Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Unreal days

I am feeling somewhat detached from life at the moment. I can hardly believe the anniversary of the bombings is upon us, yet at the same time it seems like a lifetime ago. It is summer again and there are new triggers which I had forgotten. Hot, airless tubes are the worst. They take me straight back to that day. Having thought I had conquered my terror on the underground, I had to get off twice the other day. I cannot get into a hot, crowded tube, I just can't do it. I know I am not going backwards in my recovery, I just have new memories to deal with, but it sure feels as if I am.

I am keeping myself too busy. Exactly as I did immediately after the bombings. It is a subconscious need to keep your mind away from thoughts which petrify you. I am out every night and if I don't go away at the week end I fill my garden with friends and throw meat on the BBQ to keep them fed.

And then there's the media. I am doing too much, but I feel I almost have a responsibility to tell my story. I want people to know what we have been through, I want to raise awareness of mental illness. Just because an injury is not visible doesn't mean it is not life threatening. Most of all I want to try and help those still suffering alone. An article I was interviewed for has resulted in 6 new people getting in touch with Kings Cross United. They introduce themselves with that now familiar air of overwhelming relief to have found us. I was quoted in the interview as saying that as I had been on the back of the train (in the carriage furthest from the bomb) I felt unworthy of being traumatised. Others have come forward from my carriage saying that was what inspired them to join, they felt the same. I keep telling myself 'enough, no more media, just look after yourself'. Then something like this happens and it all feels worth it. Another journalist calls and I say 'yes' again.

I am not sure if it is good for me. Perhaps it is. I tell the story over and over, now it has become meaningless. It is just words. The same anecdotes, the same stories, I have spoken them so many times I feel as if I read them in a book. I talk about the fact that I was there but I don't really believe it. I just can't stop. Not only do I feel the need to help other survivors I also want the government to listen. I want them to stop covering their backsides and lying to us. I want them to sort out the situation in Iraq, help rebuild the country instead of killing its citizens. I want to know what was really known about the bombers. I want to understand why those four men did what they did. I want to forge links with the Muslim community and help us to all understand each other better. I want to know the TRUTH, I want the lies to stop. I want the powers that be to learn everything they possibly can from what happened both before, on and after 7th July 2005. I want us all to learn and work together to do our utmost to prevent this from ever happening again. And if this is too tall an order then at least to ensure that next time it happens we do it better. We have to learn, and in order to do this we need to understand. We can only understand if we know the truth and the truth will only be uncovered by an independent enquiry.

The Government are all too busy trying to hold onto their jobs. Increasingly their coherence is crumbling and fingers are being pointed between once loyal friends. This is not an environment in which to uncover the root of this evil, this can only be achieved through clean, fresh eyes and ears and above all by someone with nothing to lose.

So on and on I go, talking and writing, and in between I go out, and drink. On the surface I am coping, possibly deep down I am too, but I have learnt that you can never really know that. I have learnt respect for my mind over these last 12 months. I know it could throw anything at me with out me being the least bit prepared. Let's hope it doesn't. Let's hope all this therapy has helped and I am strong enough to get through the next week and a half. Then I am going to stop. No more journalists, no more photographers, no more strangers invading my life. I will still write, I will still campaign for truth and democracy, but I will need to look after my precious mind as well. It has had a tough year and it needs a break.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Laughter lines

At the risk of receiving‘Judith Chalmers’ accusations, I am just back from another holiday abroad. Since my return I have tried, but failed abysmally, to describe it to my friends. I fear my written attempt will do it as little justice as my spoken account, but I’m going to try.

I went away to endeavour to improve my basic kite surfing on the turquoise Red Sea in Egypt. My first visit was 2 weeks after the bombs last year. Much as I thrive off exploration and adventure I also love the reassurance of returning to familiar pastures. We were greeted by old faces as if we had never left, another home from home in a foreign land.

The heat in Egypt is intense and relentless, but bearable due to the complete absence of sweat inducing moisture in the air. It is a burning, dry heat. The wind was howling and the masters of this extreme sport were a joy to watch. They leapt and span and flew through the air with a grace belied by their tanned six packs!

For a mere novice such as myself, it was too much to handle. I was beach bound for more than half of my trip so threw myself wholeheartedly into the equally dangerous pastime of extreme sunbathing. I might not have improved my kitesurfing skills, but I sure as hell have a tan.

All of this was incidental. We enthused that it was one of the best holidays we have ever had. The hotel, the scenery, the food, the surfing and the nightlife were nothing to write home about. The highlight of the past seven days was something you can find on your doorstep, if you look, it was the people we met.

As we waited for the gusts to fall out of the wind, we bantered and bullied in a manner reminiscent of my schooldays. Late 30’s, early 40’s we were foolhardy and free of inhibition. But there was a difference from those playground days. A subtle and sophisticated humour was whipped up and blended with a crass baseness only reached by boys with beer in their bellies. By day the heat kept the alcohol from our veins, but the company intoxicated us into a frenzy of hearty laughter and happiness. I relaxed into someone I haven’t known for years and I laughed until my heart was empty of pain.

As the sun fell quickly into the milky sea so did our daytime veils. We opened our souls to share the perils and pains of previously unknown lives. We sat up late into the musky darkness drinking rum and finding more common threads than we would ever have imagined. The fireman who knew, first hand, what trauma was. We had both travelled the same black journeys, discovered unexpected terror in our minds and were here to tell the tale and share these magical nights. The journalist who had lost friends in Baghdad. She quenched my thirst for knowledge about the middle eastern turmoils with first hand experiences I could never have found through my obsessive research.

It was a week of unparalleled laughter and joy, coupled with intelligence and depth. As someone said ‘it’s the best holiday I’ve ever had, I can’t believe I’ve met a bunch of people who are as fucked up as me’!

Maybe the humour was fuelled by the ‘fucked upness’ of us all, but for once I am not going to analyse, just sit back and bathe myself in happy holiday warmth.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

7 July Review Committee Report...coming soon

On 23rd March this year I and 12 others gave our public testimony at the London Assembly. The cross party committee was set up to investigate the 7th July bombings with a focus on communication, both on the day and afterwards.

Eight months after the terrible events someone finally listened to our story. It was a harrowing and emotional day followed by an immense sense of relief and release. Hundreds of others gave their testimonies in writing or through a private interview. The committee and those organizing the events of the day treated us all impeccably and with the utmost respect. It was the first time we had been addressed as intelligent human beings rather than the usual sympathetic tone reserved for emotionally traumatized survivors.

Everyone speaking at the meeting had met personally with one of the committee beforehand and was shown the space in which we were to speak. We were explained the risks of media intrusion by speaking out in public but were assured that they would not be allowed to approach us on the day. The meeting was shown on a live webcast on the London Assembly website and was reported on the national news.

We were the last group that they heard from, they had held several other meetings before ours. They spoke to the Fire Services, Ambulance Services, and telecommunication companies in a thorough and neutral manner in an attempt to gain an accurate picture of events.

On Monday they will be publishing their report. I have high hopes for its honesty and integrity. The Chair, Richard Barnes wrote to us after the hearing:

‘ May I give you this assurance: the report will be written without fear or favour and we will tell the truth as we see it and as we have been advised and learnt. To do anything else would be a total betrayal of you all and that I will not do, under any circumstance.’

This is the first report that will have been conducted publicly, but is certainly not an attempt to substitute a public enquiry. The remit was narrow and focused, none of the events prior to the day were under investigation, neither were the Security Services nor the Government. This was purely about ‘communication’, about learnings, recommendations and an attempt to ensure that next time we do it better.

Many spoke about the lack of ambulances at the scene and frustrated firemen unable to do their jobs, hands tied by bureaucracy. For me, personally, I was more affected by the appalling breakdown in communication during the months that followed. The key to this (and a fundamental learning for all future disasters be they terrorism or not) was the collection of information at the scene. Hundreds of walking wounded and severely traumatized people (myself included) were left to wander, unaided, through the streets of London our minds paralysed with shock, our faces blackened by smoke.

No-one approached me as I emerged from that tunnel, I finally forced myself upon a police officer and gave him my details. Details which were ultimately lost. It was from this point that it all went wrong for everyone but the severely physically injured (who by all accounts have received faultless treatment).

We were left, lost and forgotten. Thankfully many of us have found each other. If it were not for the support of my fellow passengers I don’t know where I would be today. My fear is that there are still hundreds of others suffering alone, filled with terror by their unfamiliar minds, silenced through pride and stiff upper lips. We have found over 100 other passengers from that Piccadilly line tube. But at full capacity (which that one most certainly was) they can hold up to 900 people. Where are the other 800? What about the 3 other sites? Doubtless some will be coping and getting on with their lives. Only 1 in 4 people will be likely suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after such an event. I have been through it and can safely say it is not something to bear alone. You travel through places so dark and terrifying that you cannot believe they have been created by your own mind. No-one understands, no-one can help, except professionals and people who were there. Some have even attempted suicide, others may have silently succeeded but nobody knows, and they damn well should. 56 people died in those terrorist attacks but hundreds (if not thousands) of other innocent lives have been affected in varying degrees.

For me this reflects a snapshot of society. Mental health is a taboo, a subject to be whispered about in corridors and pushed under the nearest carpet and this is so very very wrong. Mental illness can be as debilitating as physical injury and often more so. This needs to be recognized in society as a whole, not just in the aftermath of terrorist atrocities.

The meeting at the London Assembly kicked off a small media bubble. It felt good to have our plight discussed and debated at last, the ripples even reached the Cabinet Office and we all received a letter from Tessa Jowell offering her sympathies for what we had been through. Well it was a start, but a pretty weak one.

I have said many times that I am not looking to see heads roll, but we absolutely have to learn from this attack and prepare ourselves for the inevitable next one.

I fear the report on Monday will tell a sorry tale. A tale of failed policies, under funding and communication quagmires. Under absolutely no circumstances must they be interpreted as a criticism of the men and women who gave infinitely more than their due and risked their lives for the sole purpose of saving others. It is they too who were let down by the very system which was supposed to be their foundation.

I would like to thank all the members of the 7 July review committee and their supporting team for the exceptional job which they have done. Whilst this report is no substitute for a public enquiry, the manner in which it was conducted should surely be an example to our leader and his cronies.

I feel confident in predicting that Monday will be no whitewash or smokescreen. It will hopefully be the beginnings of the truth.