Sunday, October 02, 2005

Scaring ourselves sick?

Are we frightening ourselves sick? Or is our emotional constipation causing us untold psychic harm?

The Bombs Made Enough Victims, Let's Not Make More argues Professor Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist, in Surprisingly, he says immediate trauma intervention can make things worse. He recommends talking to support networks of families and friends and so on, at first, rather than a stranger. If, after some months, PTSD symptoms show, then more specialist help can be arranged. But there is no point assuming lashings of counselling will cure everything, and we run the risk of making ourselves victims - people are tougher than we think. By knowing all potential trauma symptoms we run the risk of developing them, he says.

There's a bit I remember, in Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome, when he recalls going through a medical dictionary, and becoming convinced that he has every single ailment listed, in either the acute or chronic form. Apart from Housemaid's Knee. He gloomily contacts his doctor to see how long he can expect to live, and to declare that he is an invaluable medical student's resource - all diseases manifested in one man.

The doctor prescribes him a remedy and the narrator rushes to a pharmacy to hand over the doctor's prescription. The pharmacist hands the paper back, unable to help. The doctors prescription is to '

'Take 1 x 10 mile walk, daily, 1 x steak and 1 x pint of red wine and stop filling your head with things you don't understand'.

Why do I feel so self-indulgent when I think about having couselling? I am very wary of it. I know that talking to other survivors has been immensely helpful, and I have always felt very buoyed up by the love of my family and friends. Shouldn't that be enough, that, and time passing, for me to get back to normal?

I don't know, should it? Do I want sympathy I pay for by the hour? Does counselling help?

I think it adds something different to talking to family and friends. It is hard to tell people you love and who love you about terrible things. Knowing the things that hurt you will hurt them. A stranger's compassion, and pragmatism - mostly, his or her naming and thus normalising what ails - can be very reassuring. And there are limits to how often survivors feel comfortable talking again and again and again about the experience still reverberating through them. Whereas a private space where you can say what you like, repeat yourself and walk away without having to worry about the other person worrying about you - yes, that is a relief.

The editor of spiked, Mick Hume goes further in an attack on the counselling 'industry' when he says

London not only survived last week's terrorist bombs, as it inevitably would, but came through the grim experience with an uplifting sense of human solidarity. Since then, however, we have had to endure a different sort of barrage from all manner of professional ghouls and vultures, trying to feed off the tragedy. Their message is that the terror attack was far worse than we imagined, and that we are all victims - weaker and more vulnerable and afraid than we looked last week. They are in danger of turning what was a triumph of the human spirit into another victory for the Culture of Fear.

Hmmm. Yes, there was a real sense of solidarity when it kicked off. But I also got a bit sick with all the 'stoical Londoners' Blitz-spirit' malarkey - that was a media caricature.

Yes, people just got on with it, and weren't hysterical, and the emergency services & London transport were great. But everyone was brave because they had to be, it was their job, or they needed to go to work, and what else could we all do?

Being brave means admitting your fear and doing it anyway.

I think it is right that the public should know about the suffering that is still going on 3 months after the bomb. There is a real pressure to be seen to be 'getting on with it and getting over it'

But this is the first time we have really heard much in the news from the injured and survivors, making their way out of hospital, emerging into the debate about compensation.

And the news will move on soon enough; meanwhile there is a very real sense of shock and violation and fear after London's biggest peacetime attack, amongst not only the immediate victims, but people who know them, people who use the tube and bus system.

Determinedly shouting 'we are not afraid!' comes over to me as shrill, and actually makes it sound as if we are afraid. We protest too much.

I think it is more honest to have this 3 months-later period of reflection on what has happened to those still alive after the bombs went off. To acknowledge that, yes, it was bloody and scary and yes, it caused over a thousand people very real suffering. Even if you didn't actually see them die as their building was annhilated by a hi-jacked aircraft on live TV) - But carrying on living together, grieving, angry but dealing with it without flying off the handle seems more dignified than all those unrealistically hollow declarations of stoicism and bulldoggery.

Mick Hume is I think, pretty right when he says that most people - people who weren't directly involved - aren't that traumatised by the bombings, so let's stop going on as if they are, because that is making a feaful, terrorised culture - rather what terrorists are hoping for. But telling the stories of those who were there isn't a Bad Thing, or ghoulish or vultureish. What comes through from the stories is mostly, hopeful.

Surely it is cheering for people to know that if something dreadful does happen, people in general are calm and kind and brave.

One person got on my train with a bomb. Dozens of people tried to help each other stay calm. Hundreds of other people rushed to help. Thousands more wanted to help, sent money, prayed, stood in silence, wrote of their sympathy and outrage. Millions watched the news and only a tiny number of people rejoiced; everyone else was shocked and sad.

Let's do the maths. It's basically positive. Let's try and hold onto that.

I agree with Mick Hume's final call to action

'...time to move on, ignore the doomsayers and the Culture of Fear vultures, and start a proper debate about life in Britain after the London bombs - about how we can turn that inner resilience into a force for a better and stronger society, and what it is that we want to stand and fight for, beyond opposing a handful of bombers. Such a debate would be a first step towards consolidating the sense that we are in this together - and not only when somebody is trying to blow us up.'

We need to be more honest. Instead of pretending that we're not at all afraid, or conversely, pretending we are very injured and will never ever heal, we could do instead with acknowledging what we have and what we cherish about ourselves and the way we live. And being proud of ourselves for getting on with it, and staying hopeful, staying calm.

I don't think the answer for the future rests in gazing introspectively inwards and keening our 'authentic' pain. Nor does it consist of puffing out our chests and sticking out our jaw and glowering at the perceived 'enemy'. The 'enemy' were nihilistic young British men. They played cricket, taught children, liked music, spoke with Leeds accents. There was little that was 'foreign' or 'other' about them, little on the surface to mistrust. Climbing onto public transport they looked like you or me: ordinary.

The tragedy is that somewhere, between us and them there was this terrible chasm where by their anger could only find its logical expression by blowing themselves and us up. And we didn't know how much they hated us. We had no idea. They, and we did not engage with each other enough to discover the scale of this apocalyptic, incoherent death-fetishising impotent rage.

Hope and healing lies in us communicating what we think and discussing we want and in listening to each other, finding common ground. Not scaring ourselves into a frenzy of hardlinering or victimhood. We're better than that.
Therapy can help some of us, some of the time.

But the only way to defeat the sickness of alienation and rage and fear is to open up to each other, and look for the similarities, the comradeship, the hope in other people.

Like I said, if you do the maths, it still looks as if it's going to be all right in the end. For every idiot with a bomb I give you a hundred rushing to do whatever they can to help the victims of a bombing.
Here. In Iraq. In Bali. Everywhere.


Blogger Beth said...

Your last paragraph really resonates with me. If things aren't going well for me I try and remember this one little thing:

"Everything will be ok in the end. If its not ok, its not the end."

I have no idea who said it, I pinched it from a friend who quoted it, but I really believe thats the truth.

October 02, 2005 10:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wise words, Rachel.

October 02, 2005 11:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cant agrave counselling if you feel it's right for you.


October 03, 2005 9:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops! Meant to say "I can't agree with you more".


October 03, 2005 9:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you are okay. I feel sad reading over all this as if only there was a way to help.

As you mentioned though there is so much concern and compassion in the world (without wanting to sound like a bad greeting card)

I hope you feel better soon - the onyl advise I would give is do things at your own pace - if counselling isn't for you then something else will be.

Take care

S x

October 03, 2005 6:18 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks everyone. I haven't ruled out counselling completely.

I have had 4 sessions of counselling, in the weeks immediately after and they were useful in that I was able to realise I wasn't necessarily terribly damaged and suffering from full-blown chronic PTSD. Too early to tell. Don't assume the worst, he said.

It was very soon indeed after the bombs. So me being hyper alert, having flashbacks, survivor guilt, numbness, manic smoking were all normal reactions of a very traumatised, recently-bombed person. And I could be expected to get better in time ,and with a good support network.

Now 3 months have passed, I am frustrated, like most survivors, by how much of my life this still takes up. I am reluctant to give yet more of my time and money over to counselling.

If it is necessary though, i will do it. I think 3 months after is a good time to take stock of how well you are healing.

This blog is therapy for me, and seeing my fellow passengers down the pub, emailing each other and reading the messages we send - the small triumphs, the knockbacks - is great healing too. I have rarely felt alone. Which helps so much.

I don't want to lay all the drag of the fear and sadness on those I love and am close to, so the comfort of strangers is a blessing.

Thanks for being my comforting strangers, blog-guests!

And now having just channelled Blanche Dubois I am leaving work and heading home. On the tube. It's easier to do when I've just had a dip into the blog and read your comments.

October 03, 2005 6:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading about your blog last week I've been catching up and this post caught my eye. I can't say whether counselling is right or wrong for you and I think that it's hard to know until you've been there - I've had two conselling periods in my life and I got so much out of them. I hope I'll never need it again, but you never know. As you say, it's great that someone just listens to you and is not directly involved in your life. 'Just' listening - without judging, having a strong opinion or butting in - is one of the best things anyone can do for you. In the times that I've needed it, I've found it hard to be completely honest with anyone - especially anyone close to me and especially myself - and it was a weight off to be able to talk completely freely about anything. It really helped me to make a positive step when I felt that I wasn't making any - I don't know if you're in that same place but if you are then it's there for you.


October 17, 2005 11:38 pm  

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