Cath Hill, Social Work, University of Lancaster, ESRC Alumni
On the morning of the 23rd May 2017, a year and a half into my PhD studies at Lancaster University, I composed an email to my supervisors. It was quite matter of fact in tone, I simply informed them that my youngest son and I had been at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb. I told them that I was OK, and I just thought I should let them know.
When I think back, I truly believed that at the time, I did think I was OK. As messages from friends and family came in, I started to think that I should feel more than just OK, after all, everyone was telling me how lucky we were. I recall standing with people as they hugged me and smiled and said how pleased they were to see me. I remember forcing a smile and thinking to myself, what is wrong with you? My son had just escaped death or serious injury and yet the last thing I was feeling was lucky.
The first week after the bomb was a blur. I barely slept. When I would eventually drop off to sleep, I was waking gasping for breath and shaking. In the day, I was focused on my son (who was ten years old at the time) and trying to help him to get back to school and to process what happened. As news came in about fatalities and the motive of the attack, the reality set in and at the same time, the adrenalin wore off. I became more and more consumed by a sense of guilt and wondered why had I managed to walk away unharmed, when children and young people did not. This was the start of survivor’s guilt, a term I had not heard before, but I think it is something that my son and I will have for the rest of our lives.
Initially I carried on, I was at the data collection stage of my PhD and had interviews booked in and transcripts to type up. I managed for a while and even booked a holiday, to try to get away with family to relax. In an awful twist of fate, we were in Cambrills in Spain when the terrorists responsible for the Barcelona attacks were found by police. In the process of the arrest, they mowed down holiday makers and one of the attackers escaped. We woke to find the hotel under armed guard and people asking to leave for fear of a further attack. I will never forget the dread and sadness as we had to tell our boy that it had happened, so close, again. This is when things started to unravel for me and I wondered if returning to normality and completing a PhD was even possible.
I took six months out and was immensely grateful that that was an option with the University and the ESRC. Experiencing trauma has multiple impacts, but the thing I found especially distressing in relation to my studies, was my inability to concentrate. I found this incredibly frustrating, which just compounded the situation. Pressing pause on the PhD released some pressure and surprisingly brought me much closer to my data. When I couldn’t sleep, I would listen to the audio recordings of my narrative interviews, over and over. Although not the analysis technique I had planned and not something I had read in methodology text books, it enabled me to get really close to the data and almost subconsciously identify themes. Even three years on, I can still remember the intonation in people’s voices and exactly how the stories were told. When I finally felt able to resume more formal study and begin writing up, I returned with a sense of clarity about what I wanted to say and what was important.
Being a victim of a terrorist attack changes your life. It gives you a new perspective on what is important and how fragile life is. For a while, writing a PhD seemed pointless and an impossible task that required more focus than I could cope with. However, I was determined to choose positivity in the face of hatred. I was inspired by the courage and determination of the bereaved families, many of whom set up charities in the names of their loved ones. If they could carry on and make something good out of something so evil, then I had to also. I am very proud to have resumed my studies and passed my viva. In the six months that I intercalated, I founded a peer support choir for survivors, which provided support and friendship for myself, my son and many of the other young people and their families who lives also changed forever that night (watch the story of Manchester survivors choir). What I learned from this rather extraordinary PhD process, is to take one day at a time and find ways to move forward. Sometimes you get thrown off course and the route back may feel long and challenging, but you will get there in the end and you might meet some amazing people along the way.