Surviving the Manchester Arena bombing, one year on
At 22:31 on May 22nd, 2017, a terrorist detonated an explosive in the lobby of Manchester Arena, following an Ariana Grande concert. 22 victims lost their lives, with at least 64 injured – it was a moment that shook a nation. And, on a smaller scale, one that shook lives, individual lives, lives of families and friends and loved ones; lives like mine.
It’s a funny thing; the way memory works. I can tell you what I had for breakfast, what I read yesterday, who I bumped into on Corn Market last week. I can tell you, almost step-by-step, how I got out of Manchester Arena on May 22nd last year. I can tell you about how my friend and I were walking up the stairs to exit the Arena when a huge blast sounded from the doorway we were headed to, sending torrents of people suddenly screaming towards us. I can tell you about how we reached another exit only to be met by another panicked stampede, so we believed we would never get out, as if we would be stuck in this endless cycle of running forever. I can tell you about how parents around us lied in panic to their crying children that the sound had been a balloon, or a speaker, or anything else. I can describe the moment I had to decide that I couldn’t call my parents until I was outside, because I couldn’t face telling them that I might not make it out OK. I cannot tell you one thing about the concert. The three hours before the detonation have been ejected from my brain like a corrupted USB stick – there is nothing left there.
To the average young person, PTSD not only seems unlikely, but unimaginable
Trauma is a strange thing. I often describe it as a rewiring – like someone put their hand in my head and just jumbled things around a bit. A population survey concluded that 3 in 100 adults in the UK are affected by PTSD – this number is, naturally, lower for young people. You never expect you’ll come across this sort of trauma in your life – PTSD, as a term, is often used in a military context, synonymous with shellshock (defined by the OED to be a ‘psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare, especially being under bombardment.’) To the average young person, this not only seems unlikely, but unimaginable. Even for the days after the attack, I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t suffer long-term affects; that this was the sort of thing I was equipped to ‘get over’. Now, one year on, I realise that could not be less true. There are some skeletons that seem to be designed to stay in the closet as long as possible. I got the chance to speak to a friend of mine who was also there, who’s experience following the tragedy has been very similar; “I think PTSD is very unpredictable, I can go days and be at the peak of my happiness, and within seconds be the lowest I’ve ever been.” It’s an unshakeable feeling.
So, ‘living with PTSD’ – what does that mean? Well, it means being paranoid and aware of everything
So, ‘living with PTSD’ – what does that mean? Well, it means being paranoid and aware of everything. As a student, you can’t avoid busy schedules or crowded areas and you certainly can’t avoid loud noises, but I try my best to. As my friend went on to say, “I struggle to visit big places, in the fear of being too contained if I need a quick escape” – it’s like claustrophobia, but even in open air. You don’t often know when the feelings will hit but, when they do, you know you have to get into a ‘safe place’ and stay there until the wave subsides. But, even indoors, there are some horrors you can’t avoid. Modern media – social or otherwise – provide the best pages for the horror story. “Even a mass shooting seems so familiar”, James Warren posits in his article ‘How the media makes tragedy coverage seem so routine’. The culture we live in is one of fear and perpetuated trauma; people I knew who weren’t there spared no breath in telling me how effected they were by what they’d seen on Twitter. I will confess that even I go there to seek my news – I remember finding out about the Vegas shooting via a ‘Twitter Moment’ headline. But this social media culture creates an immediacy of information that is suffocating in times of tragedy. My phone had been bombarded with messages checking my pulse before I’d even left the arena. We live in a world where news travels fast.
As a PTSD sufferer, this can be less than ideal. Firstly, when things trend, it’s almost impossible to avoid reading pages upon pages of information that send you onto a downward spiral of anxiety. You can’t hide from pictures and eye-witness-accounts when they’re on your timeline. False information is often enough to send you reeling. The lack of hesitation and thought people put into tweeting about loud noises in city centres is not only careless, but dangerous. I’ve reported more tweets than I can count spreading false claims and even falsified images. As this may make clear, PTSD can become something inescapable.
The culture we live in is one of perpetuated trauma; people I knew who weren’t there spared no breath in telling me how affected they were
That’s not to say there is no relief. Coping mechanisms reveal themselves over time. Surrounding yourself with supportive, understanding and patient friends and family is key, which my friend testified to; “I always plan to go places with people I know I feel secure with and who can manage my stress if I become anxious.” It’s a hard thing for other people to understand sometimes, but I know I couldn’t have managed this year without the support unit that now surrounds me, and being here is as much a testament to their strength as it is mine. You find outlets too, so you’re not always ranting to your friends at 3am about how busy the club was and how DJs always seem to play Don’t Look Back in Anger. I write a lot of poetry, and do a lot of reading. There’s enough love in the world around us to melt away the moment of hate.
On the day after the attack, I published a post on social media, in which I said, “with all dark there too is light”, and that “you should not feel at risk going to a concert… I am so thankful to be here right now.” Those feelings have never wavered. As I approach the big 365, one year on, I cling onto several things. The first is the fact that I have not moved on from this. The second is that I should not expect that of myself, because these are the things that are not in my control. The third is that I live a blessed and fortunate life, surrounded by the most fantastic people, doing the most unfathomable things, in the face of the most unexpected evil. In the words of the incomparable Ariana Grande herself, “daylight is so close. So don’t you worry ’bout a thing; we’re gonna be alright.”