The Age of Anxiety: Is This the Legacy of September 11?

Over the summer I asked an education professional if she had any insight into the increased diagnosis of severe anxiety disorders in teens. We aren’t talking about teenage angst – these are kids who can’t bring themselves to leave the house or enter a classroom. Her answer surprised me: “It’s the 9/11 generation.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before, and I don’t think I agree completely, but it’s an interesting theory.

One thing is for certain: the 24 hour news cycle and the widespread use of video and cell phone data made the sights and sounds of September 11, 2001, some of the most recorded and repeated events in history. I have to wonder if constant exposure to those images, along with all of the other disturbing and readily available content on the internet and cable TV, has created worrisome static in the minds of vulnerable children. Whether it creates the worry or amplifies it is up for discussion.

For my part, I have had bouts of worry since day one. If you took my life apart piece by piece you may or may not find events that fuel my worry, but I am convinced that the original spark was organic, part of my DNA. I was very young when I told my baffled mother I was afraid of both the dark and eternity as I played tea party on the floor near her desk. But I can remember the day my worry went from ember to bonfire with a single act when, aged 11, I picked up a copy of Helter Skelter from the coffee table in our living room, and read only the captions below the photographs embedded in the center of the book. They described in vivid detail the grisly crimes of Charles Manson and his cohorts against people in their own homes (none of the links here lead to those photos). What sent me into a tailspin was the randomness with which the houses and victims were chosen – the ultimate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I stopped sleeping and started locking all of the doors in our big house in a small city. I stayed up until all hours watching the late show, hoping to fall asleep, only to be awakened by the test pattern or the national anthem. Lucky for me the late show in those days consisted of movies like The Old Man and the Sea and Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers comedies. It took years for me to go back to reading books in bed, and when I did I took to reading the same books over and over – Gone With the Wind, The Long Winter, The Little Silver House, A Little Princess, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. New books were only for daylight hours, and more often than not they were Hollywood biographies – glamorous and gossipy, the ending already known.

I’m willing to bet that the images broadcast eleven years ago today have stayed with some children more than others – why should they be any different than those of us who cannot forget that day and look warily at a too blue September sky? It isn’t as easy for us to protect them as it was for my mother to get rid of that book and replace it with more appropriate reading – she settled on Agatha Christie for some reason, probably because the mysteries were all solved neatly at the end. She was none too thrilled with my own choice of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe books but those tales were less lurid than they are now, and in comparison to the Mansons they were almost wholesome.

My organic worry is still with me and I see it glowing beneath the surface in my children, but we have plenty of tools to help address it. Diet, exercise, prayer and sometimes medication and therapy all play a part, as well as a constant effort to beat back the media beast. I am grateful to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter for providing such sublime distraction via books and movies at this key period in history; it is an especially remarkable gift to the generation of children coming of age now. The TV and the internet allow us to revisit and access disturbing content but they also allow us to curate (and password protect) what we and our children see – I love that my middle schooler can fill up on recorded episodes of Good Eats, Dr. Who and Top Gear when he’s done with his homework (I don’t care to discuss Family Guy, thank you).

Real life, of course, presents fearsome challenges of its own that have nothing to do with media. For thousands of people it is the stark reality of the lives of loved ones lost senselessly and horribly (or in brave service as first responders) on September 11, 2001, and not just the images of it, that have altered their lives. We would all like to turn back the clock and not have known it, not have seen it, and protected our children from it. But just as the generations before us endured the tragedies of their times, we can hope that our sorrow and the worry it can engender allows us to learn in ways that bind us together – if we can just tear our eyes away from the screen.

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