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The Talk: The fundamentals of privacy regarding traumatic events

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Two years ago, in the early morning hours of May 21st, I opened my eyes to a miracle: I was still alive. 

Regardless of the impact, I didn’t feel anything – not even the pain. I was only aware of the unfamiliar, strange sensations that travelled around my body, reminding me that I was still here but that not everything was quite right. It was surreal, almost dream-like, but it was true: I was at the bottom of a cliff and somehow I survived.

The inescapability of death haunts us all at some point in our lives. But as a then-19-year-old, the possibility of dying young was not something I gave much thought to, simply because I didn’t feel the need to. I was in my first year at university so I had other, more pressing things on my mind: how to budget, what societies to join, what meals to cook, how to find my seminar room and make my way around Cottrell… all the usual student thoughts.

Everything except for dying.  

Although I hadn’t spent much time contemplating death, I did always have an idea of what it could be like. Even if it comes in many forms, death to me has always been a quiet and peaceful event. A private one, even, because of the shared grief among loved ones; something strangers could not truly understand in regards to that person.

I was lucky to not die that day, but just because I made it out alive, it doesn’t mean that the accident left no mental scars. On the contrary, while I didn’t die, a part of me did. It was a different kind of death, though, with a different form of grieving, one that came with having to accept that my body will never be the same as it was prior to the accident; that it will never be ‘perfect’ again. It’s a fact that I’m unable to do things the same way I would do them before. Of course, I’m grateful I can still do them at all, but I can’t help feeling as though, in some ways, my body has become less capable.

It’s something I’m reminded of every day, especially when I decide to take a long walk and my ankle starts aching, begging me to take a break, or when I rest my elbow against a table and the pain of the metal inside of it shocks me to the point of aggravation.

I’m also reminded of it when someone who shouldn’t know about the accident approaches me to question me about it. 

Despite all that I’ve been through, therein lies my biggest nightmare post-accident: gossip.

In reality, keeping an accident of this scale private was never going to happen; there were many people at the scene and a lot of manpower was needed to get me to the hospital. So, deep down I always knew people would talk. I simply never expected it to go as far as it did, or as quickly. I hoped for the story to die down fast, like a snuffed candle.

From the beginning, I had a feeling it would take a while for the story to take a backseat in people’s minds. Just a day after the accident, when I awoke in the hospital, on top of all the guilt and disgust that I felt, there was a lingering embarrassment and the horror that more and more people would inevitably find out about what had happened. 

My phone was already buzzing with messages from people who weren’t there to witness the accident themselves, people I haven’t spoken to in months and even people I had never ever spoken to before. And that was only a day after it had happened. 

While I appreciate that they took time out of their day to check on me, among heartfelt messages were messages from people that I believe didn’t truly care about my wellbeing. Receiving their messages was therefore quite bittersweet; on the one hand I was grateful, but on the other, I was doubtful of their support. From my experience, they were people that constantly overstepped others’ boundaries, simply because they wanted to be in the know; to be updated; to have “tea” that they could later spill to their friends. 

It’s an awful, dirty feeling, having others minimise your traumatic event to something as trivial as gossip. 

Credit: The Conversation

With this small internal death of mine, I expected a level of privacy, an understanding, that usually comes hand-in-hand with terrible, life-threatening accidents. However, my expectations were in vain. The near-death experience which I hoped would remain forever unspoken by others and for me – and only me – to open up about began to spread like wildfire. 

I like to be in control of my life, and this is the first time it truly felt as though I wasn’t. I was uneasy at the thought of a potential stranger sharing my business with others. It made me sad and helpless, but more so it made me angry, knowing that someone thought they were privileged enough to know such a personal, sensitive piece of information about me which they then continued to disseminate. 

The realisation that someone whose name I didn’t know, and whose face I’ve never seen, knew more about me than I will ever know about them really bothered me. It still does.

The worst is, that there’s nothing I could have done to have stopped it from happening. 

“Come September, people will forget,” my mum would tell me after I confessed that if there was something I wanted to be remembered for at the university, it wasn’t falling off a cliff. If I’m to leave a mark in this world, it’s not one I would want to be outlined with blood.

When she reassured me that people would forget soon enough, I believed it. People don’t usually hang onto events for so long – they let it go once ‘the next best thing’ occurs. Gossip comes and goes, like a feather in the wind. It’s only a matter of days. 

Usually.

A year after the incident, I spoke to a friend who was at the scene. 

She informed me that she had overheard a few freshers talking about “a girl that fell off a cliff”, with details very specific to what happened to me, such as the location and the level of injury. A whole year after the accident. At that point I could laugh about it a little bit; we even joked about how I became one of Stirling’s urban legends and that I’ll go down in history as the next Braveheart.

What I found more suspicious than funny was that somehow even my far-away high school classmates found out about it, people I have not seen since I graduated. I had only told a few about the accident and I didn’t share anything about it on any of my socials. It made sense, then, that they had gotten all the facts about it wrong. Yet another problem with gossip is the misinformation that comes with circulating the news so far down the line.

Nevertheless, the fact that it spread as far as it did make me feel seen and very bare. What happened to me was traumatic. It doesn’t make for a good ice-breaker or a good story to tell at parties. Many seem to forget empathy and how this is a real person’s life they’re dissecting for their own benefit. 

Another peril of gossip is the paranoia it leaves behind. If I wear short sleeves and my massive, snake-like elbow scar peeks out, will people approach me and ask me what happened? Or will they already know and come up to ask me about it anyway? Maybe they already know who I am and how I earned this scar; perhaps I don’t even need to utter a word.

Questions like this torment me a lot, especially during the warmer months. It’s not as though I’m ashamed of my scars or what I’ve been through. No, I’m not worried about people seeing them. All it is is the discomfort with having to deal with someone bringing it up to me, expecting me to be alright with talking about it openly, especially if they are someone I barely know.

It’s natural to want to keep something private – after all, privacy is a fundamental human right. I shouldn’t have to bow down to other people’s need to know everything. I don’t want to and I won’t, but it’s hard to ignore comments that are along the lines of: “Ah, well, at least you don’t have to do anything [while you’re in a wheelchair for six months], since people just do everything for you – lucky you.” 

It’s comments like that which really antagonise me, because those saying them are likely unfamiliar with the hardships that came with my recovery, so having it diminished like that – while it may be perceived as ‘lighthearted fun’ – is nothing short of offensive to me. 

I chose the people I told about the accident specifically because I knew they would react empathetically. Those that found out about it through others, through gossip, don’t know me well enough (or don’t know me at all) to know how to talk to me about it, which is why I wish they didn’t. And yet, some of them do. 

I wish there was a polite way of telling them to mind their business, to forget all they know about my trauma. If I were in Men in Black, I’d use the Neuralyzer to erase their memories about it, but, unfortunately, that is fiction. In reality, there’s nothing we can do to stop gossip – but what we can do is learn what to do with the sensitive information we learn of, and how, if at all, to approach the person about it. 

Read the situation, act with empathy, and most importantly: don’t degrade someone’s trauma. Just because they survived what happened to them doesn’t give you the right to act as if it wasn’t painful.

Featured Image Credit: Saturday Evening Post /Norman Rockwell – The Gossips

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