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Therapist: OK To Remember, But Not Relive, 9/11


WHEELING — Sheli Bernstein-Goff, a Wheeling-based clinical therapist who specializes in critical stress management, helped first responders in New York City just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

She was a volunteer with Green Cross who helped first responders such as firefighters and other groups deal with post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Twenty years later, two of the firefighters she kept in touch with over the years have since died of different cancers, likely brought on from being exposed to toxins at the attack site.

She has one Oklahoma-based colleague with whom she volunteered that she has kept in touch with all these years later. She anticipates talking to him on the 9/11 anniversary, but not to relive what happened that day. Instead they will talk about their lives today.

Bernstein-Goff said her work to help others on Sept. 11 was significant and she learned much about herself during the process, but she does not dwell on it.

“It was something that defined me, but it doesn’t anymore. It’s not what makes me human or important. It was an event in my life of importance, but it doesn’t define who I am,” she said.

Bernstein-Goff believes today it is much harder for people to escape the information and images that accompany a disaster or horrific event. People are so connected to their digital devices, and too often heed notifications related to such information all day long.

For many people there is no break. She frequently recommends to her patients to turn off their notifications on their devices.

“The trauma biome is part of our collective culture,” she said.

From her work during those weeks 20 years ago, Bernstein-Goff said she learned some lessons.

“I learned to be OK with not knowing and being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said. “It was really a very hard lesson for me. … I learned how to adapt and evolve more easily than I did prior to that.”

For first responders dealing with critical stress from a disaster, she teaches them to be mindful of the moment, to be present in the moment.

“There’s a difference between being safe and feeling safe — that’s what I focused on. … You can be in a safe environment and feel unsafe,” she said, adding she teaches “how to develop a safe place inside your head.”

They need to take “deep breaths and look around and see they are safe in this moment. … This moment is good and don’t get sucked into the past and don’t get pulled into the future. Do right now, right this minute. Pay attention to your needs.”

She noted self care for first responders and now for health care workers dealing with fatigue because of the COVID-19 pandemic is important. They need to ask themselves if their basic needs are being met — eating, drinking water, sleeping and getting access to clean air to breathe.

Bernstein-Goff said her 9/11 experience also taught her about gratitude.

“I was so honored and blessed to hear those stories,” she said of the survivors and first responders. “That’s where the gratitude came in. … Still to this day it is my honor.”

For younger people who were either babies or not even born yet, because of 9/11 they have grown up in a world always on the lookout for the next potential attack.

“There is a whole generation that has grown up being on high alert. … There is no downtime. Everything is buzzing and ringing — Sept. 11 was the genesis of that. World War II had that, too, but it didn’t have digital connections. You were able to take some time and space for yourself. Now we’re connected on a global level. It’s really different. On Sept. 11, I had a flip phone with an antenna from Alltel.”


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