Something Unresolved – The 50th Anniversary of Bloody Friday…

The room was spartan. Two chairs, a few books on a table and a filing cabinet. Where she kept notes, no doubt – on other stragglers who’d dragged their excess baggage up the stairs.

I told of the house purchase gone wrong, how stupid I felt, and the sense of being trapped. She wrote something down.

‘If only I could get an unbroken night’s sleep, I might be able to cope.’

She asked when that problem started.

I weighed up the words as slow-motion scenes spooled from decades ago. From 21st of July, in 1972 – when an eighteen-year-old stared through ninth-storey office windows above Belfast’s High Street as a blitz erupted, as smoke and fire twisters rose across the city’s compass points. To become indiscrimination equations, pouring out plagues on both our houses. Twenty-two bombs in eighty minutes. On average, every three minutes, all within a mile of the city centre. Leaving nine dead, many eviscerated, and one hundred and thirty injured, many seriously. When firemen shovelled a torso onto plastic sheeting, then tenderly lifted it into an ambulance. On a Friday, become Bloody. The day the Provisional IRA tested their big bang theory. When something inside my forehead stretched taut-tight – and the ability to read or retain information began to elude me.

Then I heard myself say, ‘I was in town on Bloody Friday. I wasn’t injured. It was just shock, they said. But I couldn’t seem to shake it. At best, I’d get some fitful sleep, then wake in the early hours, stomach churning but not knowing why.

‘There was no counselling then, just a few tablets. Eventually, I threw them away. You just tried to get on with it, didn’t you? ‘Some years later, the symptoms eased, I could read again, and I began night classes. But proper sleep never returned.

‘Then, last year, during my Camino walk across Spain, the images of that day returned – vivid, powerful. Perhaps triggered by walking through the Basque country, with its own troubled history. But Bloody Friday’s a separate issue,’ I insisted, ‘that’s not linked to this!

‘You were trapped in that building – weren’t you?’ she said. ‘Like you feel trapped now?’

‘Perhaps,’ I admitted.

‘Tell me a little more about your Camino.’

So I talked, or rather enthused about the walk through new landscapes of beauty; the sights, sounds, the craic. The joy. Then this.

I stared at the floor. The silence broken by words telling me I was in the right place.

’You know, in all that walking you were drawn to, your body was bringing you what you needed: to get outside, get in touch again with nature. You were grounding yourself with each step. Connecting with others, and finding perhaps … a sense of belonging?’

She was right. The enchantment of the track, with its stunned silences. Alongside others in search of our land of lost content. On laneways where millions had trodden as if following some star to see where it might come to rest.

‘But perhaps,’ she continued, ‘the Camino is only half the story. Sometimes it might sift issues, like rocks, to the surface. Revealing things you can only resolve in the everyday of home.’

She told of recent research that showed bi-lateral stimulation (left and right foot movements) mirrored left and right brain patterns, encouraging a re-processing of traumatic memories – literally walking some of it out.

‘But, in tackling trauma, PTSD …’

I interrupted her, ‘But that was so long ago.’

‘Time doesn’t matter, she said. ‘PTSD’s different to depression. It has more to do with intrusive images and flashbacks. Sufferers often experience hyper-vigilance, sleep disorders, or feel helpless and a sense of shame.’

I certainly felt powerless. And ashamed for being so weak.

‘We could try some trauma-based CBT,’ she continued, ‘and perhaps EMDR: Eye Movement, Desensitisation and Reprogramming.’

She opened her cabinet, flicked through files, selected two worksheets, and handed me my homework.

Where I read that just as Rapid Eye Movements in sleep seemed to process and file away each day’s events, research also indicated that guided waking REM-type therapy, whilst holding a distressing memory in mind, might ease its level of disturbance.

So, over the weeks, you learn grounding techniques and begin to recognise where the body keeps the score – where trauma is trapped in the neck and shoulders, forehead or gut.

You read and learn of the body’s reaction to threat: fight, flight, or freeze. And that when you can’t fight or flee, the overwhelmed mind might choose a survival strategy of shutting functions down, ‘disassociating’ from events that you then view in a daze, as if unreal, as if in a dream.

But if the adrenaline released is not discharged through action or the distress prolonged, the nervous system remains locked in hyper-vigilance mode, sensing potential threats everywhere.

One week she says, ‘You must have been afraid that Friday.’

You can’t remember feeling fear … though you must have experienced it.

Then she guides you into an EMDR visualisation. And again, you’re looking through office windows crisscrossed with tape, hearing surround-sound explosions as if the world was ending. To see the dark mass of a debris cloud as you alternate between tears and anger over those caught in its vortex.

And you ask, ‘What do I do now? I can’t change the past.’

She encourages you to sit, wait, and notice. Then words rise from within, from somewhere unbroken, bringing assistance. Words about walking through a storm, holding your head up high, and not to be afraid of the dark. At the end of a storm, a golden sky, and something about ‘the sweet silver song of a lark.’

Like Amy Dickinson’s Hope, you wonder – the thing with feathers.

The words continue to carousel from a song you’d never sung to ‘Walk on with hope in your heart – and you’ll never walk alone.’

Another day you ask, ‘How could they do that?’

‘You need to get them out,’ she says, ‘they’ve been in there too long. Why not write them a letter?’

And the anger is visceral. Precise. Bitter.

She speaks with gentle authority. ‘Some of them are haunted by the things they did. Afterwards, they questioned it. Some were threatened, “Join, do this, or be tortured.”’

Some must have been her clients. In this small world.

And she asks, ‘What would you need to deal with this? Are there traits of an animal you admire that you could use?’

The strength of a lion, you say. To roar back. And your chest expands, she later tells you.

Then you see yourself putting up boards after a bomb blast, nailing wood across windows. Shouting, ‘You’re not getting in. Not getting me today.’

And you slowly admit the sense of being trapped as the connecting cord.

Over the weeks, other significant memories emerge. The most striking of your 1970s’ living room, its colours vivid: a brown leather-backed draylon sofa, garish mustard cushions. A mahogany table, paisley-patterned carpet and wallpaper.

It’s a July evening, as your eighteen-year-old self looks out to the back garden of roses, rambling red and white. And you remember you were safe. You survived.

And you now know what to say to him: ‘This time you’re not alone. You’ll never walk alone. Together, we can come through this.’

Belfast’s WAVE Centre continues to support victims and survivors of The Troubles.

The diagnosis mentioned is now known as PTS. The pejorative ‘Disorder’ having been removed.


Wikipedia entry on Bloody Friday for background reference:

Bloody Friday is the name given to the bombings by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 21 July 1972, during the Troubles. At least twenty bombs exploded in the space of eighty minutes, most within a half hour period. Most of them were car bombs and most targeted infrastructure, especially the transport network. Nine people were killed: five civilians, two British soldiers, a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) reservist, and an Ulster Defence Association (UDA) member, while 130 were injured. The IRA said it sent telephoned warnings at least thirty minutes before each explosion and said that the security forces wilfully ignored some of the warnings for their own ends. The security forces said that was not the case and said they were overstretched by the sheer number of bombs and bomb warnings, some of which were hoaxes.

The bombings were partly a response to the breakdown of talks between the IRA and the British government. Since the beginning of its campaign in 1970, the IRA had carried out a bombing campaign against economic, military and political targets in Northern Ireland and less often elsewhere. It carried out 1,300 bombings in 1972. However, Bloody Friday was a major setback for the IRA and there was a backlash against the organization. Immediately after the bombings, the security forces carried out raids on the homes of republicans. Ten days later, the British Army launched Operation Motorman, in which it re-took the no-go areas controlled by Republicans. Loyalist paramilitaries also reacted to the bombings by carrying out ‘revenge’ attacks on Catholic civilians.

On the thirtieth anniversary of the bombings, the IRA formally apologized to the families of all the civilians it had killed and injured.

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