It’s now been a week since Man Haron Monis took the Lindt Chocolat Café in Sydney’s Martin Place by siege. It’s been difficult for all Australians, but the people who were directly involved have had their lives changed forever. And I’d like to say a few words to these people.
My observations are not based on any official qualifications. I’m not a psychologist, merely someone who experienced something similar.
On October 1, 2005, I was on Jimbaran Beach in Bali when two suicide bombers detonated bombs in a coordinated attack.
I was lucky enough to survive the incident with minimal injuries. Many others – including members of my party – did not.
But this isn’t a piece about what happened that night. I’m simply someone who survived a terrifying, violent act, and I get the feeling I might have a bit of an idea of what you’re going through, and what lies ahead.
First off, I appreciate the enormous differences between our situations
Some are arguing that Monis’ was not an act of terrorism, merely a deranged lone gunman who cloaked himself in the garb and rhetoric of a Muslim cult to achieve maximum affect.
Personally I don’t care what people want to call it. I find the term ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ to be borderline offensive. It gives grandeur and scope to people who are nothing more than murderers.
Whether you do it for political or religious reasons, or if you simply see red in the heat of the moment, whether you’re carrying a gun, bomb or just your fists – if you intentionally take an innocent life, you are a murderer.
Moving away from my personal opinions on defining terrorism – which I am sure people far more informed than myself will be able to show the error in – what happened in Martin place and in Bali were hugely different. I absolutely acknowledge that.
But I see similarities. First is that both were violent, unprovoked attacks. You were doing something completely normal, something you had every right to feel safe doing.
Another similarity was the touching response both our situations received from the Australian public, and indeed the world.
You’ve had an enormous spotlight shone on you this past week. It may be fading somewhat now, but people – some complete strangers – will recognise you over the coming weeks, months and years. Your life has changed forever. Mine did.
Nine and a bit years on I reckon I’m doing pretty well – I love my job, I’ve got great mates, and in a few months’ time I’m going to marry a beautiful, intelligent woman.
There’s absolutely a light at the end. But there’s probably a pretty dark tunnel to come first.
Prepare for the media
The media have changed enormously over the last decade, but surely you already know the glare of cameras.
Some of you will have absolutely no interest in speaking to the TV, papers, radio, bloggers, whoever. You’re dealing with it your way, and the easiest way for that to happen is to be left alone. I can only hope that people will respect your wishes.
I fear some won’t.
In 2005 media scrums formed outside our homes. People knocked on our doors – as is their right – and when they were told no one would speak to them, they left respectfully.
Others stuck around. And while on the one hand you can’t stop a person from standing on the pavement in front of your house, well, you’ve said you’re not going to speak to them, so why the hell are they still there?
The worst played sneaky tricks – got people to knock on the front door while they stood on the other side of the street so they could get footage inside homes. One lowlife climbed a tree in a family’s backyard to try and film them grieving.
The flipside is that some of you will want to speak out – to tell your story, and let the world know what happened. You should absolutely do as much if it helps you. But keep it personal – tell the world your story, not other people’s. It may seem difficult to separate the two, but it’s not your place to speak on someone else’s behalf in incidents like this.
Also, be careful with which organisations you speak to. It’s a sad truth that sensationalism sells and your most casual, throw-away line can be turned into a leading quote. If you want to speak, do so with organisations you trust.
You’re going to feel new, irrational fear
You’ve now experienced terror in ways most people haven’t. Were we all scared when those planes flew into the Twin Towers? You bet. But could our fear even begin to compare to how those poor souls in the World Trade Centre at the time felt?
It’s obviously different, but where the rest of Australia suddenly feels a new fear – that something like this could ever happen on our soil – your fear is something different. Something more raw.
It’s not just a possibility to you. It’s a fact. It happened.
As a result, things that make zero sense for being scary will be. For myself, a man wearing a backpack loaded with explosives, disguised among a large group of people did the damage. So large groups of people were intimidating, but when someone walked through wearing a backpack, I was terrified. My head told me it made no sense – I was just watching the football, it’s not the same. But on the day of the attack I’d just been eating dinner.
It’s the way the ordinary has been made into something terrifying. You were simply getting a coffee or hot chocolate. Everyone does that all the time, you absolutely will again – you probably have today.
And I’m not saying every time you get coffee you’ll be scared stiff. It’s just that something that was once a possibility has now become reality. It’s not that it could happen, it’s that it has happened. That changes your attitude on so many things.
You’re going to feel ashamed
I pray I’m simply wrong on this one – that I’m the exception – but I suspect you’ve got a fair bit of shame to come.
It just makes no sense. You’ve been through something the vast, vast majority of the world’s population could never even imagine at the hands of a cruel, evil individual. Why the hell is any of this your fault? And of course it’s not.
But your life has now changed. And in ways you can’t be prepared for.
The aforementioned fear will get you from time to time. On New Year’s Eve 2005 – some three months after the bombing – a particularly loud firework set me off. I dropped a tray of drinks in the pub I was working, fell flat to the floor and covered my head. It was an involuntary action, just my heightened fight-or-flight reaction kicking in.
Naturally, the whole pub laughed at me. And who wouldn’t – a 20-year-old who was scared of fireworks? I’d have laughed loudest of all if it hadn’t been me on the ground, tears welling in my eyes and embarrassment flowering in my heart.
However the worst shame is that you may fear Muslims.
It’s such a horrible, disgusting feeling within yourself. You know, know almost all the men and women of Islam are honest, decent people. But you also know that the person who did this horrible thing to you was of that faith.
When I said above I was scared of someone in a crowd wearing a backpack, that fear was tenfold when the person was of Middle Eastern descent. And that doesn’t even make sense – the men who organised and perpetrated the acts against me were from Indonesia. Middle Eastern equals terrorist? Fuck, when did I become an airport security guard?
It’s such a despicable thing to even think. It’s not how I was raised, it’s not who I am. But the fear was something I couldn’t just make go away by telling myself how stupid it was. And I was so ashamed.
I guess the best things I can say about these shameful things I felt are that I never let my fear lead to hate, and I don’t feel that way anymore. But it was all a part of the healing process.
The healing process will take time, and mistakes will be made
Time is the great healer in all situations, and obviously something as awful as this is no different. But how long is ‘time’?
It’s going to vary for everyone. But looking back, times when I thought I was in the clear I was so deep in whatever it was, I couldn’t even see it.
I had a conversation with another survivor a few weeks after the event where we both talked about how we were completely over it, back to our best.
Three years later I was lying in bed on a Sunday afternoon, sobbing uncontrollably at how much fear and hate there is in the world.
Little things set me off for a few years. Things I couldn’t control, even though I was smart enough to know better. So I drank a lot. Did things I had always told myself I never would.
While it would be easy to explain it as me simply being a young man trying things for the first time – drinking, experimenting with drugs and sleeping around are part and parcel of the early 20s for so many Australians – my motivations were different.
And it was perhaps what made it most difficult to reconcile as a symptom of a bigger problem – my mates were doing it, and we’re all having a lot of fun, so what’s the issue?
Getting written off, while it affects us all differently, is easier to predict based on motive. If you’ve hit the end of a long week of work and want to have a few beers, maybe even smoke a joint because you feel you’ve earned it, you’re probably doing better than the bloke who wants to just get written off because it’s Tuesday, and what the hell else is the point?
That ain’t the way to deal with your problems.
Ask for help – there are so many people willing and qualified to give it
I was sitting in the backyard of the house I shared with a few mates, having a beer on a sunny Sunday afternoon when I realised I wasn’t doing so well.
I called my Mum, assured her I was ok, but that I probably wasn’t in the best state mentally, and I wanted to speak to a professional.
Within a fortnight I was seeing someone in Sydney who had also dealt with people who had been involved in the 2002 Bali bombings.
Until then I felt as if I was going through something unique, that no one had ever experienced what I had. Within one session of seeing this woman, it was apparent my situation – and how I was reacting to it – was pretty predictable.
She asked me about my drinking and drug use, about how I was sleeping, how my relationships were faring. In five minutes she had touched on every issue I was struggling with.
And while this wasn’t the silver bullet – I continued to struggle for years later – it was extremely comforting to learn that what I was going through was actually quite normal.
You may not wish to see someone professionally about what happened, it’s a completely individual decision, and some people simply don’t benefit from it. That’s your call, but know that there are some fantastically qualified and experienced people you can talk to if you’re struggling.
Drop me a line if you’d like me to point you in the right direction. And remember what I said above – there is a light at the end of this tunnel.