So. Where were you?

I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico…running on a treadmill next to my sister-in-law at the university gym. A rattling headache was handing me a crappy workout. We heard Peter Jennings shakily report that the North tower had been hit. We stood in shock on paused machines to watch the South tower go down. I quickly left the gym and called the man I married just one short month ago.

I had an appointment with a peer who wanted to pick my brain about a former counseling client of mine. On the way, I overheard that the North tower collapsed.

My colleague was still in session. I watched from the observation room, half-panicked and anxious.I don’t want to be here…I need a TV…what
the hell is going on…what’s next?    

The young client droned on about her boyfriend. It was sooo unfair
that he didn’t want to go to her sister’s last weekend…don’t judge, don’t judge…she doesn’t know…she doesn’t know what’s going on in the world… She switched gears to the absolute injustice that her mother had, yet again, made tuna casserole… really,she wouldn’t complain if she knew…

The counselor knew. “I’m wondering if you’ve heard the news? They think terrorists attacked New York and D.C. It sounds pretty bad…I’m curious to know what you think about that? Translation: does this put ANYthing in perspective for you?  

“Yeah…I heard about it on the way here, but I think she does it on purpose sometimes. I’ve TOLD her before that I don’t LIKE tuna casserole…seriously, it’s like she made it just to make me mad!”


There are true victims and there are self-defined victims.  Sometimes true victims become self-defined victims.  Most of us have experienced both roles.

The biggest difference between the two is that you and real victims see the same, painful reality. Coping and healing are the goal. You and a self-defined victim see different, often distorted realities. They resist theirs like a cat on a water slide. They spend a lot of energy rationalizing their actions or inaction. They get stuck in a blame funk. They devalue those who question their role. Saving face is the goal.

Victims draw concern and attention. That can become appealing. The inertia is nice too; it involves little risk. Active participation in life makes you vulnerable. People who make things happen also screw up. This means they have to accept responsibility and blame sometimes. Scary stuff.

In a perfect world, Tuna Casserole went home, turned on the news and saw some haunting images that triggered a huge a-ha moment. She started to think outside herself. She recognized her role in those souring relationships. She began to make dinner for her tired, ol’ mom three times a week.


On September 15, 2001, my new husband would admit me to the hospital. Turns out the rattling headache was viral meningitis. I would receive a spinal tap, spend five days on a morphine drip, and the majority of two months horizontal on my couch. A victim of the worst headache in the history of my world.

I spent a lot of time watching 9/11 stories during my recovery. Television didn’t do wonders for my head, but it put my pain into serious check. Did I complain? Yes…it really hurt. Did I shout “Unfair!” when I had to choose between taking my comprehensive exams two weeks later under the influence of pain meds or pay for another semester of school?  Yes…I was pissed. Poor me. Why me?

But in a twisted way, I had 9/11 to thank for pulling myself together a
little more quickly that fall of 2001.

These weren’t jumpers. I think these people are trying to crane their
heads out, to get fresh air. I always thought it was a cheap tabloid trick to
characterize them as jumpers. These are their last minutes on Earth. I think they were trying to get to a place where they could breathe.”
Thomas Dallal, freelance photographer

I had fresh air. I was living. I had Tylenol-3, a new husband, green chile stew, impending degree…a future. I got back in the game sooner than expected, muddled through comps and my final semester. I had no grounds to stay a victim.

We all fall into moments of self-pity and that’s okay. I have tuna casseroles. Many. I tend to regress to “why me?” habits as soon as my perspective shifts or fades.

Wrong-doing or sorrow WILL happen at some point in our lives. This may cause lifetime scars. These moments mold us, they strengthen us or defeat us. But living life as a chronic victim is irresponsible. Simply feeling emotions like anger, frustration or out of control doesn’t give us instant license to check out and let life happen to us for an undetermined length of time.

Sometimes seeing examples of true suffering, real perseverance and survival helps. Take your pick from the plethora that happen on this godforsaken planet every second. Let them move you…cast new light on your tired casseroles. Change the menu.

This anniversary not only reminds us of the true definition of “victim”, September 11, 2001 was a glaring example that real life will sucker punch us in the gut. Hard.

So the less time we spend mucking around in self-created puddles of “Poor me”, the more time we have to properly brace ourselves for life’s real strikes.


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