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'I remember a really clear feeling that the world was going to end': PTSD sufferers tell their stories in new documentary

A first responder at the Omagh bombing, a woman who was raped three times and an eyewitness to the 2017 London Bridge attack tell a new BBC NI documentary about their struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ivan Little reports

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Survivor’s account: Hanora Raflewski was caught up in the Omagh bombing

Survivor’s account: Hanora Raflewski was caught up in the Omagh bombing

BBC/Third Street Studios/Paul Mc

Eye witness: Mark McCormick saw the London Bridge attack

Eye witness: Mark McCormick saw the London Bridge attack

BBC/Third Street Studios/Paul Mc

Survivor’s account: Hanora Raflewski was caught up in the Omagh bombing

A former police officer, who was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the Omagh bombing, has revealed that he hoped a man would carry out his threat to kill him to save him from having to take his own life by driving his car into a wall at 120mph.

The ex-RUC man, who has suffered nightmares for over 20 years, has told a no-holds-barred documentary about the impact of PTSD that he blamed himself for not doing more to help the victims of the Real IRA bombing and his wife talks of how he can't forget what he saw in the horrific aftermath of the blast.

A woman who "miraculously" escaped injury in the bombing also speaks about her mental health problems, along with a Northern Ireland man who witnessed the Westminster Bridge attack in London in 2017.

And, as well as shining a powerful new light on the legacy of terrorism, the BBC One Northern Ireland documentary focuses on the PTSD of a woman who was subjected to multiple rapes.

The programme also deals with attempts to help people tackle PTSD which several years ago was more prevalent in Northern Ireland than in most countries around the world.

Dr Michael Duffy, who's now one of the world's leading authorities on trauma, tells the programme that PTSD is a memory disorder caused by stressful, terrifying and life-threatening events, like bomb attacks.

Some of the people featured in the programme felt "survivor guilt" after living to tell the tale of the atrocities and attacks they have witnessed or endured.

Dr Duffy, who was enlisted in the past to help the authorities in New York, Norway and England after 9/11, the Anders Breivik massacres and the Manchester Arena bomb, is filmed taking intimate and often distressing therapy sessions with some of the four who are encouraged to relive their ordeals in a bid to move on with their recoveries.

He says PTSD can strike when people least expect it, giving them nightmares and flashbacks.

And he adds: "It is a problem with memory being disjointed, of memory not being updated and, therefore, even though the trauma happened years ago, it can still terrorise people today as if it is happening over and over again."

But, during the Troubles, there were more immediate problems manifesting themselves to Dr Duffy, who was a psychiatric social worker in north Belfast in the 1980s and 1990s. He says that it was only back then that PTSD was fully understood after research was carried out on American veterans coming back from Vietnam and on women who had been raped.

Dr Duffy says PTSD was common in north Belfast among people who had been exposed to bombings and shootings.

He adds: "They were hyper-vigilant, they were cutting themselves off from the world and they were all the time on the lookout for danger."

At the time of the Omagh bomb, in August 1998, Dr Duffy was working in the North West and he went straight to the Tyrone County hospital, where he found chaos and many people whom he describes as "emotionally numb".

He says that, in the weeks after the bombing, GPs in the town reported seeing 3,500 people coming to them with anxiety and stress.

Dr Duffy was tasked to set up a specialist team to deal with the mental crises. One of the Omagh survivors who appears in the documentary is Hanora Raflewski, who was just 15 years old when the Real IRA bomb exploded a car's length away from her and a group friends.

To say that I was mentally injured by it seems trivial at times, but on an emotional level, it feels like I got away easy, because I did walk away. I'm eternally grateful that I walked away. I walked away injured - just in a very different way. Hanora Raflewski

Twenty-nine people, including a woman expecting twins, were killed on that fateful Saturday afternoon and a policeman who was close to the bomb is also featured in the documentary, called PTSD: Stress of the Past.

A third interviewee on the programme is Northern Ireland man Mark McCormick, who was working for a charity in London in March 2017 when he witnessed the terror attack by Khalid Masood at Westminster Bridge, where six people were killed and nearly 50 were injured.

The fourth person is rape victim "Claire", who hasn't been identified in the film. She talks candidly of how she was subjected to sexual attacks by three different men - some of whom had given her cocaine.

Reflecting on the Omagh bomb, Hanora says she saw a ball of fire coming towards her after the blast and there were bodies all around in the street.

She remembers panicking and fleeing from the scene, but after finding out that a friend had been airlifted to Belfast with serious injuries, Hanora says her mental state went downhill "very quickly" and a medic had to sedate her.

Hanora says her experiences at Omagh changed her and she was angry and irritated, but didn't immediately link her symptoms back to the bombing.

She reveals that, three years after Omagh, on her first day at university in Belfast to study law, she saw live TV pictures of the 9/11 plane attacks on the Twin Towers in New York.

She says: "I remember a really clear feeling that the world was going to end. I just stayed in bed and I got up when I was made to wash and mummy would try to feed me, but I didn't eat much."

Hanora lost weight and says she had constant flashbacks to being in Omagh.

"To say that I was mentally injured by it seems trivial at times, but on an emotional level, it feels like I got away easy, because I did walk away. I'm eternally grateful that I walked away. I walked away injured - just in a very different way."

Former policeman "Stuart" - not his real name - tells the documentary how he was off-duty in a bar in Omagh when the bomb went off.

He recalls: "I ran into the middle of the street and I heard someone shouting, 'I need help'. There was this woman buried right up to her chest and someone said she's pregnant. My heart just sank and I promised her I would get her out."

Stuart, whose words are spoken by an actor, says he urged paramedics who were just arriving to go to the woman's aid, but one of them held out his hands and said, "Look around you".

"I knew - and what could I do?"

He says he had never seen carnage like it before or since, but he stayed in the police force because he loved the job.

However, he knew something was wrong when he beat up two shoplifters and he resigned.

He says he wanted to feel pain and provoked people so that they would hit him.

Eventually, at a house party, a man threatened to kill him because of his police links, but Stuart says he didn't care if he was murdered or not.

"I'd thought about suicide, so for somebody else to do it for me, happy days - it saves me from thinking about it and doing it," he adds.

Stuart's wife, described as "one of the forgotten victims of PTSD", says her husband told her in great detail about how he was going to take his own life. One plan was to drive his car at 120mph at a wall.

"But then he tells me 'I won't do it, because I have too much to lose. I'm happy. I don't want to lose us'," she adds.

However, she says, when her husband is down, she's still terrified of receiving a phone call.

When Stuart was told in a hospital's psychiatric unit that he needed a GP's referral, he told staff that if they didn't take him there and then, they wouldn't be seeing him again.

“That was the lowest point,” he says and eventually he was diagnosed with PTSD.

Mark McCormick was at a window in a building opposite the Houses of Parliament when he saw a man in a car ploughing into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and later attacking a policeman with a knife before he was shot dead by an armed officer.

After six hours in lockdown, Mark says he was terrified as he made his way to Waterloo Station, which he feared would be a prime target for another attack.

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Eye witness: Mark McCormick saw the London Bridge attack

Eye witness: Mark McCormick saw the London Bridge attack

BBC/Third Street Studios/Paul Mc

Eye witness: Mark McCormick saw the London Bridge attack

He says that, after the attack, he tried to get back to normal and hoped the trauma, the anxiety and the sleepless nights would go away. But he was constantly frightened that someone was going to drive their car into people in the village where he lived.

Rape victim ‘Claire’ — again, not her real name — tells the documentary how she was subjected to multiple assaults and after the first attack her best friend, who knew her assailant, told her he “wasn’t the worst”.

That attitude, she says, made her she think if she reported the man to the police, they would laugh at her and say she was wasting their time.

Claire didn’t tell anyone about the second attack, by a wealthy older man. A partner later assaulted her after pinning her to a bed.

She says thoughts of suicide flashed through her mind and she was “sorry that lobotomies didn’t exist anymore”, because she couldn’t get the attacks out of her head.

Dr Duffy treated some of the four people from the documentary and studied the cases and recordings of others, including the police officer, Stuart, whose “moving testimony”, he says, was a good example of how many first responders, like police officers, paramedics and others, were affected by PTSD.

He adds: “After the event, they begin to ruminate about it and question their own role: ‘Could I have done more, should I have done more?’”

He says some people almost expect superhuman behaviours from themselves.

“This gentleman (Stuart) was trying to cope with a huge amount of destruction, of suffering, of death and injury and no matter how much he did to help, he was always going to persecute himself with these negative beliefs about not doing enough.”

Dr Duffy tries to outline to the people he sees the triggers that induce flashbacks in PTSD, a condition which he says is “perfectly treatable”.

One of the most effective treatments, he says, is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which narrator Stephen Nolan explains is a talking therapy through one-to-one counselling with the objective of repairing the patient’s memory.

Dr Duffy says he encourages people to relive their traumas in a safe environment, to keep trauma diaries and to make audio recordings of their feelings as well as revisiting the scenes of the events.

Mark is filmed returning to Westminster and Hanora is seen going back to Omagh and she also visits the grave of a young victim of the blast, whose body she saw after the bombing.

But the wife of policeman Stuart says he doesn’t want to relive his memories from the Tyrone town.

Dr Duffy says that, even though the Troubles have ended, some people who were exposed to the conflict are hyper-vigilant, won’t go to certain areas and find it difficult to trust people in other communities, because of the traumas in the past.

The documentary-makers assess the progress that’s been made by the four people who talked to them. And viewers will see that, in the main, the recoveries have been good.

PTSD: Stress of the Past, BBC One Northern Ireland, Monday, 9pm

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