Virginia Buckingham on
On My Watch: The Untold Story of 9/11
Virginia Buckingham was the Executive Director and CEO of Massachusetts Port Authority on September 11, 2001, and one of the only women to serve as chief of staff to two consecutive Massachusetts governors. She shared with me the untold story about her journey through 9/11 and beyond, and how he overcame extreme trauma to develop the skill of resilience.
During the podcast interview, we talked a lot about leadership and resilience. And a lot of people define resilience in different ways, but when psychologists talk about resilience, we're talking about the process of adapting and changing and growing in the face of serious adversity and trauma. And when somebody has resilience, it doesn't mean that they're not going to go through difficulties, but it's about how you bounce back from those difficulties and what you make of it in terms of your life experience.
Below are some excerpts from our interview, as Virginia recollects memories of 9/11, the blame she endured from the public and the blame she placed on herself, and how she came back to life after being brought to the brink of contemplating suicide.
For the full episode, listen and download for free here (for Apple users) and here (for non-Apple users). You can also see a full list of platforms that carry my SuperCharged Life Podcast here.
On the memories of 9/11
Virginia Buckingham: Isn't that such a part of the horrifying narrative, right? How normal the day started and how everything changed in an instant. I got my son off to daycare with my husband. I got in the car and was reading my briefing because I was meeting with the head of the Federal Aviation Administration later that day and a member of the Bush administration to press for the runway. And I was listening to the radio as I always did on my way to work and grabbed a cup of coffee at a little coffee stand and heard the report about the first plane. And like everyone at the time thought it was just a small plane that had veered off course and felt very sad about it. But my office actually called and said, "Did you hear what happened? Do you still want to go?" I was like, "Yeah, of course, I'm going to go." And I was listening live to the radio report when the second plane flew in and I knew instantly that it was no accident.
Dr. Judy: Right, and you said this in that part of your book where you had this realization when you heard that the second plane hit Twin Towers, "Oh my gosh, this is terrorism." So that was your instant recollection and just like you, I think everybody in the United States remembers where they were that day when they found out. Everybody has such a significant and clear memory of that day. And this is what happens with memories of trauma. That oftentimes they are very punctuated and you can recollect them like it was yesterday and I remember where I was, I was working in a special education program for kids with severe emotional disturbance. And I remember we were in the middle of class and we all turned on the TV, and really the rest of the day was just a lot of crying and hugging and calling parents and not knowing what to do ourselves as we're trying to make sense of it, but also trying to be there for the children that we were caring for.
On why trauma victims often blame themselves
Virginia Buckingham: Looking back, I thought it thousand times, "How could I have handled things differently?" And I think if I had said at the time it's ridiculous to blame me, the blame would have been worse. So I tried to stay focused on doing my job and I kind of at first thought it would all blow over and that there would be some kind of context and understanding perspective of how actually it was ridiculous to blame one person. That didn't happen ultimately and I have to say that those voices of doubt blaming me got inside my heart and they got inside my head and I carried them for many, many years and wondered if maybe they were true and I stopped listening to what I knew from the beginning which wasn't true at all and really it was a hard burden to carry.
Dr. Judy: And I will say that victims of trauma, and I know that you've said this many times in your book, certainly the trauma you went through, you keep saying, of course it's not the same thing as the traumas of the family members of people who perish day, but you did go through trauma, Ginny, and this is part of the phenomenon of trauma that the victims end up blaming themselves no matter what the source of the trauma is, whether it's physical, sexual trauma, war trauma of childhood.
For some reason the human mind also wants to explain why something happened the way that it did and even though you talked about knowing in your heart that there was a depth in your heart that you knew you weren't responsible, you second guessed yourself all the time and you couldn't hold on to that fundamental truth that it wasn't your fault. In fact, aye felt my heartbreak when I read this part of the book where you were actually pregnant with your second child at the time and you had said that there was a point where you almost felt like if the stress caused you to lose the baby, that maybe you deserved it.
Virginia Buckingham: That was a horrible, horrible moment. Horrible thing to think, but I was having an amniocentesis, which just because of my age and that is exactly what I thought. I couldn't tell my husband that because it was such a horrible thing to think. Yeah, that kind of self punishment stayed with me for a long, long time.
Dr. Judy: And a lot of people who go through trauma do punish themselves and people were punishing you. They really wanted to have something to explain this phenomenon that they could understand. I think the problem is people don't understand terrorists. Most people don't because most of us, thank goodness, don't have that type of mentality or mindset. And so it's easier to blame a person or someone that they felt like they could at least grapple with the concept rather than blame the terrorists, which is of course the source of all of this.
On how PTSD impacted her family life and brought her to the brink of contemplating suicide
Dr. Judy: It's so important because people who go through PTSD for as long as you were, and I know that you still struggle sometimes with the remanence symptoms of it. Sometimes it's really hard to feel like there's meaningfulness in your life and because of the blame, similar to what we had just talked about earlier, about you feeling like, "Maybe I don't even deserve to have my second child survive." There was parts of your narrative where you questioned whether or not you had the will to go on. And you talked about this in the book that if you truly were to blame, then I couldn't bear to live and there were all of these moments. So did you ever suffer from suicidal ideation more significantly than just like a passing thought? Was there ever a time when you really thought about it, you know, maybe perhaps even dreamed how you would do it? Did it ever get to that point?
Virginia Buckingham: It did. There was one particular night where it was shortly after I had been sued personally that I drove to the beach and sat there and contemplated and wanted to drive my car into the water and drown myself. And I fought the instinct by asking myself, did my children deserve to lose me or would they be better off without me? That was [inaudible 00:32:24] in my own mind because I felt so devastated and it took every ounce of will for me to pull out of that parking lot and go home instead of driving into the water. And I went right to my child's bedside laid down next to him and I promised him I would never leave him on purpose. And that promise is what I kept in my mind because there were many other days where I thought about it. Many hard days, but that promise that I would not leave my children is stopped me.
Dr. Judy: Did it scare you the first time that you had such a significant thought against somebody who loved their life before and never had any experience with mental illness all of a sudden contemplating taking your own life. That is such a hard turn. Did it take you by surprise? Did it shock you?
Virginia Buckingham: Well, yes and no because part of it felt like a relief. Part of it felt like it would end the pain and my husband and I would argue about it because he's so full of life and love and joy and he didn't really believe me. He's like, "Why would you want to do that? Why would you miss your grandchildren? Why would you miss children's weddings?" And I tried to explain to him, "That's not the choice I'm facing. The choice is a life of unbearable pain or suicide." That's the choice as I felt at that time. I don't anymore. It's a horrible thing to face and I'm so grateful that I found the will not to.
Dr. Judy: You talked about, as you mentioned your children being your anchor, that they were your anchor to hold you and you had told your son, Jack, "I wouldn't choose to leave," no matter how desperate you were to escape your own torment and even if the future only held pain, that you made a promise to your children that you would not choose to die. But do you find that there were times where perhaps so you were a bit more reckless with yourself? Sometimes people do this, it's not intentional maybe, but almost like when they lose that sense of self, it's almost like, "Ah, so what if I'm mean to myself, if I hurt myself in some way, shape, or form, maybe I don't deserve to be here any way. Were there moments like that that happened to you?
Virginia Buckingham: One that comes to mind is driving without a seatbelt which I would do sometimes for sure.
Dr. Judy: Wow. And I'm sure you didn't do that beforehand.
Virginia Buckingham: No.
Dr. Judy: That was definitely a new behavior. And just speaking of your husband, I know he had been such a... he's your best friend, he's so supportive through all of this, but I think it's an important point to make that when somebody hasn't suffered from suicidal ideation themselves, it's almost a hard thing for them to grapple with. You can't imagine how somebody could get to that point of desperation and hopelessness that they think that that would actually be a choice. And I'm sure he tried to do whatever he could to pull you back from those thoughts, but he doesn't understand when it takes hold, how significant and pervasive it can be. How did PTSD affect your relationship with David?
Virginia Buckingham: It took a toll. It took a toll because I didn't have the tools or the words to explain what was going on and he didn't have the experience to understand what was going on. And so we were both kind of lost at sea a little bit. And you know, over time I gained the words to be able to tell him. And he's an extraordinarily kind, compassionate human being. And he worked really hard to try to understand and to be there for me. He had the clarity that I didn't have from the beginning, which is, it's ridiculous to blame you. It's not true. So why are you getting yourself, why are you ruining your life over it? He had that clarity that I didn't have at the time and how could I have given what was coming at me? It took me a long time to sort through it all and hear that voice and say, "Yeah, that's true I couldn't have done anything, not one thing to stop it."
Parallels between 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic and how we can all do better
Dr. Judy: And you talked about this concept of othering, which is this heart of scapegoating, that othering this profound sense of being different and made different from everyone else. And that's where I want to take the conversation now, is just talk to me about this phenomenon of blame, which we opened our talk with how it's a fundamental human phenomenon, people need it because it's the easy way. It's the easy way out. It's the easy way to try to regain some sense of control when things can't be controlled. And as I'm thinking about what happened to you and 9/11, and how people wanted to process it and what's going on right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. I myself see many parallels, but I'm very interested in what you think about that.
Virginia Buckingham: I am floored by how similar it is. It's just horrifyingly similar, the shock of it. First of all, that no one expected this, understood it. Came out of nowhere seemingly that lack of control, the lack of knowing what caused it and what can be done to stop it. The blame, which is everywhere from a personal level. Well, if you didn't go to New York, then you wouldn't put yourself at risk of having it to blaming the politicians for not managing their states or the country in the right way. The blame phenomenon is extraordinary right now. And just the look of fear emptiness in people's eyes when you go to the grocery store, which we all try to do as little as we can, but when we have to, it's that same feeling of our world as we know it is gone and that's real trauma to everyone, I think.
Dr. Judy: I agree with all of the things that you said and I also think about the concept of grief because when 9/11 happened, people were grieving all kinds of things. They were not only grieving the symbolism of what United States was all about. They were grieving personal individuals that they had lost. They were grieving what they had known about America because it was the first time that a war was on our soil. They were grieving a way of life that was going to be changing and in many ways that's what's happening now.
We're grieving a former way of life because we don't know exactly when we're going to go back to a new normal. It won't be the same. Things are always going to be different now. I think that people would love to maybe apply that othering concept to New York or other countries, that this only happens in China and Italy, but it won't happen to us. Or well, if we just quarantine New York, then we wouldn't have a problem. Again, people are always looking for a source to blame as a way of control, but I do understand that everyone deals with grief differently and that blame is perhaps some of those earlier stages of grief, of the denial and the bargaining. Like there's another explanation for this that would be easier for my mind to contemplate. But you also say that blame is a formidable obstacle to finding real solutions. Why do you say that?
Virginia Buckingham: I think back to 9/11 and I would compare it to today, firing me, forced me to resign, didn't do anything to make Logan Airport any safer. And similarly, if the CDC head is criticized or the president himself is criticized because they didn't have the right pandemic response ready, that doesn't change anything. It just makes everyone direct their anger. Instead, if we all look to solve the problems in front of us, and I'm not saying that means there's no accountability, accountability has to come, but right now we have a big issue that needs to be solved. Let's focus on that and put all our attention and time and emotion to that, and then when this is done, which it will be at some point, then let's like the 9/11 Commission, take stock.
Okay, what went wrong? What went right? What didn't we do? What should we do and be better prepared next time. I worked in government for a long time. Government is reactive. I wish it wasn't. I wish it was proactive, but that's just not the nature of the beast. It's a reactive body and a bureaucracy that responds to crises, doesn't prepare for them generally speaking. And that's what we're seeing now is, so let's fix it for next time and solve what we can now.
Dr. Judy: How do you think government could change the way that they approach this? Is there a way for government to be more proactive or do you think that that's inherent to the fabric of governments and how they work? It's just hard to do that.
Virginia Buckingham: I've been reading a lot about the preparedness and my understanding is we were preparing for a bioterror attack. That's what the national stockpiles were being put together for. Just like before 9/11, we were preparing for a plane to be bombed, for instance, not for a plane to be flown into a building. And so it's kind of like take you your imagination as far to the end of terribleness that you can to try to prepare. And that's just not the nature of competing priorities in a government body. Asking to spend money and direct resources away from other pressing priorities. It's just not how it works. I wish that wasn't the case, but I don't think being angry about it is going to change how it is, let's address what we know needs to happen now.
Dr. Judy: What are your recommendations for how we can come together as a country? Because me personally, I actually feel because of the COVID-19 pandemic so much closer to my neighbors, my fellow Americans from the other side of the country, even feeling closer to other countries because we're all dealing with a same enemy, same problem. But when you look at the news coverage of COVID-19, there's still a lot of conflict between the more conservative presses versus the more liberal presses and who they're blaming, how much they believe that we should follow directives, et cetera. How do you think can start to move towards a solution together?
Virginia Buckingham: Assume best intentions. Those kids who went on spring break in Florida, was that the brightest idea? No, but did they make that decision conscious that they were going to spread disease other places? Of course not. They were making a decision based on what they understood at the time to be a safe, appropriate decision. So assume best intentions and let's not disparage each other and let's support each other as best we can.
On Developing Resilience
Dr. Judy: You talked about having the resilience of sea glass and I had this clear image of that, you know, rough ocean waters and waves, they basically attack the sea glass over and over again and eventually it smooths them over. And I remember recently I went to Hawaii with my husband and we went to this beach that was known for just a ton of sea glass on the beach. And I remember just going through and thinking, "Well, is this safe for us to just walk in there?" Because they're glass, you could cut yourself while walking there barefoot, but no, right? Because the sea glass, it's all smoothed out, they're beautiful and they had been there for God knows how long and this metaphor of adversity and adverse events and even though they're painful and difficult, that they don't have to determine the outcome of your life. And no matter how much the waters attack the sea glass, it's still there, it's still a whole piece and it's a new beautiful piece. It looks different from how it started.
So I feel like that's a great metaphor for resilience. And I was wondering if we can talk about that, because people sometimes think that resilience is maybe something you were born with. I know some people who believe that some people just have the good fortune of being more resilient than others. Speaking of blame, I think that it's interesting that sometimes I find people criticizing someone where they don't have resilience or it doesn't look like they do based on their reactions to things like, "Well, why do they take it so seriously? Why can't they just be more resilient and get over it?" So I think we throw this word around a lot, but I don't know if everybody knows how resilience really comes about and how we can work on it. So what are your thoughts about that?
Virginia Buckingham: So with all due respect to the song, What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I hate that song with every fiber of my being because I don't believe it. I don't believe it for a second. And I struggled so much with that cultural impetus that I had to be stronger because of what I went through. I'm not stronger. I'm definitely wiser. I've learned that resilience I think is carrying what happened. The painful parts of your story, right? Besides the joyful parts and living fully on that foundation is what resilience is to me.
Dr. Judy: It's not about avoiding all negative emotions because who can do that? We're all going to have negative emotions. And one of my favorite stories to talk about is actually the movie Inside Out because even though it's a children's movie, I feel like it has some really profound messages that children and adults can learn from, which is that there is no real pure joy or no pure sorrow that most of the most beautiful emotions that we have as human beings are complex and they have dimensions of each and you don't have to shut it away the sides that are painful to be able to have meaningfulness and joy in your life. And I think increasing resilience definitely takes time and intentionality. You have to work on it and it's not again, a personality trait. I think resilience involves behaviors, thoughts and actions anyone can learn and develop.
There's a few core components of resilience that I think people can work on. I think social connection is definitely a big part of it and making meaning is another big part of it, as well as having healthy balanced thinking. So can you tell me a little bit about each of those things? So how do you work on social connection when so much is going on and when you're in the middle of your PTSD? How were you able to still work on that while you were going through it?
Virginia Buckingham: I've found that being seen was a big part of moving forward. Sharing my story, being very authentic about it and trying not to just brush it off because that's kind of the more socially appropriate way to be. I used to feel like I was the worst guest to have at a dinner party because I was so serious and so heavy with what I was experiencing. And then I go, "Here comes Jinny again. Oh, no. [inaudible 00:54:50] of being honest and authentic was how I connected to people and connected deeply. Like I've made since 9/11, so many deep close friends because of the ability to really share a trueness.
Dr. Judy: It's all about sharing your story despite some of the consequences because sometimes you would share your story, you get more critics, you know, kind of the opposite reaction that you were hoping for. But as we've already established, you don't do it for the reaction. You don't do it for the external validation, even if or those thoughts crossed your mind at that point. You do it for yourself, you do it so that you can process what happened to you and find words for describing the trauma, which ultimately ended that feeling of isolation. So I think that's a great tip is really prioritizing your relationships, being authentic and presenting your story and talking about it because that is part of the processing of trauma and adversity. What about making meaning? We throw this word around a lot and right now there's an advent of focusing on your values.
So we are such a goals-based world. We're all about goals. Let's do our bucket list. But if that bucket list has nothing to do with what you really care about deep down, people feel empty after they achieve a goal, like, "Wow, that was anticlimactic." So I think sometimes we talk about this proactive approach of working on meaning where you really focus on what's important to you. And one of the things that you mentioned is of course your family holding you together. Like, "Okay, I'm here for my family. Even in the depths of my struggles, even when I thought about killing myself, what kept me here was meaning making through my family." But how do you deal with making meaning when you're at those levels of despair? So you had family, but was there anything else and can we tell any of our listeners who maybe don't have children, how could they make meaning in those desperate times?
Virginia Buckingham: When I found everything stripped away from who I, the successful good, hardworking person that I had tried so hard to be and was, when I found that gone, what I looked for is what was left in terms of deep, deep inside. And for me it was my capability of writing and it's something else for other people. But I knew one thing about myself that still was true, which is I love to write and I was a good writer. And for me, making meeting was to write this story. It took me a long time. It took me 13 years to write this story, but to give it meaning both for myself but to offer it in a way that might bring meaning to other people was ultimately what brought me joy. What brought me joy in this experience is to do something good.
Dr. Judy: Yeah, and I think to summarize, looking for those opportunities for self discovery as somebody who is very much built on a foundation of a self concept, that's all about achieving wonderful outcomes and career goals. I mean you were such a successful person, you still are. And it's easy for your self concept to be hinged on that because you get a lot of rewards and also you truly were passionate and loved your job. But I think you bring up such an important point that when you lose that part of yourself, and I think even right now in the COVID-19 pandemic, people are really struggling with it because people are losing their jobs where they don't know what the future holds for their career identity. And people are struggling with what it means to look at these other parts of themselves. Because most people self-concept... and again to build a resilient self concept. Shouldn't be hinged on just one domain because then if that domain goes away, then it really messes with you. And I think a good example of this is professional athletes.
It's a rough transition to go from being an athlete full time to, "Wow, what am I going to do with the rest of my life now that I've had an injury or my contract is over?" And so for you it was writing, but I think that that is the very encouraging message is don't be afraid to look at these other parts of yourself and build up those other parts of yourself concept. You know, who are you outside of your job or who are you outside of being a wife or husband. Build up these other areas of yourself. Get to know yourself better and helping others. That's one of the biggest ways that we can make meaning is when you're feeling depressed, probably that's the last thing you want to do, but ironically it is what's going to help you get out of it is to actually support someone else. And your writings did and is still helping a lot of people and I know that you've gotten comments. "I love your story. I'm so glad that you shared it." So did you feel that, "Yes, that was part of my meaning making as well?"
Virginia Buckingham: Very much so. I mean that to me, if one person reads my book and can get themselves out of bed and go back at it and keep trying that would be everything.
Dr. Judy: I think the really wonderful point to take from all of that is you start with having hope for other people and then hopefully graduating to having hope for yourself. And one of my favorite mindfulness activities is a meditation called Loving Kindness. Loving Kindness meditation is really cool because basically it has three parts. The first part is you wishing somebody you love well, you know, I wish you well, I wish you happiness and I wish that you're healthy. I wish good things happen to you. That's the first part of the meditation. Then it progressively gets harder because in the second part of the meditation is wishing an enemy well. So wishing somebody that you might be in conflict well, somebody that you don't like well, and I think that people sometimes struggle with because these are people who have hurt them and yet they are basically praying for them, meditating it and wishing them good thoughts.
But the last part, which is always hardest for people who have been through trauma or attacks on their self esteem and self concept, is that the last part of the meditation is wishing that wellness on yourself. And oftentimes when I do this exercise with my patients, they cry at this part and they say, "I don't deserve it. I can't do this." They'll literally snap out of the activity. So I think what you're saying lines up with the experience of a lot of people who struggle, whether it's through trauma or low self esteem, that they don't believe they deserve it. And you still have to find a way to believe that you do, that you believe in yourself. You believe in good things and you have hope for yourself.
Virginia Buckingham: And I think being patient with how long that might take you, is an okay thing. It took me a very, very long time. And do I have regrets about that? Yes, but I can't change it. So I accept it. It took me what it took me to get where I am now.
Dr. Judy: There is no precise timeline for people who love to things off a list or make goals for themselves. How long did it take you?
Virginia Buckingham: Well, it's still taking me, I guess I would say and that's been something that I've learned. This is a lifelong process. It's going to be with me, I am in a good place and I'm very grateful for my family and my career and my friends and all those things. But I still carry the pain with me and I always will. And I know that's okay now. I know it's okay. It's part of life is to carry pain and joy.
Dr. Judy: Yes. And I loved hearing about your interactions with your therapist, Andrea. And I think a note that I like that she made was the 9/11 aftermath and everything that happened with it, is going to be part of your tapestry forever, but that as time goes on, it's just won't be as bright of a part of your tapestry. And I think that's a good message for everyone because sometimes people think that their work is done or, "Okay, I've gone to therapy all these years and I've worked through it, so I should be done, right?" I don't think you're ever done. It's just part of who you are and part of your experience and you learn from it. And when it comes back up, when those feelings and symptoms come back up, hopefully you've developed enough resilience and coping strategies to work through it.
Virginia Buckingham: Yeah, and offer help to others who are struggling and now with what's happening in our country, I feel my friends and family, I can reach out and help them because I've been there.
Dr. Judy: And that's the silver lining of all of this, is that because you have suffered through such immeasurable pain in so many ways, you can turn that around and be able to assist other people in their time of pain and in their time of hopelessness to try to give them hope and to let them know, "Hey, there is a better tomorrow. It will happen." And give yourself a break. Right? Just give yourself a little bit of a break.
For the full podcast episode, listen and download for free here (for Apple users) and here (for non-Apple users). You can also see a full list of platforms that carry my SuperCharged Life Podcast here.
On my Watch is available wherever books are sold. You can find it on amazon.com or on Virginia's website, virginiabuckingham.com.