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We Fly in Planes

I thought 9/11 was my fault. I saw it happen on TV. I believed it was because of me and what I had done. Because of all the dead AA batteries in the ashtray of my 1993 Toyota Tercel. I had done something wrong. I watched the planes, the billowing smoke, and people running. I bounded upstairs to my dad sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee.

“Something terrible just happened,” I said, shaking, hiding my guilt in nothing, because then I had nothing. Everything I’d worked for my whole life had been taken away from me that August. And now, this.

I don’t remember all the chronological details about the rest of that day, but maybe my dad does. Should I ask him? I can’t ask him. We don’t talk about personal things. We don’t discuss the past. I need an airplane to get back there, to a time in my life that is both vivid and surreal. I need to know the truth.


All that summer of 2001 I drive around in my car, listening to Radiohead and Tori Amos. I am twenty-one. I use up a lot of batteries while wearing out my Discman, stashing the dead ones in the ashtray of my car. The signs along the road and in the bright blue sky point me in the direction of clarity. It all makes sense, or cents. Pay with change first. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Don’t worry about your weight. Go to McDonald’s—it’s okay—Friday is “fry” day. Is today Friday?

The orange Home Depot sign catches my eye. Turn, turn, turn into the parking lot. “Make me one with everything!” I say gleefully to the man selling hotdogs outside of the Home Depot at the Seven Corners shopping center. I always remember the punch line, never the joke. Now I remember. What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor?

I fill my shopping cart with the following necessities: one socket wrench set, one six-way screwdriver, a “Fatso” brand utility knife, one toilet plunger, a small orange flashlight, and a tall, silver-toned floor lamp. Pay with the credit card my parents gave me for emergencies. This is an emergency. I am a superhero with all my tools. Load up my car. See Barnes & Noble next door. Find a book, Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, thinking that, yes, I am having a year of wonders. Buy three other hardcover books from the new releases table in the front of the store and a black leather journal so that I can write all this down. Swipe credit card. Move on to Best Buy for a new desktop printer. Swipe card.

Four-hundred dollars later, I call my parents on my cell phone and leave a message on their home answering machine about my spending spree, laughing. I drive west down Route 50 to go through the car wash at the Exxon in Merrifield. I blast the Tori Amos song “Concertina.” I listen to this song when I go through automatic car washes. At three minutes and fifty-six seconds, it times perfectly with the length of a Deluxe Wash at Exxon Mobile. Torrents of water pounding on glass. I am in a state of fierce calm.

Driving home, I realize that free will and predestination coexist in perfect harmony. I grew up Presbyterian, but I don’t understand the theology—now the secrets of the universe are revealed to me, and I am its queen. The puffy white clouds against the summer sky look straight out of The Simpsons, a show my younger brother watches. It dawns on me that I am Lisa, he is Bart, and I start laughing. Everything syncs together in rhythm as Radiohead’s Amnesiac, the song “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box,” plays on my car stereo. The beat of the music matches the beat of my blinker ticking as I turn and turn, making patterns on the streets near where I live.

Turn, turn, turn. First left, first right, first left, first right. Home to Christopher Street where my dad is waiting for me. Now I am a comedian. There are two kinds of people in this world: cats and dogs. My dad is a dog. Through my tunnel vision, I see his bushy eyebrows furrow. He doesn’t think I’m funny. He calls my mom to come home from work. My mom is a cat. “I hate cats!” I scream.

I strip myself naked and run out to my car parked in the driveway, get inside, and lock the doors. I have to get rid of my sins—all those dead batteries in the ashtray. I am frantic. I need to be cleansed. My mom runs out of the house with my dad’s large white bathrobe to cover me, so I get out of the car. I am now an angel. Now I am Jesus. It is the end of the world. I sit in the family room on the old brown sectional couch with my whole family and close friends as they listen to me count down to the end of times, from alpha to omega.

The world does not end.

I go upstairs to my parents’ bathroom and take off all my jewelry and try to wash it down the sink drain. I need to be unadorned. I lie down on my parents’ big white four-poster bed. A summer’s worth of blotchy red mosquito bites vanishes from my pale legs. I am pure. I am perfect. I am in heaven now. I am dead.

No. I think I am living the movie Memento. Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss and gets tattooed messages all over his body to remind him of clues he needs to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder. I am Leonard. I’ve told you this before, haven’t I? he keeps asking.

I stay up all night in my room writing out formulas and messages on yellow Post-it notes—notes to myself in case I wake up the next morning and can’t remember this. I scribble on the Post-it notes that this is all an elaborate game. I am a detective. My goal is to not let the other detectives know that there is a game, and that I am playing. Instead of getting tattoos, I plaster the notes all over my faded peach walls and white closet doors.

My mom comes into my room to help me calm down and get some sleep. She lies down on an old futon she puts next to my bed. She listens as I ramble on, unfiltered. I tell her everything. I tell her about how I lost my virginity to my first love in January. At one point during the night, I stop talking, sit up, and accuse her of being a detective, too. I demand to know her real name. “Mudd,” she says. Satisfied, I fall asleep.


The next morning, my parents sit me down at the old oak dining room table and hand me a brochure.

Manic episode: A distinct period of elevated, enthusiastic or irritable mood lasting at least one week (or less than one week if hospitalization is required), that includes at least three of the following symptoms.

Heightened mood, check. Decreased need for sleep, check. Racing thoughts, check. Overly talkative, check. Agitated, check. Grandiose thoughts, check. Impulsive, check. Reckless, check. Spending sprees, check. Poor judgment, check. Delusions, check. Hallucinations, check. Check, check, check, check. After I finish reading the brochure, my mom asks, “Do you think this is what is going on with you?” I immediately say yes. I agree that I need to go somewhere to rest my mind and body.

A large intake nurse decked out in purple from her eye shadow to her shoes takes me into a small room and admits me to the Partial Program at Dominion Hospital. It’s August 24, 2001. The nurse is me, in the future. She seems nervous. Or am I nervous? Nearly everything I own is purple. I’m thin, but my health-conscious dad has always warned me that if I’m not careful, I could become fat like his sister Carol. Genetics. Aunt Carol died on August 18th, the week before, from a heart attack while swimming in a pool in LA. I imagine her feeling peaceful, weightless, and then free from her earthly body. I met her only once, when I was seventeen, but something clicked for me when my dad called with the news. He always said that Aunt Carol and I had the same sense of humor and love of puns. Even at that moment, the term “partial patient” strikes me as funny. Am I not a whole person?

Dr. S giggles the whole time that I meet with him at Dominion Hospital. I think he looks like Yoda. I feel strange and confused as I tell him that my dad is manic-depressive, and my mom is bipolar, as if they are two different things, and that our family physician is a psychiatrist, because that’s what my dad told me. Another psychiatrist, Dr. T, comes into the room and they ask me more questions. I hear them say that they’d like to put me in a study. I tell them jokes. I’m a comedian after all.

The truth is that my dad used to joke that he was manic-depressive, which he isn’t, but his stormy moods and alternating exuberance make a case for that. The truth is that my dad used to say that every family is an insane asylum, a quote he either attributed to Harry Truman or William Faulkner. Or was it Richard Nixon? The truth is that my Aunt Carol had bipolar disorder, and my dad had grown up with her antics. The truth is that I experimented with marijuana a few days prior to all this. I have the classic triggers, all in a short amount of time. Changes in sleep patterns. Lack of sleep. Substance abuse. The stress of a bad breakup. Financial and emotional strains. Death of a loved one.


Didi, my hospital roommate, has dark curly hair in a military cut, and an out-of-focus gaze. Or maybe it’s mine that’s out of focus. She seems to be about my age. In our Expressive Therapy art session, I cut up magazines and paste collages together, while she draws a pencil portrait of me—she makes me beautiful.

A few days later, Didi dresses in her fatigues and is released from the hospital, leaving me alone in our room. At lunch, I can tell what is wrong with the other patients—why they are at Dominion. Hearing my dad’s voice in my head, I start to project my insecurities about my weight, seeing who I think are the anorexic girls by the way they stash their pale fruit cups and limp salads. Then the overweight women who in my mind are looking around guiltily with their chocolate pudding cups. I am an empath—I can feel other people’s emotions. I steal someone’s yogurt out of the fridge.

I play the old out-of-tune piano in the common room. I pretend to paddle a canoe past the nurses’ station. As part of the partial patient program, I go to the required group meetings. In one group, I count twelve of us, so I go and find a basket of Saltine crackers and a pitcher of water and little paper cups, and proceed to serve the group communion. I read the other patients’ minds. I can control their thoughts. Seeing another female patient dressed in all black looking nervous and agitated, I use my telepathic powers to calm her down. In the Weekend Support Group, I tell everyone that going through a car wash is therapeutic and cleansing. Everyone needs to experience the catharsis that I have discovered.

I think that I’m hilarious. Calling all my friends from the phone in the hallway, I tell them where I am. My explanation of what is happening to me involves using the show Friends as an illustration. I’m acting like both loopy Phoebe and OCD Monica, when all I really need to be is the “normal” one, Rachel. But is she really normal? Am I ever going to be normal again?

Now I’m convinced that I’m pregnant, so I refuse to use the bathroom in my room and sneak into other patients’ rooms in case the doctors are testing my urine. The reason I’m not showing is because I’ve been subsisting on a diet of Twizzlers and 40s of orange Mad Dog, even though it’s been eight months since I had sex, when I lost my virginity back in January. I think that I’m five months pregnant because I can’t count and time has ceased to make sense. I know that one in four women in college has an eating disorder. What does “disorder” mean? I do everything in order. I have done everything in order my whole life.

Days go by, and I’m more and more paranoid. I think a big man with dark curly hair is Gargamel, the villain from the old cartoon The Smurfs. He is after me. I am so scared. Wearing my favorite denim skirt with my sky-blue, cap-sleeved, scoop-necked shirt from J. Crew, I complete the reverse Smurfette look by donning the powder blue hospital-issued socks with white treads on the bottom. I wear these socks to keep me from slipping as I show off my yoga poses to the other patients. I press two fingers up against my neck to feel my pulse as it sky-rockets. Panic attack. Now I’m in a room hooked up to an EKG. Am I in the ER? I’m not getting better in the hospital—I’m getting sicker. They release me from Dominion Hospital on August 31st. I go back to my childhood home on Christopher Street to recover.


I set up the spare bedroom as my office, hook up my new printer, and stand the new silver floor lamp next to the old butcher-block table that I’ve converted into a desk. All the rest of my tools are in the trunk of my car. I open up my laptop and I start writing. This. I need to write this down.

Sometimes you have to start from scratch. Wake up in the morning and find that your peach walls are now a shade of green called “Sassafras Tea,” and your old peach rose comforter is a quilt of pale green and lavender circles, intertwining. The green walls are not soothing though; their antiseptic shade reminds you of the hospital you just left. The yellow sticky notes you put all over the walls are gone. Thank God you didn’t get any tattoos. The giant spider on the curtains of the sliding glass door in Lindsy’s basement wasn’t Satan after all. Friday is not French fry day. You don’t have to pay with change first. You are not the Queen of the Universe. You are not a detective. You have bipolar disorder.


Less than two weeks later, on the morning of September 11th, I got up to do my morning yoga. I turned on the television, ready to put the DVD in, when I saw the news. The guilt was insurmountable. All those thousands of people—dead, I thought, because of me. I felt that my malfunctioning brain had single-handedly hijacked those planes.

After the attacks, I thought that the government was tapping my phone calls and spying on me. I called my friend Amy and spoke to her in code, telling her not to talk to her boyfriend, because men cannot be trusted. The limited algorithm that I came up with—replacing letters and words with numbers—resulted in me saying “9” or “nein” when I meant “no.” I’m half German after all. Despite my heritage, math is not my strong suit, or so my dad always told me growing up. But, in this state, I was a mathematical genius.

The night of the 11th, I slipped out of my parents’ house with my StarTac cell phone. The battery was nearly dead, but the phone had magical powers. My calls were being tapped, so I kept trying to talk to my friends in code. I had a little orange address book with the phone numbers for all of my friends in it, and an entry for God. His phone number was 5. I tried calling God outside my house that night, looking up at the stars in the dark sky, waiting for an answer.

A friend later asked, “Weren’t you worried about the roaming charges?”

Instead of reaching God, I called my friend Rebecca, and begged her to pick me up and take me back to school. She was in Chestertown, Maryland, where we went to Washington College, and I was two hours away living in Fairfax, Virginia. The phone was tapped, so I gave her directions using code. I paced up and down Christopher Street, believing that the houses that were dark were evil, and those with a light on were good—safe.

The first semester of my senior year had already started. Rebecca made a valiant attempt to come get me, and my parents realized that I was going to find a way to get back to school. The next morning, September 12th, my dad and I got in the family Volvo station wagon and drove past the gaping wound in the Pentagon to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I felt like I was fleeing the scene of a crime. My sinfulness and rebellion against God had caught up with me.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the black hole there, still smoking, but now that I think about it, we wouldn’t have driven past the Pentagon. We took the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that day. But I do remember that there were very few cars on the road and the air was still. The skies were silent.

My dad dropped me off at Washington College and I reconnected with my friends there. What I didn’t know is that it was all an elaborate trap, orchestrated by my parents. They set it up so that I was confronted by the Dean of Students who informed me that I couldn’t be there that semester. Classes had already started, I wasn’t registered, and my housing had been given to another student. I was stunned. If I wasn’t a student, who was I? My best friend since freshman year, Suzanne, drove me back to Fairfax the next day.


I chose a psychiatrist from a big yellow phone book. My dad drove me to her office and sat in the waiting room while I had my appointments. I sensed that Dr. D, a petite, soft-spoken Vietnamese woman, did not understand me. I didn’t understand her. My first session was during the third week of September 2001. I brought in a microcassette tape recorder, the one I used for my journalism internship, and asked her if I could record our sessions. She agreed.

Dr. D asked, “Do you know why you were in the hospital?”

“Yes, I do. Because I had a manic episode.”

“Can you tell me about your manic episode?”

“Well, it’s a bit blurry but um Dr. C, my family care practitioner, he had me admitted as a partial patient at Sleepy Hollow Dominion Hospital and then they decided to have me there as an inpatient in the adult unit.”

“What happened that made you go into the hospital?”

“I tried to go back to school um I tried to reinstate myself as a student because I am a student. I don’t have another job. I don’t know, I don’t know… I’m on a lot of medication.”

“Do you hear voices, in your head?”

“I’m a writer so I have creative voices but I don’t think I’m schizophrenic. I think as a writer I have a very creative mind. A lot of writers and artists and musicians are very volatile in their personalities and a lot of times manic depression goes along with that so um I’m joining the club Edgar Allen Poe, people like that [laughs].”

Dr. D put me on high doses of Zyprexa, Klonopin, and Ambien. Listening to the tapes of my therapy sessions, twenty years later, with my voice low and slow from all the medications, is like visiting a previous version of myself.


In September 2016, my dad had a major health episode and suffered from kidney failure. On the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I felt like the one person who could remember the events of that day for me was my dad, but he didn’t want to revisit that time. He was in the hospital. By his bedside, I timidly mentioned that my husband Andrew and I had just watched the PBS documentary on the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. I cried at the end when a first responder and a victim met for the first time since he saw her pounding on a window in the Pentagon and couldn’t save her. He thought that she had died.

I took a deep breath and told my dad that I have a hard time remembering the sequence of that day. I asked him what time it was that we saw the news. He said I had the TV on when the first plane hit. My dad remembered coming downstairs to the family room and we both saw the second plane hit, in real-time. We watched together as the towers collapsed.

Back in 2016, my dad almost died, and he’d signed a DNR order. I thought I might lose him, lose that time, and lose those memories he holds that wafted from my brain like the smoke that September morning in 2001. He and my mom still refuse to talk about that time in our lives. They hardly acknowledge my bipolar disorder. It’s like it never happened. But it did happen.

To this day, when I hear an airplane flying low overhead, I feel like it’s going to happen again. I automatically duck my head and feel the urge to hide under my desk. I live in close proximity to the Pentagon and I have high-functioning anxiety. I live with a mental illness.

I know now that on top of the mania, my over-inflated sense of what I saw as my own sinful life—having sex before I got married, drinking, trying drugs—based on my religious upbringing is what made me think the attacks were all my fault. Guilt is a strong emotion and, when combined with a chemical imbalance, can produce this type of thinking in certain individuals. I recently read a case study on religious or spiritual experiences and bipolar disorder. While bipolar disorder has a prevalence of 1−2% of the general population, the prevalence of religious delusions in people with bipolar disorder is estimated at 15−38%.

The deep shame I felt over my life choices took me to a place where most people never go. I’ve worked through these issues with an excellent psychiatrist. But when people ask me where I was on 9/11, I only say I was at home with my dad. No one would ever guess that this is my story.

Memory is an unreliable storyteller. Did any of this happen? Did these events take place in this order? Or will they always be disordered in my mind? What was real, and what did I conjure up in my head? Maybe it was more real than anything I’ve experienced since then. Maybe I opened up a portal into an alternate universe. What would happen if I opened it up again? Is that what I’m doing now? Opening up a window that I should keep shut? Am I like that first responder, trying to get to the woman pounding on the glass, thinking that she died? Maybe this version of me is still alive, still breathing, waiting to get out.

We fly in planes to get closer to each other, to get farther away from ourselves. Bodies pressed into seats, faces peering out oval windows, the wings rise and fall. We get to where we’re going. Sometimes I wonder if flying in mid-air is where I want to be. To land is to lose something—to take off is to have left what you must leave behind. In the air, we gain and lose nothing. Time cancels itself out. In planes, we find ourselves insignificant, small above the world, suspended from it all. Yet, we never know when we might come crashing down.


RACHEL PARIS WIMER is a writer and web content editor based out of the DC metro area. She has a BA in English from Washington College and an MA in English from George Mason University. She is an alum of the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop and the Tin House Summer 2022 Workshop. Rachel has been published in Under the Gum Tree, Microfiction Monday Magazine, and Scary Mommy. You can find more of her writing at She lives with her husband and their son and finds much of her inspiration from music. She is currently working on a hybrid memoir.


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