I’m an eye-witness of the Borough Market and London Bridge attack, which happened on Saturday 3 June 2017. The event has affected me greatly in the last three months and it’s made me think a lot about traumatic experiences in general and how they can dramatically impact one’s life. Mental health is an important topic for me and I’ve decided to share my story and how it’s been to deal with the aftermath of the attack for me.
I started writing about it a few days after the attack. Then stopped, then started again. Stopped again. I kept procrastinating. Writing about it was too difficult and was making me feel sick in my stomach, even after a month had passed…
Of course, terrorism is part of our lives now and we all have to deal with it. Some people start wondering whether to go to an indoor large-scale concert, others look for escape routes or places to hide in restaurants, some others get out of a tube carriage when they’ve seen something or someone suspicious. This is our new reality, if not for all, at least for many of us.
Though I’ve got to say that you’re never prepared for the violence and horror of what you’ll see and the emotions you’ll feel if you’re unlucky enough to get caught up in a terrorist attack or any traumatic event. And that’s what I want to talk about.
I won’t describe much of what I saw that night. It wouldn’t add any value to anyone and it’s not the purpose of this article. Instead, I want to talk about the aftermath for me and how this event has impacted me, emotionally, mentally and to some extent physically. And how I’m dealing with it daily. Yes – daily – until now, there’s not been a day I haven’t thought about it. Today, we went out, a metal chair fell on the ground at a restaurant and I jumped in the air. Last night, I was getting ready to go out for dinner and I heard police sirens, then people shouting in the street and it was enough to trigger a mild panic attack and make me wonder whether to eat in… I mean I live in central London so these noises are pretty much business as usual… but still, I couldn’t control my reactions.
For this I will describe the main emotions I have been through in the last 3 months.
- Incredulity – that night I just couldn’t put two and two together… I was just getting out of the tube, about to turn in the same street I take every day to go back home. I felt that the streets were odd for a Saturday night in Borough Market so I stopped and took a few seconds to observe the area… silence at first…. then screams, sirens, gunfire, bodies on the ground, blood, a voice in my head “run run run!” I entered into a restaurant, talked to some lovely caring people – although I could absolutely not focus on anything they told me… Finally a hotel room, I turned the lock and FINALLY sat on the floor, my head in my hands not understanding what had happened and wondering why this sort of horror happens…. How can an innocent child grow up to become a sick killer?
- Guilt – guilty for being alive/ not injured, for needing mental health support whilst some other people went through more horrible things. Guilty sometimes for not managing to enjoy the present moment whilst some of the victims died or have life changing injuries, guilty for being lucky enough to have had 2.5 months off after the attack (because I was in between two jobs) and still not being fully mentally recovered whilst other eye-witnesses had to carry on with their daily duties and responsibilities straight after the attack.
- Anger – of course full of hatred and disrespect for the murderers. But unexpectedly I also felt angry after the people who weren’t there that night and then said things like “love will win”, “we shouldn’t be scared”, “we are not afraid”… I understand where it’s coming from but when you’ve feared for your life and have seen the victims on the ground, it’s pretty difficult to relate to these sentences… I’ve been scared and unfortunately I am now more afraid than I was before. Also, I find that saying “love will win” is a non-sense in such an individualistic society like ours. Most of us in London don’t even know our neighbours. Of course, on the night of the attack, I have witnessed tremendous selfless actions from people who have risked their own lives to help and save absolute strangers. I just don’t think that love is the magic potion to solve terrorism. And I think it’s okay to feel afraid.
- Sadness – I feel sad for the people who have lost their lives or were injured and for their families, sad for the other eye-witnesses who now have to carry this horrific memory with them. I feel terribly sad when I cross Borough Market and London Bridge. It’s great that Borough Market is lively again (probably even busier than before) but for the moment, I can’t feel light and happy there. I have a weight in my heart that I don’t manage to get rid of. To me, it feels like going to a graveyard.
- Loneliness – I’m an eye-witness, meaning I was emotionally scarred. I didn’t want to see this horror but now I have to live with the emotions I’ve described above and deal with them daily (like anyone else who’s experienced a trauma). The issue is that not everybody can understand it and support me through this. And sometimes I feel a bit left on my own with this trauma.
- Anxiety – I now panic for anything…. when I hear sirens, fireworks, bike/car backfire, violent movie scenes, etc. It was already difficult for me to watch violence on TV but it’s now pretty impossible. Four weeks after the attacks, I heard the trailer of an alien movie on TV – I wasn’t watching the screen but heard people screaming trying to run away from the aliens. I started breathing heavily, feeling quite anxious and suddenly I realised I was going through the same emotions I felt the night of the attack. This means that now, at any point, I can unexpectedly feel these horrific emotions, even in my own home. There is no escape. I now have to deal with these emotions, which I can’t even control.
- Irritability – I’m a lot more irritable and have little patience, which worries me a lot for my social interactions, especially in my new job…
- Numbness – After a near-death experience, people react differently. For me, I started feeling lost in my life and questioning my choices… I also struggled feeling happy emotions. Many things that I used to love kind of lost their colour. It’s like seeing things in sepia instead of Technicolor. Feeling emotionally numb or “flat” is probably the psychological response, which is the most difficult one to explain. It’s also probably the one that has the biggest impact on my daily life.
These strong and heavy emotions also impacted me physically:
- Temporary fatigue – that night, I felt that I was running for my life wondering whether I was going to die in the next seconds. So biologically, my body released a massive quantity of hormones to activate the fight-or-flight response. Psychologically… well I’ve described most of the emotions I’ve been through. So initially I lacked energy for doing most things. I stayed on my sofa watching TV for quite some time. I also researched everything I could about the attacks. I needed to understand the full story – where the terrorists had gone, where the victims were found. Everything else felt pretty trivial. Like going out, checking Facebook, tidying the flat, texting friends, cooking dinner. These symptoms started fading after a month.
- Poor concentration – focusing on a conversation with friends or at a business meeting were nearly impossible too and are still sometimes difficult.
- Insomnia – I’ve been suffering insomnia for the last 18 months and I thought that 2.5 months holiday would solve the problem, but after the attack the condition worsened because I started having scary nightmares. So I pretty much feel tired all the time.
So where do I go from here? I don’t know yet. I will most probably remember that night my whole life. I just hope that the emotions, reactions and memories will fade with time. And I think they are already …. at least slowly. So I suppose I need to take it step by step, one day at a time and do what I feel is good for me.
- I’ve talked three times to the Victim Support Line and the people on the line have been extremely helpful
- My friends and family have been very supportive. Although I try not to talk too much about it with them because they’ve got their own problems and spending time with them is sometimes a bit like taking a breather from this “weight” I carry
- Writing this post is a form of self-help – I felt I really needed to do this and share my story
- I practice yoga daily
- I try to be more in the present and be conscious of the luck I have to be alive and have the life I have (easier said than done, but I try hard)
Lately, there have been many initiatives across the UK to raise awareness and eliminate stigma around mental health. In this article I wanted to share my own experience to emphasize the fact that traumatic events have very real consequences, even if they are not physical injuries. Mental scars are not visible and they do take time and effort to heal.
People deal with them differently. There is no rule-book for how long it’s going to take to recover from a traumatic experience. One could be fine a couple of weeks after the event. Someone else may not experience any of the symptoms for months until they’re triggered by a random event. And some others will experience serious post-traumatic stress disorder.
I don’t expect everybody to understand my reactions and emotions but they are mine and I would like readers to respect them. This is my story.
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January 2, 2018 at 2:24 pm
Thank you for writing this. I’ll be the annoying person who will ask if you’ve considered seeing a therapist for PTSD? I think it would help, though you are lucky to have supportive friends and family, I can understand not wanting to ‘bother’ them. My word, not yours. Trauma is so hard to recover from. Even when you make great advances, when you stop jumping at every little sound, when you stop imagining the worse, it’s still lingers in the recesses of your mind.
I survived a traumatic incident when I was 19 and experienced much of what you mentioned for years after. I’m 43 now and yes, it still lingers, but I never sought help and my support system sucks. So, everyone is different.
I think about the survivors of these events often, though in my case, being from America, my thoughts drift to Vegas and the more recent train derailment in my state. It breaks my heart, not just for the victims, but for all those who now have to process this horrible experience. It seems like once it’s no longer breaking news, the public forgets, and it’s business as usual. Hardly, at least for those directly involved. Idk. I just wish there was more I could do.
Anyway, thanks for reading my long rambling response that doesn’t have much purpose. How are you doing these days?
January 14, 2018 at 7:27 pm
Hi firefly426 and thank you for taking the time to comment. It’s actually helpful to hear stories from other people and understand that these symptoms are felt by others too.
To answer your questions, I have considered PTSD and I’ve been put forward to be helped by a group, which was created specifically for the London attacks. However it is a slow process and I still haven’t started the sessions. In the meantime the symptoms have decreased significantly and I generally feel a lot better. I enjoy life again. And I FEEL. One of the worst symptoms is that I had become numb to everything. Joy and sadness. I just couldn’t connect with the present. So this has changed massively and I think it’s thanks to starting a new job, having a routine, meeting with new people, being forced to walk through very busy areas, etc.
Now some things are still not great: I’m more emotional than before. I barely read the news (too much violence). I suffer from insomnia (which I already had before the attacks – but it’s not improved. It’s actually got worse). I still get very nervous about going to crowded places. And sirens and helicopters impact me the most: too many sirens, police cars and ambulances and I jump in the air and need to leave the area. So it’s not perfect but it’s a lot better and I feel quite hopeful about the future.
Now my turn to be the annoying one but I think that it’s never too late to seek help for mental health, and especially for traumatic incident. Is this something you’ve considered?