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3 July 2006updated 24 Sep 2015 11:31am

I’m a survivor, but not a victim

Has victimhood become a badge of honour? Alice O’Keeffe, who was on one of the bomb

By Alice O'keeffe

“Oh, it’s waiting to pounce, dear,” Susan tells me, when I confess that, despite having been on the Tube that was blown up near King’s Cross nearly a year ago, I have suffered no serious symptoms of trauma. Alarmingly, she says this by way of a welcome to the world of King’s Cross United, a “support” network composed of a disparate group of 100 or so of the 900 people on the Piccadilly Line train that morning. “You may think you’ve shaken it off, but it can still hit you years later.”

Susan joined King’s Cross United shortly after the bombings. One year later, she still logs on to its private website up to three times a day to share her thoughts and feelings with other survivors, and has travelled to London several times to meet them. She says it has been an invaluable source of comfort, and describes how the group members find themselves experiencing psychological highs and lows at the same time.

“It’s a funny thing, but it feels like we have this very deep emotional connection,” she says. “My husband says I’m becoming obsessed, because I’m always logged on to the computer. I suppose it is a little bit obsessional, but no one else can really understand what I am feeling.”

King’s Cross United has been a source of fascination for the press since it was founded by the outspoken 7/7 survivor Rachel North, an advertising executive from north London. The group’s internet site and e-mail address have provided an easy means for journalists to get quotations from survivors, who have become valuable commodities in the media frenzy that inevitably surrounds the anniversary. North has had to employ a PR company to deal with the hundreds of interview requests that have flooded in from around the world. The King’s Cross United members have become a suspicious lot, putting measures in place to prevent undercover journalists infiltrating their pub meetings; when I e-mailed explaining that I am both a survivor and a journalist, one member posted a message asking for proof that I wasn’t faking it.

With the anniversary approaching, I was driven by idle curiosity to look into joining the group. But the more I found out about it, the more deeply uncomfortable I felt with the whole idea. First, the benefits to its members seem far from clear. Are they really supporting one another, or just immersing themselves in a cycle of needless guilt and gloom? A year after Susan escaped from that smoky tunnel, she is still emotionally trapped there, reliving the experience daily through an internet chatroom. She continues to receive counselling, and has been off work since October.

Confessional culture

This leads uneasily to the issue of financial compensation, to which Susan, for one, is adamant that all survivors – even if they were not physically injured – should be entitled. “You must apply; this is government money,” she tells me firmly. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that I have suffered no lasting ill-effects. It appears to be a group dynamic in which, encouraged by press interest and our confessional culture, victimhood has become a badge of honour. Perhaps this is one reason why King’s Cross United does not maintain any relationship with those who have suffered most: the families which actually lost loved ones. “We realised that it wasn’t appropriate for us to be in the same room,” says North.

Obviously, people react in different ways to a traumatic event, and experiences in that train were vastly different: those at the back were simply stuck in the carriage for half an hour, whereas those at the front witnessed destruction and death first-hand. North insists that sharing experiences and information has a positive psychological effect. “I set up the group because I had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] before, and I wanted to make sure people knew about it and had access to help,” she says. However, research into trauma indicates that non-intervention is often the best course of action – the mind’s repressive mechanisms are there for a reason. Professor Simon Wessely, a leading specialist in PTSD, recently said, in relation to 7/7 survivors, that “people’s reactions to trauma, adversity, war and terror are determined by the group psychology and not individual psychology”. In which case, belonging to a group to which trauma has become the norm seems likely to make matters worse.

When I escaped from the train, my instinct was to leave it far behind, along with all the people who had been on it with me. I didn’t contact any of the support groups, I didn’t register myself on the official list of survivors. When I compared my mental state to that of the people constantly quoted in the news, I almost felt that being happy, healthy and working meant I must be wrong, or in denial. I suspect that many others have felt the same: Helena Gibbons, who was in the same carriage as Susan, says: “I made a conscious decision to say, ‘I’m going to put this behind me’ – I even carried on commuting. Perhaps it sounds callous, but I don’t think it has had a huge effect on my life.”

Personally, I found that facing the real possibility of death and getting a second chance had some positive side effects. It prompted me to make some difficult changes in my work and personal life, which I had been putting off for too long. Others say the same: North was moved by the “kindness and humanity” of the public reaction to the attacks; Gibbons found that “when life threw something really terrible at me, I could cope”. Susan, too, says that the bombing has brought her friends from all walks of life.

So perhaps it is time we celebrated human resilience – it may not make such good headlines, but it is the quality that the bombers must have feared the most.

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