The true impact of trauma is never fully known: a Hillsborough survivor's story
Adrian Tempany is a Hillsborough survivor and journalist who has written about the Hillsborough disaster for the Guardian, the Observer and The Times. A version of this piece was originally published in the Observer in 2009.
That the very act of surviving a major tragedy changes people's lives and personalities is obvious. But to what extent is not.
Family and friends who knew me then and now will tell me I'm the same person. I think they're right, a few psychological bumps and bruises aside.
A few bumps and bruises? The truth is that I will never know if the person I am today, nearing middle age, was the man I was always likely to be - the result of my genes, my schooling, my childhood friendships - or whether I am the reconstructed remains of that traumatised teenager. This leaves me something of a mystery to myself - a problem common among survivors.
My mate, Peter, has never discovered who saved his life in pen 3 of the Leppings Lane End.
"Between passing out and being found lying out the back, I can't find any footage or witnesses to confirm what I think went on," he says. "This has been part of my struggle for my sanity, to find the people who carried me out."
It would take a psychologist to unlock parts of my mind that have been numb for 20 years, and some that I have surrendered. If in a sense I have come from Hillsborough, I am not prepared to go back.
What I have long suspected is that, emotionally, the clock stopped at 19. Since holding death at arm's length I've held the advancing years there, too. I was a mature teenager, but I haven't grown up since at the same pace as my friends. I haven't had kids. I won't let my own youth go just yet. I will turn 40 next year, but to most people I seem to be around 30.
It wasn't until many years later that I realised I'd had post-traumatic stress disorder. I cried a lot, and randomly. I felt cold and angry, and empty. I'd never felt like this before. At times I felt overjoyed to be alive. The next day, I might wake up feeling half-dead.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- 1 in 3 people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their life.
- Around 25-30% of people experiencing a traumatic event experience PTSD.
- It is estimated that 4.4% of people in England are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
I woke up one day on the kitchen floor, after blacking out. (Get up, make a cup of tea, don't tell Mum and Dad.) I drank heavily, but socially, and verbally abused police officers in the street, and I spent two nights cooling off in a police cell, in the early 1990s, for my troubles. (Still haven't told Mum and Dad.)
Since then, since my mid-20s, I have never begrudged Hillsborough its place in my life. If I had lost someone that day then I would feel differently. But it is such an integral part of my life, and I have to live with who I am.
Perhaps the most important thing Hillsborough taught me is honesty. There is so much about 15 April 1989 that is wrong, and false, and dishonest, that survivors cling to what they know to be true. Lord Justice Taylor described the Liverpool fans' reaction at Hillsborough as "magnificent". But to experience something so terrible, to be accused of thieving and pissing on police officers when you were in the process of trying to save lives, or comforting people in their final moments, is an insult so deep in the psyche that honesty becomes the key not just to remembering but to anything that really matters in life. And it's honesty that allows me to look other survivors in the eye and know that we did what we could.
Some of this will be news to my friends and my family reading this. And to my girlfriend, too, who was my girlfriend that day. But then, there are many secrets to a disaster - not to surviving one, but to living with one. Today, 20 years on, thousands of people still bear the scars of Hillsborough - some more visibly than I do, others inevitably less so.
Adrian has written a book about Hillsborough and how it changed English football, available via Amazon: And the Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain.
Resources and further information
- NHS England: coping with stress following a major incident (.pdf)
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