I’m afraid to say that I’ve been afraid half my life. I have PTSD. To be honest, admitting this publicly is quite embarrassing because so many of “us” do and so many of “us” have done what I’ve done, smother the fear down and let it choke us. Some have let it cause cancer in their hearts and minds and bodies, because that’s what it does, that lingering spectre, it poisons. We have let it turn our hearts black and we wear our negativity as a shield. No light escapes, nothing can get in. This is how we lived and how many still do.
I escaped. At the age of 18, I stood in a sunny room of a London university and saw light. It streamed over the Thames and bounced off the buildings in my line of vision – The City skyscrapers, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster – and it glowed. It was my salvation, my freedom. This is what I believed.
But no matter where I was or where I went, I had to locate the fire exit and sit as close to it as possible. I cracked jokes about going into the pub through the door and coming out through the wall. We all did, black humour kept us from thinking too much. I was instantly suspicious when I met other people from “back home” and they asked for my surname or what school I went to, what part of Belfast did I come from. I ran from them, heart thumping, blood on fire and choked down all the emotions with spliffs and booze and really bad behaviour at music industry parties.
The PTSD confronted me, many years later, in a head on collision in the unassuming, gentle idyll of the Somerset countryside. Rounding a corner into a quaint English village in my friend’s car, after a carefree day at Lyme Regis and its now famous The Cobb (from the French Lieutenant’s Woman), I was confronted with a sea, an ocean, of red, white and blue. There was bunting everywhere. Kerbs were painted in red, white and blue blocks. Union Jacks hung from every window, streamers festooned streetlamps and pub signs. To this day, I still find it difficult to summon up the word that describes how I felt. Terror doesn’t even come close. I recall gripping the dashboard and almost vomiting in relief when my friend said, “Oh, I forgot, it’s the Queen’s jubilee!” or some other valid reason why this little corner was done up in Union flags and that we hadn’t just innocently driven into the wrong side of town at the wrong time.
Later, much later – long after I’d stuffed those emotions down the well of fear and chained them into submission – it dawned on me that my reaction was a form of PTSD. So was randomly remembering a spate of car bombings and hiding, hiding, the cowardly schoolgirl that I was, in my bedroom, the farthest room in the house from the driveway, where I would wait, terrified, for my father to start his car. If someone had planted a bomb under it, he was going to take the blast without me. I never, ever confessed this to him. Or to anyone. I weep at the thought of it all. It is also a form of PTSD to randomly remember that I know how a bomb blast sounds, I know how the air changes in those nanoseconds that follow. I know too much.
I know that when you go to bars and pubs, you hug the fire doors and watch everyone like a hawk. I can spot suspicious behaviour like I’ve been trained by the FBI but I’ve just learned to read the signs in people in an instant.
There is more. There is always more. This side, that side, them and us, tarring and feathering, punishment beatings, Black & Deckering knee caps, disappearances, murders, bombings, shootings, being stared at down the barrel of a British paratrooper’s rifle; finding out from whispering teachers while sitting exams that someone I knew had been killed in a bomb blast; negotiating metal security barriers like we were in some post-apocalyptic movie, bags and clothing searched by soldiers before they’d let you in to buy some make up or a new pair of shoes. This, all of this, was a daily normality.
But there was nothing normal about it. It was a war zone. Forget ‘The Troubles’, that misnomer invented to make it sound not-so-serious. It was a war zone where almost 4,000 people died and we were the original walking dead. Some still are, their battle scars run deeper than mine.
Some like to think they escaped. Some of us have let the emotions bubble up to the surface and we have embraced them, singing hello darkness my old friend. And there are cracks in the defences and some of us, some of us have even let the light back in. The Belfast Child might be singing again, but she won’t return.