Half of Civilian 9/11 Survivor's Years-long Battle With PTSD Was Realizing She Had It
Kayla Bergeron worked in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, but it wasn't until years later she'd fully understand the impact the day had on her.
Kayla Bergeron was sitting at her desk on the 68th floor in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 when she felt the building lurch forward. Immediately, Bergeron, who was the director of public affairs for Port Authority at the time, knew something was wrong and in fact, she thought a small plane had hit their building. She was busy trying to organize where her teammates would work for the day when a security guard came and told them they had to evacuate using the stairs.
“It was very orderly,” Bergeron remembered. But, on their way down the stairs, a colleague showed her a news article with the reality of what was happening: there had been an attack on the World Trade Center, and it was believed to be a work of terrorism.
"I said, ‘Let's get this line moving!’ We didn't want to set off panic among people. Can you imagine somebody saying that? It would be a stampede,” Bergeron told Inside Edition Digital. “Finally, we knew the South Tower was down because the sheer force of the other tower shook our tower. The building twisted, the lights went off and there was a rush of water.”
Bergeron said by the time they made it to the sixth floor of the dark North Tower, the exit was blocked. It was then she thought she “was going to die,” because they didn’t see a way out. A Port Authority police officer showed up, however, and ushered them back up the stairs to different exit. Then they heard a voice saying, “if you hear my voice, follow the light,” and when they did, they made it outside to the street.
“All of a sudden a cop says, ‘Run.' I'm like ‘Run?’ Then I turned around and here comes the building imploding. It was a tremendous plume of black,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron ran 16 blocks to the Holland Tunnel, and eventually she and her colleagues set up shop at Journal Square Transportation Center and kept working. She would later find that 74 of her colleagues, including 33 Port Authority police, had been killed in the building. From that moment on, Bergeron lived with the trauma she suffered that day— but it wasn’t until years later did the reality of that trauma catch up to her.
Bergeron left her job at the Port Authority in 2006 to work at another company in Florida, but was laid off from that job in 2011. Around that time, she started heavily drinking to cope with her emotions. Her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and she simply thought she was a little depressed, she said.
“I had this anxiety so badly, but I didn't know what it was. The only relief I got was drinking,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron received her first DUI in 2013. In 2018, after she had moved to Forsyth County, Georgia to be closer to her dad after her mother died, she got her second DUI and was arrested. It was then, through a court-ordered Forsyth County Accountability program, did Bergeron find out she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In the program, they had group therapy, individual therapy and regular drug tests.This July, she graduated.
“It's hard to describe what PTSD is. It's not like the movies. It was this paralyzing anxiety, I wish I was able to articulate that," she said. "Then flashbacks, I didn't know what a flashback looked like, but I'd be driving all of a sudden, I'd see a flicker of light. Through that process and working through treatment, I learned that's what that was, and night tremors. That program saved my life."
A study published in the American Psychological Association in 2015 studied 1,304 individuals throughout the years who had been present in one of the towers on Sept. 11. They found that 13% of those studied had “probable PTSD” and nearly 9% had a combination of PTSD and depression.
Mental health professionals say it’s easy for PTSD to go overlooked because it’s often associated with military veterans or extreme cases.
“Often the portrayal of symptoms are dramatized,” said Rhodena Mesadieu, a licensed psychotherapist. “Trauma symptoms are embedded in personalities, views of the world, views of themselves, and impacting daily functioning. Individuals also have difficulty with identifying their experiences as traumatic and having made a major impact on their mental well-being.”
When Bergeron initially received her PTSD diagnosis, she said she was “angry at herself’ for not realizing what was going on. She said she thought those who were suffering the most mentally were first responders. Civilian survivors are often overlooked, she said. It’s because of this that she recently started a small Facebook group for other survivors to talk and share about their experiences.
"This is difficult stuff, but being able to speak to somebody about it who was involved, it's really a blessing. It's a validation because a lot of us carry survivor’s guilt,” she said.
As the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches, Bergeron said she is looking forward to the annual call she has with her former colleagues at the Port Authority. Each year, they share a moment of reflection.
Bergeron also now serves the program director for The Connection Forsyth, a program that helps those in alcohol and drug recovery,
“I'm just really grateful. I thought my life was over with the second DUI, professionally. I learned through this process, if one door closes another one opens. I've kind of come full circle with that,” Bergeron said. “I've found my calling again.”
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