline. "He reduced my panic and got me to breathe. He really saved my life."
When the smoke began to lighten, Puder-York and her client got to the school and found that the students had been evacuated to a safer location. She finally found her daughter after an hour and took cover in a friend's house uptown. It took 15 hours for her to find and reconnect with her husband, who had been evacuated to New Jersey.
For the weeks following her experience, she says she practiced everything she ever preached to her clients. "The first week was really a sensation of survival. I took every minute one at a time. I allowed myself to cry and I relied on a psychologist-friend for support." Then she says her recovery "evolved into another stage" and she became more spiritual.
"Unless I went from victim to witness, I couldn't extract some personal meaning to make this experience less than pure disaster. It would just be depressing. I think I witnessed what I did for a reason and survived for a reason." Now, she says, she's motivated by a sense of good in her work. "I used to coach executives to thrive in the marketplace and make more money....Now I want to help them find a way to put the good in business and be kinder and more resilient in the face of economic downslide."
She says psychologists can help individuals "find meaning and their own purpose" in the face of such tragedy. "This is one of the most powerful fear-reducers.
"We have the opportunity to help individuals resolve blockages...that don't allow them to use this as an opportunity. There has to be something that will help us live after this, some type of mission that we can give back."