Child Survivor of 9/11 Finds Her Way Back After Struggling with PTSD: 'There Is Life and Hope Out There'
Helaina Hovitz was in 7th grade science class when a loud boom shook the bookshelves at 8:46 a.m.
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Helaina Hovitz was in 7th grade science class when a loud boom shook the bookshelves at 8:46 a.m. “Back to your seats!” the teacher ordered, when several students ran to look out the windows. “This is New York City. Loud noises are everywhere.”
But Sept. 11, 2001, of course, was no ordinary day. The shock and chaos that followed in those first frantic hours would haunt many for years, including Hovitz, then 12 and living in Manhattan’s Financial District, within blocks of the World Trade Center.
“There was no faith after that, no feeling of safety,” she tells PEOPLE. “From that moment on, I felt alone in the world.”
Now 27, Hovitz, who is the editorial director and cofounder of Headlines for the Hopeful, a website that focuses on uplifting stories, has published a book about her decade-long struggle with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder following 9/11.
In After 9/11, One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning, published just before the upcoming 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, she recalls growing up near Ground Zero in the aftermath of America’s darkest day, and her subsequent battles with depression and alcoholism.
Misdiagnosed and mistreated for years, “9/11 seeped into every aspect of my life,” Hovitz tells PEOPLE. “I had moments of deep despair and thoughts of suicide, but there was always a part of me that wouldn’t give up hope. The thought that there was a way, somehow, to make a new beginning – that’s what kept me going.”
After Intermediate School No. 89 was evacuated on 9/11, Hovitz, her friend Charles, and his mom, Ann, who had come to the school to help them get home, stepped out onto the crowded and chaotic sidewalks of Lower Manhattan. On Chambers Street, with the burning Twin Towers looming above, they saw a person drop from the sky and hit a car with a loud thump.
The realization that people were jumping to their deaths was shocking enough. But as they continued their walk home, several more loud booms shook the ground and the air filled with gray smoke.
“We didn’t know what had happened – that the first tower had fallen – but people started shouting at us to run for our lives, so we did,” Hovitz recalls. “I was certain that if I were to become separated from Ann that I would die.”
As a dark cloud of ash filled the street, a couple of janitors suddenly pulled the trio inside an office building to wait while the smoke passed. Resuming their walk several minutes later, Hovitz caught a reflection of herself in a store window.
“There was a look in my eye I’d never seen before,” she tells PEOPLE. “I looked like I was already dead – a ghost coming to a terrifying realization.”
Reunited later that day with her parents at their apartment, Hovitz, an only child, helped her father, Paul, a special education teacher, hand out water and sandwiches to other residents of their building. “Everyone had this look of bewilderment,” she says. “It was like we were in the middle of a war zone.”
For months, she slept on the floor next to her parents’ bed, afraid to be alone.
“Every time I heard a plane pass overhead, I’d hit the floor crying,” she says. “There was no ‘normal’ if you lived where we lived. Because of air quality concerns, we couldn’t even go back to our same school, and had to double up with kids at another school. It was surreal.”
“We had the National Guard sitting with rifles in the Burger King when it finally reopened,” Hovitz tells PEOPLE, “and tourists were standing in front of Ground Zero, smiling for the cameras. I woke up every day with deep, internal anguish.”
Hovitz’s father and her mother, Denise, a travel agent, got her into counseling, but it was years before she would finally receive an accurate diagnosis with proper treatment.
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“It was very difficult, as a parent, to see the child you love suffering so deeply and unable to alleviate it,” Paul, now 70, tells PEOPLE, recalling his daughter’s struggles with anxiety and alcohol addiction. “It was only through her own inner strength and determination, and with the help of the right therapist, that Helaina was finally able to make huge strides toward becoming the woman she is today.”
Hovitz’s therapist, Jennifer Hartstein, says that Helaina is not alone in suffering from PTSD as a result of her 9/11 experience in adolescence.
“We often think of a traumatic event as something that happened to an individual directly,” she tells PEOPLE, “but 9/11 was more of a global event – one with an impact that is far reaching. Exposure to such trauma can increase the likelihood of the development of PTSD, even years later.”
“Although Helaina continues to struggle with issues related to 9/11, such as heightened vigilance,” adds Hartstein, “she is now better equipped in how she handles them. She continues to work on the trauma related to those horrible events and she’s getting stronger every day.”
Now engaged to Lee Tawil, a publicist she met after he pitched her a story idea, Hovitz can now breathe calmly when she goes through a dark tunnel on the subway or has to take an elevator ride to the top of a high-rise.
“The day of 9/11 is something you can never forget – it’s too big,” she says. “But I have slowly learned to create a life that is better than the one I had when this horrible day happened. I feel very lucky that I never gave up. I remember where I came from and I’m proud of myself now. Even after the most awful day we’ve ever seen, there is life and hope out there.”