This week has been a very strange one. Terrorism is not new, and I have memories as a young girl of the 9/11 attack. Not understanding what’s happened, and just crying on the stairs, confused but knowing it was bad. It’s something I’ve watched on TV, cried over, my heart has broken for the images of destroyed families. But this week, it’s been very close. The attack on Manchester has hit me harder than I had imagined. When I worked in London, I was fearful every day; each morning listening to the news of people doing horrible things, lives cut short. Yet somehow, despite the anxiety and trepidation that made me ill for a year, there was still a sense of distance. The city that I now frequent, and am learning to love, is smaller, it feels more close-knit. I can walk across it on a lunch break. And so suddenly, that dreaded event is on my doorstep.
Tuesday was understandably very subdued, and yet I was oddly proud of feeling able to cope. My anxiety was manageable, I focused on the stories of the heroes, of the city coming together against adversity. Yes, we are afraid, but we are strong and defiant. My office is on the other side of the city and so we all felt reassured that we would all be okay. Life would go on.
Wednesday, things changed. The building next to my office – a stone’s throw from our boardroom window – was raided. Armed policemen, men in balaclavas and body armour, forensic teams, armoured vans all streamed down the road. I work on the corner of Sackville Street and Granby Row, and it was flat 39 of Granby House that was forcibly entered. All of a sudden, the news wasn’t just about my city but my street. From our window on the 2nd floor we saw the drama unfold. Someone was hustled into a waiting van. Teams carrying equipment went in and out of the building. The media arrived and before long there was a swarm of cameras, journalists, iPhone documenters. The news report wasn’t somewhere over there, it was here, in front of me.
I had a panic attack. It’s been a while since I’ve had one, and till now I’d been pleased to have kept my anxiety under control for the last few months. But seeing such a sudden and violent display was too much, and I crumpled. I work for a very understanding company with colleagues who look out for each other, and I was able to sit on the sofa, breathing through it. My MD looked me in the eye and said “It’s my duty to keep you safe” and spent most of the day running up and down the stairs monitoring the situation. My sense of security had been violated, and the vulnerability that implied was too much.
My sheltered life where I have – thankfully – grown up in safe areas, where I’ve never witnessed true violence and have never had to face the news head on, suddenly tilted. Throughout the day, we kept tabs on the situation below our feet. Mid-afternoon there was a sudden shout and commotion, and I stood dumfounded as I watched two men get pinned down by multiple armed officers, arrested and taken away. I could see their faces. See the handcuffs. Images on the news are nothing compared to what you see with your own eyes.
Right now, I still don’t know how to process this all. I’m aware that I am safe, no-one I know has been hurt, and the police are doing their jobs incredibly well to protect us. The likelihood of being caught up in an attack is slim, and what I saw wasn’t traumatic or damaging as witnessing an attack would be. But it is still well out of my frame of reference, and I’m struggling to know how to move forward. My instincts are to stay home, never step foot inside a city again. To hunker down in my house in the hills and lock the door. But I forced myself to walk into town at lunchtime, to walk the streets and see that everything is okay. Yes, there were mounted policeman on the pedestrianised zones. People looked a bit more harried. There were more frowns than smiles. It was important for me to take those steps, and face that fear.
Today we walked to St Ann’s square and saw the sea of flowers. The winding queue of people patiently waiting to place their bouquets on the growing pile. The sense of disbelief yet stoicism that resonates in the chest. But we’re disbelieving together, hurting together.
In all these things, I’m trying to remember to breathe. To put things back into perspective. Anxiety is a hidden shadow that can slowly encroach, or one day rear up like a wave and crash over you, dampening everything. This morning I went for a 1km swim before work, battling to control my heartrate and get back to that deep inhalation. I’m now sat with a glass of wine watching the sunset, letting my forehead relax for the first time in 3 days. I will always be eternally grateful that – so far – my family and loved ones are safe. I will continue to fight the dread and fear, but through it all, remember that we are human. The way we react to such horror is never the right or wrong way. It is our way.