“The Day The World Changed”

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
February 26, 2014
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Until this year, I’d never marked its anniversary: September 13, 2001.

Yes, it was two days after 9/11/01: where headlines like “Airport Security Needs Improvement” and “Islam Must Challenge Its Dark Doctrines” were on the front pages of every newspaper. There were fears of Anthrax attacks in every unopened envelope, suspicions about seemingly every brown-faced stranger, and heightened security in public arenas, religious institutions, schools, and houses of worship.

It was less than one week before Rosh Hashanah, when it’s traditional to rise from our seats before an opened ark and recite – first alone, and then together – silently, and then aloud:

“How many will pass from the earth and how many will be created? Who will live and who will die? Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time? Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning?”

For many countless people, the liturgy and its resonances of danger, insecurity, and suspicion incited a fear they’d never known inside their bones, in the tender realm of their frightened hearts in 2001. It almost immediately became known as “The Day the World Changed.”

It was then, on September 13, 2001, that I started to feel safe in that world.

I remember walking outside on a bright September morning and taking (what seemed at the time) to be the deepest breath I’d ever taken, allowing my lungs and ribcage and heart and chest to fully open, expanded, like an open ark, to the world around me. I wasn’t looking behind me or around the next corner for an unexpected stranger who could cause harm; I wasn’t guarding my purse, my pockets or my heart. I didn’t want to crawl into a crack in the sidewalk or hide behind a fence before stepping into a crosswalk.

On September 13, 2001 was the doctor’s appointment I’d made close to two weeks earlier to see a psychiatrist for the first time and to ask for a prescription for anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication after living (and hiding) for at least a decade from the sunlight of the unknown. The irony wasn’t foreign to me, even then. Since my early adolescence, I’d been worrying about death, danger, and loss. It was almost a full-time occupation (along with trying to mask the fear and pretend it wasn’t significant). I scribbled pages of dark poetry, obsessive thoughts about that which I couldn’t control, and rationalizations that I wasn’t – couldn’t be – wouldn’t be – someone who *really* needed help.

I read voraciously, listened to music I found comforting, dove into my writing, became an extreme extravert (to avoid being alone), and sought refuge in therapy. It took an exorbitant amount of energy to feel okay. Many people (including my therapists) recommended medication as a choice. I wanted to believe I was stronger. I could manage. I didn’t want to be dependent on medication. I didn’t want to lose my creativity, my sensitivity, or my personality.

And nothing in particular changed. There was no precipitating event that compelled me to make that phone call in early September. And, after the events of September 11th, I had two thoughts: 1) I was right. The world *is* a dangerous place. There *are* threats, hidden and waiting, around every corner; and 2) The psychiatrist will probably cancel my appointment because there’s probably someone who needs his help right now more than I do.

Turns out, he didn’t.

On September 13, 2001, I took my first dose of Celexa and, within days, I felt safer than I’d ever felt in the world.

I have never marked the anniversary, never calculated or thought much about the confluence of dates (except to note its irony), until this past year, September 13, 2013, which also happened to be Yom Kippur. Twelve years and one day old is the age of responsibility for girls to become adult Jewish women. This year, I became a Bat Mitzvah.

I decided it’s time to share my story in the hope that someone will read it and see that they’re not alone. And that it doesn’t have to be so hard. And there shouldn’t be shame around it any more or less than taking any other prescribed medication. (I like to compare it to someone feeling too much shame to share that they take insulin to help manage diabetes).

And, to be clear, I still believe what I thought to be true on September 12, 2001: the world *is* a scary and dangerous place. It is. But I need to find a way to live (and breathe) in it. I don’t want my life to be one of fear. I want to *live* despite the fear; I want to live *through* the fear.

It is my prayer that this blog might make it into the hands of someone who’s suffering quietly, hiding from sunlight. I’m here to say: it’s okay to wear sunglasses.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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