Our Better Angels


Date Published: September 11, 2020

Machismo almost killed Neil Carroll. Growing up in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s, he was taught that when bad things happen, real men “suck it up” and move on. So after experiencing trauma in the Air Force, instead of seeking professional help, Neil turned to drugs and alcohol. “I had all the wrong coping mechanisms,” he recalls. Then came 9/11 and a host of new challenges, including cancer. To survive, Neil would have to re-learn what it meant to be a man.

Podcast Transcript 

Host: 00:00
You’re listening to Road to Resilience, a podcast about facing adversity. I'm Jon Earle.

Neil Carroll: 00:08
I hit him with, "You don't understand." And he goes, "I do understand." He said, "I've lost friends. We lose a lot of people to suicide in the veterans community and the police. The first responders are not immune to it. Nobody's immune to it." And he says, "You've done a lot of good helping people in life. Now it's time to help yourself."

Host: 00:33
On today's show I talk with a man named Neil Carroll. He's an Air Force veteran and a 9/11 responder. Neil has survived cancer four times--all tied to his work at Ground Zero. But to me, the crux of this episode is his journey to get help for trauma. The idea that men shouldn't talk about their pain almost killed him, and he wants to make sure nobody else has to suffer in silence. Neil grew up on City Island, a former fishing village dangling off the coast of the Bronx. His family was big, Irish and Catholic. His grandmother used to teach him limericks from the old country. Neil spent a lot of time with her as a kid. His sister had a disability that kept their mom busy. And even though his grandmother lived close, nosy neighbors thought the arrangement looked strange.

Neil Carroll: 01:17
There were people in the area that used to ask me, "Why do you live with your grandmother?" And I just used to get very defensive, you know, "Talk to my mom!"

Host: 01:28
For Neil, it was an early lesson--keep your problems to yourself.

Neil Carroll: 01:32
I didn't understand a lot about life, but I knew that an adult asking probing questions to a child, well, I didn't see that happen a lot in life! And that kinda led me to believe, you know what, mind your business.

Host: 01:48
After high school, Neil followed his older brother, Jim, into the military. He became a radar technician in the Air Force. In November 1982, he was stationed at a small base in Florida. One night, a terrible accident happened. A fighter plane crashed, killing the pilot. Neil volunteered for the recovery team. The Colonel gave them a special assignment.

Neil Carroll: 02:09
And he says, "I just learned that the pilot," and he spoke of his name, "and his wife had a ritual where he would put either her wedding ring or his in his flight-jacket pocket over his heart. And he said, "Today, let's just focus on trying to find that ring for her."

Host: 02:28
So Neil goes out to the crash site. And when he gets there, it's bad.

Neil Carroll: 02:33
That duty is pretty gruesome. You're picking up the pieces of the pilot, the aircraft. And if that doesn't have a profound effect on you as a human being, you're not normal.

Host: 02:46
Nobody said the word "trauma." Accidents happen. Real men suck it up. That was the thinking. And it didn't strike Neil as strange. It's how he grew up. He knew World War II vets who thought the guys coming back from Vietnam were soft because they talked about stuff. It wasn't Neil's first trauma, either. His mind was already swirling with painful memories. From watching his sister struggle--

Neil Carroll: 03:09
Basically it took 11 operations on each leg and 18 years.

Host: 03:13
To his friend's murder.

Neil Carroll: 03:14
We had just left. We were up the block. His father was drinking, killed his son.

Host: 03:19

Neil Carroll: 03:19
The mass shooting up in New Rochelle.

Host: 03:21
After another--

Neil Carroll: 03:22
The Summer of Sam, 1977. Berkowitz was shooting young girls right in this area.

Host: 03:28
And Neil kept coping with the only ways he knew how. He drank. Then he got into drugs. Then he got sober. But none of it worked. Because as he puts it:

Neil Carroll: 03:38
You can't wish away trauma. You can't wish away a lot of things in life. And if you believe you can, take some Exlax and try to wish away the consequences. It ain't happening!

Host: 03:51
And then came the day that sent him over the edge. On 9/11, Neil was working for Verizon. They had an office right next to the Trade Center. He wasn't in danger that day, but he spent a lot of time at Ground Zero afterwards. He worked 12-hour days for two months repairing damaged wires. It wasn't just a grueling job, it was a terrifying one.

Neil Carroll: 04:11
When I first walked down, I was terrified to look down for fear I'd see body parts again. Because that's the one thing I could expect to see.

Host: 04:24
9/11 isn't the only thing that pushed Neil back into drugs and alcohol. He says the stress of caring for a sick relative and a building project gone wrong also played a role. The real problem, though, was that he still didn't know how to cope with stress.

Neil Carroll: 04:36
I had all the wrong coping mechanisms. I embraced every last one of them: drinking, self-medicating with drugs, alcohol. You snowball downhill. You spiral downhill.

Host: 04:49
He knew there were resources available, but he couldn't make the call. Inside, he was still the boy at his grandma's house. "Mind your business." And as often happens, his mind came up with a million reasons not to get help.

Neil Carroll: 05:01
We can be empathetic to other people. And we can also even give good advice because we've heard it. But when we start putting that wisdom and applying it to our own situation, we twist it around because we're playing to--and I say we--I was playing to my anxieties and my fears. I didn't want to tell people that I used to, sometimes, I didn't want to live because I didn't want to wake up tomorrow and be thinking about things that were hard to witness.

Host: 05:35
He thought nobody would understand. Except maybe one person--his brother, Jim. Jim was a veteran cop who served two tours in Vietnam. He never talked about trauma, but Neil knew he'd seen a lot. Neil saw a picture in the newspaper of Jim doing CPR on a little girl. He could only imagine the other stories. Eventually, Neil's condition got so bad that his family stepped in. That's when he and Jim finally talked.

Neil Carroll: 06:00
I hit him with, "You don't understand." And he goes, "I do understand." He said, "I've lost friends. We lose a lot of people to suicide in the veterans community and the police. The first responders are not immune to it. Nobody's immune to it." And he says, "You've done a lot of good helping people in life. Now it's time to help yourself."

Host: 06:26
"You're not going to figure your way out of this," Jim said. That hit Neil hard, in a good way.

Neil Carroll: 06:31
I said, "What's wrong with me that I can't figure out how to deal with it?" And he goes, "There's nothing wrong with you." He said, "You're human." He said, "If these things that are really horrific don't trouble you, you might have real issues." I say it like that with a chuckle, but it's important that we realize that we're not superhuman. You know what? You could put a uniform on anybody. They're not going to magically become more able to resist the impact of things that have profound effects on people. It's a medical fact. It's science.

Host: 07:10
Neil started doing counseling at the VA. He found fellowship and learned about managing negative thoughts.

Neil Carroll: 07:16
When you get a thought, those negative thoughts that bring you back, take note of it, learn to identify the good thoughts, the bad thoughts. And the beauty of those experiences, having seen people that go above and beyond and in times of crisis, instead of when I would focus on uncomfortable thoughts related to any one of those given experiences, I could look to the good in people.

Host: 07:43
Neil practiced turning his mind to what he calls "our better angels." When his thoughts would return to the dead pilot, he would try to focus on the colonel's orders--find the ring--and what a kind and decent thing that was to do. When they wandered back to Ground Zero, he would remember an interaction with an FBI agent.

Neil Carroll: 08:01
She kind of appeared out of the smoke. I didn't notice it. And she said, "Where are you going?" I said, "Over to the phone building." And she said, "You go this way. Watch your step." And she said, "And be careful."

Host: 08:12
"Be careful." That was it. It sounds like nothing. But after all the violence, a stranger's care touched Neil deeply.

Neil Carroll: 08:19
Those events spoke to our better angels, as I like to say. And it's the same after getting diagnosed with all the cancers.

Host: 08:28
We haven't even gotten to the cancers. This part of the story begins when the towers collapsed. A dust plume blanketed lower Manhattan. It covered everyone and everything, including the wires that Neil worked on. He would wipe it off with his hands or blow it into the air he breathed. He had no idea that the dust was toxic. Here's Neil again, joined by his cat.

Neil Carroll: 08:49
They didn't give us any kind of face protection for a while, except eventually they gave us a little "mask." But the first few days I was down there, I worked alone on nights for the first few days, so nobody provided me with anything.

Host: 09:04
Wasn't just toxic. It caused cancer. So when Neil was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, doctors tied it to Ground Zero. How did you react to that diagnosis? That's a tough one.

Neil Carroll: 09:15
When the doctor was telling me what they found, I kind of knew where it was going. And I just saw the look of fright on my families' face more than I felt fright myself.

Host: 09:33
He wasn't surprised. Like many working-class families, he had suffered from toxic chemicals before. His dad was a boilermaker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and later died of asbestos-related cancer. Neil's brother, Jim, was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Neil says it caused the cancer that killed him this past spring. Neil beat prostate cancer, but he kept a close eye on his health through Mount Sinai's World Trade Center Health Program. And a few years later, doctors found a tumor on his pancreas. This was during an Ebola scare. Just like today, people were afraid to visit hospitals. But Neil put facts ahead of fear, and his health--first.

Neil Carroll: 10:11
When we're speaking about fears and anxieties about going to a hospital environment to resume our normal screenings, physicals and stuff like that that are essential to early detection. That's important because there are consequences.

Host: 10:31
It must've felt like déjà vu this past spring. As the pandemic swallowed New York, Neil found himself back at the hospital. The cancer on his pancreas had returned, But he wasn't afraid. He'd beaten cancer before. And he had the better angels at his back.

Neil Carroll: 10:46
I've been blessed to have a lot of contact with our better angels. It's going to the monitoring appointments. These are people that are concerned about your health and well-being. It's all about love. You know what, I kid around with Dr. Sarpel. And I tell her, "Doc, I love you."

Host: 11:05
It reminds me of your email signature. Can you read it for us?

Neil Carroll: 11:09
Okay. "Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love." -Lao Tzu.

Host: 11:21
And why that quote?

Neil Carroll: 11:21
I think kindness speaks to our better angels. It speaks to something that doesn't cost anything. All the money in the world doesn't mean nothing if there's no love.

Host: 11:37
Neil went through surgery and radiation. And recently he walked out of the hospital cancer-free. What is your advice to somebody who may have experienced trauma or may be going through a hard time right now?

Neil Carroll: 11:50
The first thing is to understand that we need to be honest and realistic with ourselves and evaluate, can we really believe that we are equipped to handle this without help? And the answer is probably going to be "no," because you wouldn't be thinking about it if that wasn't something that you've been struggling with. And the main thing is to listen to people that have been through things and identify with feelings. Don't compare. Everybody got a different experience, a different view of that situation. And sometimes just making that first step, "making that connection," as the veterans say, and reaching out--that'll fundamentally alter your feelings.

Host: 12:48
Thanks so much for talking with us, Neil. Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's produced by Katie Ullman, Nicci Hudson, and me, Jon Earle. Lucia Lee is our executive producer. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It helps new listeners find the show. Or maybe you have a friend who could use boost. There's a lot of practical wisdom in our back catalog, so check it out. From all of us here, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.