On Tragedy, Trauma And Going Back To Work On Bourke Street

If you're feeling shaken by last Friday, it's important to know you're not the only one.

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When I get on a plane, I immediately visualise the ways I’m going to die. I sometimes place my palm against the fuselage as I board, reminding myself of its strength, but it doesn’t do much. Each flight, I sit eyes fixed on the overhead air vent, watching the plane crumple and fold into the crash scenes of certain movies I now avoid. I decide what kind of person I’m going to be when we’re going down. I imagine where the plane might crash and what it would look like filling with water. I count the seats to my nearest exits.

This is something I’m working on, and I’m not the only one. Like many people who deal with anxiety, I’m armed with the breathing exercises and familiar (supposedly numbing) statistics and one backup pill of Valium in my wallet. I know that getting on a plane is a calculable risk with odds stacked ridiculously in my favour, and I prepare myself for it each time by wrenching this manufactured logic to the front of my mind. I know I shouldn’t catastrophise; there’s no point in anticipating stupidly improbable things that are out of my control.

None of this was in my head last week when one of those things actually happened. While I was coming back to work after lunch with a friend on Friday, I watched a car speed up the footpath across from me and plow through dozens of pedestrians. There were screams and dust and sirens and, at first glance, I rationalised that the earth was being ripped up, throwing people to the sky in its wake. I know, as we now all do, that this is not what happened. It was just one man in a Holden Commodore. It’s the worst tragedy I’ve ever borne witness to and it’s cruelly ordinary — five people have been killed and dozens injured, seemingly on purpose and without reason, by the slight turn of a steering wheel and a push of an accelerator.

How do you reconcile something like that with the stats and stories we tell ourselves to stay sane?

Feeling Safe and ‘Lucky’

I wrote this not knowing if I wanted to publish it. It’s something closer to a therapeutic exercise — I’ve always understood my feelings better when they’re worked out on the page. But now that other people are reading, I want to say this: I can’t and don’t intend to speak for those who were injured or the families of those who had their lives taken from them. I feel sick and furious and heartbroken thinking about the position they’re in, and I know this doesn’t even ripple the surface of the actual hurt.

Instead I decided to share my experience because, though it’s not the most important, it might be the most relatable. I walk Bourke Street every day and happened to walk on the right side of the road this time. My friend, who had crossed over, missed the car by about 60 seconds. I’ve relayed my safety to dozens of friends and family and concerned acquaintances and, in doing so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the shock of being ‘lucky’ and the guilt that can unfold from that kind of relief. I also know I’m not the only one who’s been doing so.

Tragedies that happen close to home (whether physically or metaphorically) hit harder. It’s not fair or just — on a global scale, it can be steeped in racial and ideological bias — but it’s a fact all the same. There’s a big difference between sympathy and empathy, and we have a more visceral sadness for victims who look like us or live their lives in the same way. If the disaster took place in your city, near your place of work, with people your friends’ or children’s age, it’s easier to see yourself in it. Though it can appear self-centred, “it could have been me” is often the most heartfelt refrain.

Some friends of mine with a one-year-old baby now deliberately avoid the evening news because of this. They’re not up to the emotional labour of hearing about other people’s kids being hurt, being taken, being thrown from prams on busy footpaths. “What good does it do?” my friend, the new mum, told me last month. It’s not an easy question to answer.

Either way, it feels like everyone in Melbourne has personally grappled with this news since Friday afternoon. It hangs over us in Facebook posts marking each other safe and talking about what safe even means when this can happen; Instagram is a constant feed of the crime scene carpeted with flowers; and Twitter is pushing ongoing news reports with the death count rising. It’s risen by one — a three-month-old baby boy — since I started writing this piece.

Through digital media, news like this is inescapable and urgent. It breaks in real-time before we know all the facts and people naturally jump to fill in the blanks for themselves — from the motive (dangerous) to the victims (understandable). In the hour after the car was stopped by police my mum was sitting at her desk on the other side of the city, wracked with worry. She refused to call and check in because of the fear I wouldn’t answer. “You never pick up your phone,” she explained, relieved, when it struck me to tell her I was okay. It was after that we spoke about the others. She mentioned that it was school holidays more than once.

It’s okay to feel this way, of course. You can be equally thankful that the misery is not your own and full of sorrow that it’s real for someone else. Like most things that remind us of our own mortality, this was ugly and unannounced and there are few ‘rules’ on how to take it. But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think we’re those abrasive motorists stopping to gawk at the car crash on the side of the highway — it’s all around us. While it’s here, it doesn’t hurt anyone else to gaze in and see ourselves.

The Next Steps

Joan Didion once wrote, “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it”. “We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” She was speaking about her husband’s death, but I think the same feeling can be true in cases of public tragedy.

I drove through the city on Sunday afternoon to get to Queen Vic Markets, and watched an informal procession carry bouquets from the small flower vendor at Flinders Street Station. When I stopped at the lights of Queen and Bourke Streets, I stared down to where I stood and where others lay, then watched a woman jog her pram past the tributes on the traffic island. Others will feel uneasy as they return to work today; maybe change their walking routes; be less preoccupied with their phones as they go.

There are no easy next steps from here. There are calls for bail laws to be tightened, the effects of bigotry and domestic violence to be taken more seriously, and police chase procedures to be changed, but there’s no ‘fix’. If this were an attack from a terrorist group, we would have an enemy and a clear point of action. Instead, we’re left with nebulous and insidious evils and a 26-year-old man handcuffed to a hospital bed.

If there’s anything we can turn to now, as painfully earnest as it may seem, it’s each other. Instead of staring into air vents and silently unpacking the worst, I talked to friends and family this weekend and made an effort for the best. I slept in and hugged my dog, stocked my house with good food and made lasagna, a friend and I had our nails painted pastel pink and sat eating ice cream on the busy sidewalk of Swan Street, Richmond. I read the news updates and I cried, but my boyfriend was there to make me tea and talk about it.

Managing anxiety isn’t always about convincing yourself that everything is going to be fine; clearly, sometimes it’s not. I think I’m learning that it’s also about standing and facing that truth together, then finding a way to move on.

Feature image via Rachel Chang/Instagram.

If you’re feeling upset by any of this, you can check out these guidelines from Victoria Health on how to overcome trauma or chat to someone on the support hotline at 1800 819 817.

There’s a vigil for the victims today at 5.30pm at Federation Square 5.30pm, and you can donate to the fund for the victims’ families here.