The 10 year anniversary of the London Bombings, and my related mental health challenges
10 years ago, on July 7 2005, four suicide bombers attacked London. Three of them detonated their bombs on separate Underground (subway) trains in the morning rush hour. The fourth followed suit about an hour later on a crowded bus. 52 people, plus the 4 bombers, died. Many others were injured, physically or mentally.
I was on one of the 3 bombed trains (the Circle Line train approaching Aldgate station) and while I was not physically hurt the event has affected my mental health since.
I’ve written about my experiences before, here, here and here, the last of those being eight years ago. I haven’t written more until now, and that’s mostly because the anniversaries have tended to have decreasing impact. This year was different. This year depression decided to come back for a visit.
Before I get into what happened to me this summer I’d like to take a tangent to give context of pertinent events that have happened over the last 10 years.
July 7 2005 occurred during a particularly stressful 12 months in my life. The end of a five year relationship, living in three countries with two full international moves, some hard family events to deal with, the bombings, changing job, and more. I moved to New York nine months after the bombings, and on arriving a close friend of mine urged me to see a psychiatric therapist, which turned out to be a very good idea. I had started suffering depression and while not being a severe case (I didn’t take any medication at this time), I was not in a good place and looking back was probably pretty close to self medication with alcohol.
I continued to have therapy for about a year, into 2007, by which point I was feeling considerably better. All of the events of 2005 / 06, the bombings included, were becoming background noise rather than lightning rods. Furthermore I felt I was much closer to being my pre-2005 self to others.
In 2008 I was happier still, and to top it off I met Sara who I married two years later. Just as I was feeling great my body threw a spanner in the works. I started having severe nausea that would come on in various situations, especially closed rooms, elevators and cars. I had thought it was likely some kind of stress related gastro-intestinal problem (work was tough at the time), perhaps a stomach ulcer. A couple of months later there was no improvement and in fact my life was starting to be severely disrupted. Sometimes I needed to spend an hour at work in the bathroom because I thought I was going to vomit (even though I never did), sometimes getting in a elevator would take several attempts, and long car rides were becoming exercises in anguish and frequent stops.
I decided to see a doctor, who immediately suspected anxiety disorder and referred me to a psychiatrist, who confirmed the diagnosis. I was shocked. I thought my days of mental illness were behind me but it turned out my nervous system had other ideas.
This time, on the psychiatrist’s advice, I started taking anti-anxiety medication (Paxil.) The problems I were having were too impactful on my life to ignore. I had previously been extremely reticent to use medication both because of negative feelings of ‘giving in’ to ‘overused’ chemistry, but also genuine fears about what negative side effects the drugs may have. There were some somewhat annoying side effects but it turned out they were insignificant in comparison to the benefits of the medication. I was able to basically get on with my life as normal again with most of the disruptions ceasing. I also started to see a new therapist to work through what was going on. I knew I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of my experience on the bombed train. I needed to address that, and other issues, a lot further.
All in all this chapter in my life was about two years long. After about eighteen months I started tapering off of the anxiety pills, stopping entirely about three months later (with none of the scary tapering effects some people experience.) I stopped seeing the therapist after about 2 years, having worked through a whole bunch of stuff in my head.
That was five years ago. I am certainly not ‘cured’ of my anxiety, but the conditions are mostly manageable now and much less significant than when they first came on. I am aware of situations that are likely to trigger a reaction, and occasionally (about once per month) use a sedative, if necessary. I think about it similarly to having a bad back — the nervous system (of which the brain is part, but my anxiety I feel is located in more that just my brain) is as much a part of the body as the skeleton, and it just so happens my nervous system is mildly broken. Above all though I’m very happy with my life. Sara and I have been living in our Brooklyn apartment for a little over 6 years, work is good, we get to travel, enjoy New York, and spend time with our friends and family.
I’ve always been aware that 2015 would be the 10 year anniversary of the bombings. For the first few years afterwards I’d imagined on the 10 year I would visit London and get on the Circle Line, passing the fateful spot in the morning rush hour as proof of my recovery. As the anniversary started to approach though that no longer felt necessary.
In May this year I noticed I was starting to become irritable and less happy. I put this down to work (always easy to do), but noticed things weren’t getting better a month later. In late June I realized things were, in fact, getting worse — I’d started to feel like I had in 2006 when I’d had noticeable depression. Sunday evenings were particularly bad (feelings of insufficiency about my work, and more) and this, again, was an echo of nine years ago. I figured that there was a decent chance that it was a reaction to the 10 year anniversary, and resolved to see a doctor or therapist if things didn’t start getting better soon after July 7. One positive was that the symptoms I’d had at the peak of my anxiety did not return — I was solely suffering from a relapse in depression.
Press coverage of the anniversary was almost non existent here in the US. However I read the Guardian newspaper online daily and it had many articles on the subject, some of which were hard to shake out of my brain. After realizing this I tried to mostly avoid further coverage. As we got into the final days before the anniversary I felt I needed to make a decision as to what to do. It was a regular work day so would I just proceed as normal? Take the day off? Perform some act of remembrance? I ended up making no plan, but waking up on the morning of the 7th I felt even worse than I’d done throughout the last two months so decided to have an easy morning. I got up late, went to the gym (including running faster than I would do normally), and finally got to work just before midday. I had a few meetings planned but knew that I was far from the top of my game. Once my planned schedule for the day was complete, around 4pm, I headed home earlier than I would normally.
Sitting on the sofa in the evening my overriding thought was that I hoped I would wake up feeling better in the morning — I really didn’t want to have to deal with everything again in therapy (not because of fear, mostly because of the time it would take!) The actual events of 10 years ago were actually not particularly on my mind — the memories were clearly more subconscious than conscious.
I woke up at my regular time on July 8, and checked in with myself. How was I feeling? What did I want to do today? I recognized that unlike the previous day I was fine to get up and head to work as normal. Once there I knew I was able to work much better than the previous day. By the time the weekend came along I was feeling much better and Sunday evening didn’t have any emotions of despair. Within two weeks I was back to my normal self, and I’ve been fine since.
I am surprised how big the effect on my brain has been by what is in reality an arbitrary number (‘10’). I barely registered the previous 3 or 4 anniversaries (sometimes not even realizing the date until the evenings), and yet this year’s turned out to be as significant as any since the first.
In my previous writings on this subject I’ve ended talking about the larger societal context to this event, and desires for such ideas into the future. I’m not going to this time since that could take another handful of essays. Instead this time I’d like to end with a summary on what I’ve learned about mental health, at least from my own personal experience, in the last 10 years.
Depression and anxiety are illnesses that afflict many people, myself included, for all kinds of reasons. They are as real as any other illness or ailment, not just symptoms of people ‘needing to get over themselves’. Just because we can’t always point to the precise physical spot and say ‘that part is broken’ doesn’t mean that mental health deserves any less sincere regard.
The good news is that while not completely understood, there is treatment for these illnesses, and a supportive community of fellow survivors! Also while often life can seem awful, and events unresolvable, when suffering a depressive episode there’s a mantra that has been popularized by people — Depression Lies. While I’ve never felt suicidal, depression has reared its head on occasion like it did this summer and in the end through a combination of loved ones, friends, therapy, medication and sometimes just boring old time, it has always been defeatable.