In the spring of 2001, I had my first and only panic attack. I don't remember a lot of details other than uncontrollable crying (the really ugly kind) and gasping for every breath as if it were my last. I was 24 at the time -- barely out of college - -and I'd already survived a lot of the usual early 20s angst, so what triggered the attack was pretty tame by comparison: My boyfriend was on a short list for a promotion, resulting in an imminent move to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Not usually the stuff that results in convulsions on the floor. Still, it wasn't the thought of him leaving that caused my whole body to revolt; it was the thought of going with him. That's because moving to Charlotte meant I wouldn't be moving to New York City where I had two roommates and a ridiculously overpriced apartment waiting. It meant sacrificing my dreams and taking a path that was "safe", but could very well prove unfulfilling down the road.
The idea of giving up on the life I'd always wanted before it even got started gnawed at me constantly. In my mind, I had to make a choice between ambition and love -- and there was no compromise. Eventually, I would have to make a decision and, for months, the answer wasn't clear.
Then on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I happened to be in a small town just south of Shanksville, Pennsylvania and, as the whole world was collapsing around me, the only thing I wanted was to feel safe and hug the people I loved.
Nothing else mattered.
After that, I never moved to New York but I did return six years later for my best friend's wedding. She was the one who had the apartment that was supposed to be mine. The one who went on to have a million only-in-Manhattan adventures that I was supposed to share. Tragically, she was also the one who lost her boyfriend when the towers fell to the ground.
Despite the fact that I was in town for a celebration of new beginnings, I went to Ground Zero to pay my respects to the past. As I got closer to what -- all those years later -- still felt like a smoldering pit of ashes, I started to cry. I thought of how different my life would have been had I moved, how sorry I was for everyone who went to work that day and never came home, how fragile peace had become... and then I began to sob.
When I looked up at where the towers once stood, I found myself surrounded by a group of tourists who were taking photos and chatting to each other in languages I didn't understand. They were talking loudly -- competing with the sound of what was now a full-on construction site -- but when they saw me, everything stopped. Even the jackhammers and ever-present honking traffic somehow felt quiet as we all fixed on each other for a moment. Embarrassed by my raw display of emotion, I quickly looked away only to glance back a few seconds later. Perhaps to save me from even more embarrassment, many of the tourists had turned back to the site, but I locked eyes with a few of them and, even though we never said a word, I knew what they were thinking.
Somehow, it was going to be alright.
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that boyfriend is now my husband and the father of our two children. We didn't go to Charlotte -- ironically, we live in a city about 15 times smaller -- but between that awful day and right now, I've managed to build a very stable bridge between the city and the family I love. I have a national speaking business where the travel allows me to feed my inner gypsy, yet I'm able to come home to the people who mean the most to me. I didn't have to "choose" because, turns out, fulfillment isn't the result of where you live, but who you are. It's been a (very) hard lesson to learn, one that literally brought me to my knees, but ultimately it's one I'm so proud to share with students who believe the only path to happiness is climbing the ladder and 24-hour takeout. Though I may not live in the city that never sleeps, I sleep soundly every night - and somehow that's alright.