Survivor’s Guilt

I have a broad understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I’ve read a lot about it…so much so that even my Instagram advertises about PTSD charities on my feed (weird).

PTSD

this advert about PTSD came up on my Instagram feed

 

There is one thing that I suffer from and that is Survivor’s Guilt.  This is when someone believes they have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.  In my case I have double the effect.  Why?  Because I survived a horrifying terrorist attack and second, I survived infertility…all within weeks of each other.

I did not know anyone personally who died in the Brussels terror attacks.  But I saw people who were dead or dying being carried out on stretchers, left alone on the side of the road as I helplessly watched.  At the time I wanted to help, but of course I couldn’t, I was (sensibly) being pushed further and further away from the airport.  I have these images burned into my head of a man with his body broken, dusty, bloody, head with loose bandages wrapped around his head, face indistinguishable and arm hanging out, quietly moaning.  All alone.  But I was behind glass some 20 metres away watching this happen in front of my eyes as more as more people were stretchered out.

I get it.  They have a system of triage, there were only so many first responders who were there in the first 20 minutes after the explosions.  The cordon was set up to protect people.  After all, there was a third bomb in there.  We know tactics of terrorists are to create mass effect by targeting the first responders.  But that boundary, the distance was so close, but so far.  I heard people were saying – I’m a first aider…I’m a nurse…I can help.  But they weren’t allowed to.  I can’t get my head around those very short moments.

I feel guilty for surviving, for not being able to help.  Sometimes my mind is heavy with these thoughts.  This doesn’t outwardly appear to affect me overall.  Well, I don’t think it does.  But I do have some bad dreams (to be expected), not regularly, but perhaps it does affect my sleep.  I wake up very early some days, I tend to put it down to my jet lag, but actually, it could be a symptom of PTSD.  I don’t have problems falling asleep, and I’m not afraid to fall asleep, so I don’t feel like it is an issue.

Then there is my pregnancy.  I am overjoyed we finally achieved our dream, we fought hard to get here!  But along the way, I have made friends with some very lovely women who have struggled with infertility too.  And the feelings I have are that of guilt.  Guilt that I have left them behind.  Similar to survivor’s guilt, and in some ways could be classified as such.  Infertility is traumatic.  I feel like I took the last life boat and rowed away from the desert island leaving you all behind in uncertain conditions.  So some days I haven’t been able to open and read blog updates, Instagram is hard to scroll through.

For those of you who are reading this and now worrying about me (my mum probably!!!) It’s OK, I’m OK.  I am sensitive to my levels of anxiety and sadness, and how that impacts my daily life…and I am OK.  Writing this down is kind of a release to me, and re-reading my writing makes me see things more objectively.  And that helps.

I found some words that are helpful (I think) on strategies to cope with survivor’s guilt:

“Rather than focus on the burden of guilt, remind yourself that you and your loved ones have been given a gift — the gift of your survival. Embrace your will to survive and fight the forces that challenge your way of being.”

Reading these words make me feel happy because deep down I know they are true, I just need to remind myself of this when I start to feel sad or guilty.

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What’s infertility got to do with a terrorist attack?

I have been surprised at how many people have commented on my apparent levelheadedness during the terrorist attack in Brussels airport.  Although the absolute fear and terror was running through my mind, my actions seemed logical.  I’m surprised, because I just did what I did – and even I am somewhat surprised at my own response.  However, I think that it is all mostly about an element of luck.  Some people have told me, they believe in some kind of divine intervention (I personally do not believe that, whether god exists or not).  The luck was the third suitcase bomb didn’t explode.  The luck was that I wasn’t closer.  The luck was that the terrorists were ill prepared to carry out a more sophisticated attack.  (Apparently, they had been planning more, but for some reason failed to implement it).  The luck was that I was in the right place and it simply wasn’t my time to die.

A friend of mine made a really interesting comment about the difference between a man and woman’s propensity to take risk.  A woman’s appetite to take risk varies with her menstrual period, where as a man’s appetite for risk remains relatively stable.  When a woman is in her ovulatory stage, she is less likely to take risks.  Therefore, hormones surely have a role to play in risk taking.  So what does that mean for a woman who is going through infertility treatment and jacked up with lots of hormones?  Does this mean that a woman’s propensity for risk is heightened or lowered depending on the stage of their treatment, how different would it be compared to if they were in their normal menstrual cycle?

During the attack, I was on Day 12 of the down regulation part of my IVF cycle, preparing for my upcoming stimulation phase.  I had already been experiencing some of the side effects from these drugs (I wrote about them in my previous diary entry here).  The question I have is – had I not been on these drugs would I have reacted differently to the situation?  We will never know the answer, because we will never know what could have been.  But it is an interesting question never-the-less!

I can tell you that the feelings and emotions I have been experiencing after getting caught up in the attack are not dissimilar to how I felt after being told our pregnancy was not viable.  I’ve experienced random crying over what could have been.  Sadness, frustration, anger and numbness – all feelings that have washed over me in the immediate days past these traumatic events.  I never thought I could ever liken an impending pregnancy loss to surviving a terrorist attack.  But I am, and that is simply how I have been feeling over the past couple of days.  I’ve also experienced the overwhelming feeling of love and kindness from friends and family after these events.  And I mean overwhelming to the point where I have been dumbstruck.

I anticipate that I might attend some kind of therapy after experiencing what I did this week.  The question I have is, why haven’t I been so accepting of undertaking therapy for infertility after our loss and constant failure? If these feelings I am experiencing are so similar, perhaps I should have gone to therapy over our infertility sooner? I don’t know, but perhaps I just didn’t realise the intense emotions and trauma infertility slowly piles up upon us.  Or maybe, the reason is because I feel like I have absolutely no control over a terrorist attack, and maybe I *believe* I have some control over my infertility.  I think my perspective might have changed over the past week; I know some of you wonderful ladies have tried therapy for infertility and swear by it.  Going to therapy doesn’t mean I am weak, it means that I am strong, strong enough to recognise that help is there for the taking.


 

For those inclined…a couple of journal articles on risk taking and a woman’s hormonal cycle:

Variations in risk taking behaviour over the menstrual cycle:  http://people.uncw.edu/bruce/hon%20210/pdfs/risk%20taking.pdf

The influence of menstrual cycle and impulsivity and risk taking behaviour:  http://www.ledonline.it/NeuropsychologicalTrends/allegati/NeuropsychologicalTrends_17_Iannello.pdf

 

Starbucks truly is a bad habit

This blog is primarily my writing therapy for going through infertility, but it has also been my therapy for other things in my life and so I ummmed and ahhhhed about writing this post.  But here we go…

I made a decision to buy a Starbucks coffee.  I decided when I arrived at Brussels Airport early this morning to get myself a pick me up coffee to help me stay awake and deal with the jet lag.  I left the arrivals lounge and headed upstairs to the departures.  I decided as I was in a different country to try a different coffee.  I ordered a skinny vanilla bean macchiato.  I juggled the coffee with my two roller suitcases and managed to bag myself the last seat left in the corner.  I got comfy and plugged in my phone to charge – I had killed it on the flight over playing games.  I had just three sips of my coffee when there was a loud boom to the right of me, glass and debris flew everywhere, my coffee ended up on the floor.  I ended up diving down on the floor because my battlefield instinct told me get low and cover my head. People got up and ran – I shouted at them to get down.  About 40 seconds later there was an even bigger explosion.  I could feel the heat from the fireball that ran across the ceiling above me.  I could feel the shock wave pass over me.  There was debris and bits of ceiling fluttering down around me, the old lady behind me was cowering behind her suitcase. I asked if she was OK. She was petrified, but she had someone with her. It’s challenging to consul someone when there is a language barrier.

I grabbed my lowly charged phone and my coat, trying to keep low.  I dialed Chris – it was taking a long time for him to answer I thought I was about to get his answerphone….I am so glad I didn’t get his answerphone…but Chris answered, a little sleepy and dazed- it was 3 AM in the US.  I told him “I don’t want to panic you- I’m OK, but there has been an explosion at the airport, I am OK.”  I am not really sure exactly what happened after this.  I don’t know what I said to Chris. I don’t know how long I was on the phone for, but I remember I kept saying how much I loved him.  I can only imagine how terrified Chris was to receive a phone call like this in the middle of the night.  You could almost think it was a nightmare.  But it was real.

I remember lying low watching everyone around me run away.  I wasn’t running, I was looking out for suspicious people, listening out for any gunshots.  I was looking for injured people I could help.  I guess all that pre-deployment training kicked in.  I don’t think there is any right or wrong in this kind of situation, it’s what your gut instinct tells you to do.

There was a man who was walking calmly across the debris, through the thick smoke, I hid behind my suitcase.  At the time he was suspicious to me, he was the only person not running.  But in hindsight he was probably walking shell shocked.  I was probably one of the last to leave the Starbucks – but I wanted to be sure which direction to get out without endangering myself any more.  The first bomb was to my right, the second huge one was to my left.  I was remarkably calm.  I evaluated the situation, my first thought was to take just my passport…then I decided to take everything (except the coffee which I took a second look at…lying on the floor split everywhere, I don’t know how I  managed to not get any on me.)  I checked my surroundings again and decided to go right where the smaller explosion was.  I hurried outside to the parking garage over the road. Picking up my suitcase as I ran.  I’ve never left the confounds of Brussels airport because I’ve always transited onward by train to a different destination.  I didn’t know where I was.  I thought if I stay close I could help, but there was just chaos.  It took a very long time for help to arrive – the first responders were the airport fire brigade.  There were already some military at the airport patrolling because of already heightened security.  They were walking around pretty dazed themselves.  The ambulances arrived, the police arrived, they started to carry out the wounded – and dead – on stretchers.  I think they all must have been under the rubble because I couldn’t immediately see anyone before I left.  Then a soldier came running out shouting something I couldn’t understand, but I got the picture.  There must have been another device, or an attacker laying in wait.

So we ran.  We ran down a road which filters onto a main highway.  But there was no designated rendez vous point…there was just the feeling of “everybody get the hell out of there”.  So I did.  I barely had any juice on my phone, I followed a trickle of people who looked like they knew where they were going.  People were gathering at the petrol (gas) station, there was a little rest stop with toilets and vending machines.  I went to the toilet and relieved myself…talk about a serious case of stress induced IBS!! I needed to get my phone working, I needed to find a plug.  So I headed to the train station and figured if the trains were still running I’d get out of the city and head to my onward location outside of Brussels.  There was confusion and chaos at the train station too.  But I bought my ticket and got on a train that was heading into central Brussels.  Once I made it onto the train, everything started to feel real.  Little did I know that there had been another attack on the metro.  We made it one station short of where my next train left from.  That didn’t matter in the end because the authorities shut down the whole public transport system.  My French skills were under some serious testing as various people made announcements that I tried to follow.  It was very confusing.

One man noticed some debris in my hair and pulled it out for me.  I suddenly realised I was a dusty mess!  My jeans weren’t torn up, but they were beat up.  My hair was grey, my glasses covered in a thin layer of dust, I had bits of ceiling tucked in all sorts of crevices of my clothing, I had black snot, I had a teary face, I had black soot all around my mouth.  I looked a state!  I got off the train and headed to the concourse, but the army and police were shutting it down and running at us with a long line of tape to get people out of the station as fast as possible.  So I was on the rush again! I was exhausted and crying.  I found my way out of the train station and had just enough juice on my phone to find the closest hotel.  I dashed into the hotel and explained I needed a room because I had just been in an explosion and I was exhausted!!!  The hotel staff were absolutely amazing.

In between all of this, I was messaging Chris and my work to tell them what was happening.  And I was shaking.  Shaking a lot.  Chris reminded me to check myself for injuries. I realised once I got into the hotel that half my face was a bit sore, the back of my head had been banged, I had scraped up my knee and my back just below my ribs was starting to really hurt.  I immediately stripped down as soon as I got into my room and got into the shower.  I cried as I watched the dust run off me down the drain as the sirens continued to wail in the background.

The gravity of what just happened to me was beginning to sink in.  My work have been amazing, they sent a crisis response team came out to the hotel to see me.  I was also checked over by a doctor.  The British Embassy called me to check for injuries and if I needed any consulate assistance.  The general manager of the hotel came by to check on me.  He called the police for me to check if I should leave any details as a witness.  Apparently that wasn’t needed unless there was something in particular that would be critical.  I couldn’t think of anything except the strangely calm wandering man, but I can’t describe him in detail so that wouldn’t be any help.  My work are Currently working on how to get me home to the US sooner than Friday (my planned return – which by the way fills me with horror returning to Brussels airport – oh and the check in desk for American isn’t there anymore, it got blown up).  Clearly I am not going to any meeting today or tomorrow.  They are being awesome.

The lady from the crisis response team said one of the first steps to getting over a traumatic event is to tell my story as it happened.  So I told my story to her and the rest of the team and we even had a little laugh about some things…and now I’m telling it all to you.  So I don’t have to tell it a hundred times over.  If someone asks me, I’ll point them to this blog.

In my honest opinion – the way I saw the events happen – I didn’t hear any gunshots, I didn’t hear anyone shout out in Arabic, I think the first device was diversionary (potentially a suitcase bomb) to divert a stream of panicking people towards the suicide bomber.  I guess we will find out soon enough the chain of events.  But all I know, is that I am glad I sat in the corner of Starbucks, I’m glad I wasn’t still queuing for my coffee 5 minutes before, I would have been so much more vulnerable.  But yes, if I just got on that train out of the airport rather than get a coffee from Starbucks, I would probably be thinking how lucky I am.  Now I am still thinking how lucky I am, but I feel the pain of seeing all those dead and severely injured people, I smell the smoke, I taste the debris, I feel the shock, I hear the explosions (which you know I already have experience of, but this time I didn’t have body amour or a weapon).

This was truly a horrific act of terrorism I have experienced.  I have been through airports in other countries where the security happens before you get anywhere near the building.  I do not want to see this happen to our freedom because then the terrorists win (oh I wrote about that already too – how depressing is that?).

By the way – I’m OK, I’m safe and I love you all (just in case I haven’t told you)!!! X

The uncertain future of the world

On several occasions in the past Chris has asked me if we really want to bring a child into this uncertain, seemingly doomed, world.  War, terrorism, climate change, disease, famine and so much hatred.  It makes you wonder.  The terrorist attacks in Paris last night were shocking and showed terror in the West at its worst.  The Russian plane blown up most likely by terrorists was utterly cowardly.  The suicide bombers in Beirut who spinelessly killed innocent shoppers.  And the many more countless number of attacks on innocent civilians.  It makes me sick to the stomach today as much as it made me sick to the stomach when I was just about to begin my first year of university in 2001.  Watching that second plane crash into the other twin tower of the World Trade Center, live on TV, I could not believe my own eyes.  And last night hearing the live commentary of the attacks unfold in Paris was no different.

But I do not want to live in fear because then they have succeeded, the terrorists have won.  Like I told a journalist when I was interviewed in a London Train station the day after the 7/7 terrorist attacks – I am not afraid to use the public transport, I won’t be afraid, we should not be afraid. We must unite against terrorism.

I didn’t know when I watched those events unfold on September 11th 2001 that 14 years later I would have deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan, worked with countless inspirational commanders and leaders who serve to fight the battle against terrorism and worked on projects that enhance the future security of my friends, family, country and our allied countries.  And so now it is one of the drivers for my choice of career, but I would never have pictured myself in this world in my youth.

War and terrorism isn’t the only thing on my mind about the uncertain future for our children.  Disease, famine and climate change are all up there too on my list of concerns. I might sound a bit dramatic about it all, but it is something I do think about a lot.

So when Chris asks me do I want to bring a child into this world?  I tell him yes.  I say yes because I want my child to be a strong person who contributes something to making this world a better place…and even if I don’t ever have my own child, I will love, cherish and encourage the children of my friends and family to be that strong person…otherwise the terrorists will simply win.

Paris (2)

NaBloPoMo November 2015