The new 'normal': gas masks, insomnia, and civility

When HBO's Quentin Schaffer e-mailed the wrong press release about a new fall show to a reporter recently, he chalked up the atypical lapse to poor concentration.

"I'm not as focused as I want to be," says Mr. Schaffer, who works in the channel's New York offices and is not in the habit of sending out the wrong thing. "Everybody is so distracted with either thinking about [Sept. 11] or talking about it."

In the two weeks since terrorists attacked buildings in New York and Washington, the president and other politicians have urged Americans to get on with their lives, and they've been trying.

Baseball players have returned to dugouts. On TV, images of the collapse of the World Trade Center, prayer services, and advice on how to cope slowly are being replaced by the new season of sitcoms.

As Americans move back into familiar routines - going to movies and the grocery store - their actions belie a more pensive republic. Not since Pearl Harbor has the public had such a collective shock to its consciousness and sense of invulnerability. And the country's mental climate has clearly been altered - although perhaps only temporarily - by the events.

For many, the new "normal" is about holding doors open for each other and giving blood; for others it includes gas masks and an inability to sleep.

"I've actually been having nightmares," says Mary Ellen Lynch, a graduate student at Boston University. "It's definitely made me a little bit more somber in general."

Looking for a sense of control, people have rushed in recent days to buy survival supplies like gas masks -with at least one online store, CheaperThanDirt.com, reporting an increase of 500 percent in sales since Sept. 11. Guns are another hot seller in Texas, Virginia, and several other states.

With so many people thinking about the attacks, conversations around water coolers aren't about who will be in the World Series, but include talk about how to obtain anthrax vaccinations.

"I'm not losing sleep, or not eating right, or anything like that," says Amy Harting of St. Louis. "There's just sort of this feeling of dread. It's hard to explain."

Even classroom discussions are different. When Wendy Cohen, a seventh-grade science teacher in Medfield, Mass., asked her students for reasons the US may not switch to the metric system, one said, "Because we're powerful," she recalls. Another student quickly added: "Not anymore."

Counselors say this is a time where people are being pulled in different directions - they are still angry, but many do want to move on and find some resolution.

"It's helpful to think of this as a wilderness time ... a time that puts us in between what we were, and what we're becoming - between death and life. And Americans don't like to be in that place very much," says Jean Fitzpatrick, a pastoral counselor and columnist for Beliefnet.com.

Ms. Fitzpatrick sees it taking time for people to ponder what's happened in a way that can bring meaning and growth. "We have a stronger sense than ever that our individual mental health is connected to the events of our time," she adds.

Some 71 percent of Americans have felt depressed since the attacks, according to a poll done by the Pew Research Center for The People and the Press in Washington. Some 49 percent reported difficulty concentrating, and 33 percent have had trouble sleeping -with many saying TV coverage contributed to their emotions, even though they couldn't stop watching.

Those conducting the poll were interested to see that people in the Midwest and South are feeling as skittish as those in urban, East Coast areas.

"I've been a little restless at night," says Jennifer Cross, the IT coordinator for a pesticide manufacturer in St. Louis. "It's not that I'm afraid, it's more anxiety - and not just about the attacks, but what they've done to the economy, too. I want to go out and spend and carry on like they say we should, but I feel a little guilty having fun when so many people are mourning...."

As people try to move forward, it's clear they are doing it with a greater sense of community, but without some of the normal mechanisms they might use to heal.

Humor, for example, is still making a comeback, as late-night TV offers more subdued material from Messrs. Letterman and Leno. "I don't think we can heal without the humor," says Steven Sultanoff, a psychologist who specializes in the therapeutic uses of humor. "A lot of people right now are angry and hostile," he says, adding that some people are reluctant to let go of those emotions and the motivating force they bring. "Humor tends to take that away."

It will be three to six months, he predicts, "before the country gets back to its pre-World Trade Center place with humor." Ms. Lynch, the student, says her friends have shared some laughs recently, but admits, "It's still a little weird."

Even if they are venturing the occasional chuckle, some people are less optimistic than before. "I don't hear anybody talking about vacation. I don't know anyone who has any sort of [optimism]," says Schaffer at HBO.

In New York, at least, that's causing a still-tender public to be unusually careful with one another. "People are holding doors for each other, smiling at each other in the street -very uncharacteristic New York activities," says Kate Dillingham, a musician on Manhattan's upper West Side. The exchange of once-missing niceties gives the city a small-town feel, she says. "There's a real sense of community.... It's profound how it's affected the city."

Even the city's comics have noticed. Host Conan O'Brien joked that at Mets games, fans no longer shout "You [stink]!" but "Others are better than you."

People probably are ready to move on, counselors say, but they are hesitant, not wanting to appear that they wish to forget the events of Sept. 11. For Lynch, the recipe for healing is simple: "Just talking about it with other people - [and] praying. It's really the only thing I can do."

Craig Savoye contributed to this report.

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