Witness to the Paris attacks embraces his ‘survivor’s obligation’

How does one recover from the trauma of being caught in the middle of a terrorist attack? Psychotherapist Mark Colclough, who was in one of the Paris cafes when it was attacked by gunmen two weeks ago, offers some special insight on tools and strategies he has been using to heal. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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    It's been two weeks since deadly terrorist attacks rocked Paris. France observed a national day of mourning today to mark the somber occasion.

    President Francois Hollande attended a ceremony with injured survivors and the families of those killed in the attacks. On the streets of Paris, memorials to the slain were visited by locals. The French flag was displayed seemingly everywhere around the city.

    Those traumatized by the attacks have been offered psychological counseling. One therapist may have special insight. He was there during an attack on a cafe.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant caught up with him in Copenhagen.


    Back home after witnessing four people being murdered, psychotherapist Mark Colclough is deploying all his professional skills to minimize the anguish.

    Two weeks on, how traumatized do you think you are?

  • MARK COLCLOUGH, Psychotherapist:

    I can't scale that really on a one-to-10 scale. I still have signs of trauma and shock. And post-traumatic stress is very much still there.


    Can you describe the sort of things that are troubling you still?


    Sure, flashbacks of the gunmen, very clear.

    There's been a dream that's recurred several times about me being in the hallway of my house and looking down to the sitting room, and I can see shadows on the wall, and I'm with my travel friend who was with me in Paris.

    And I turn around to say to him, look, look, like there's a break-in. There are thieves in the sitting room. I turn around to look at him, so I know he's behind me. In the dream, I look back and he's not there. And I look forward again to look into the living room, and the gunman is right in front of me shooting at me this time. And that's where I wake up.


    Do you think you are going to be permanently damaged?


    Oh, no. No. I don't think that at all.


    Is that because you personally and professionally have the tools that enable you to deal with this?


    Yes. I think I have been in and out of therapy since I was 19. It's been — always been in my interest has been psychotherapy and psychology. So I'm aware that I have tools and I have quite a robust sense of self.


    So, what sort of tools are you using to make sure that you're going to heal?


    Things that aren't stimulating, anything that's relaxing.

    So what I have done is, I have moved most of my work around, so I'm working as little as possible for the next two weeks, and making sure I take things easy, I'm with good friends, walking rather than running, driving slowly, rather than driving a little bit too fast, spacing out my appointments, so I don't get agitated or stressed.


    Most of those caught up in the Paris attacks were civilians. Unlike members of the armed forces or emergency services, most civilians don't have the training or mental armor to be able to cope with images of carnage.

    Mark Colclough's area of expertise doesn't extend to terrorism, and so he sought out a psychologist who specializes in treating victims of torture and soldiers.


    You're given a headphone, and then you choose a sound that you like, and then you choose a movement that you like, and then you choose as memory that you like.

    And so you have a memory in your mind and you have a movement of your body. And you have an input from one of your senses, your hearing. And then, by combining those three, you have a safe space, like a feeling of a safe memory. And from that safe space, you then revisit the traumatic experience, which for me was the shooting.

    So, rather than being completely caught with my guard down, as I was that Friday night, I can then revisit it with my guard somewhat up again, because I'm aware that part of me is in Paris and part of me is in my kind of safe space. And, for me, it's diving. I have done a lot of diving when I was younger. So, I can see a dive site I went to often in Egypt. And I was there.


    You visualized this.


    Yes, visualized. And then you have a movement and you have a sound that goes with it — goes with it. So, it makes it quite easy to — or makes it easier to have a safe space with me when I'm looking back at that traumatic experience the shooting was.


    Survivor's guilt is a common reaction among those embroiled in violence, disasters or other tragedies.

    But Mark Colclough is determined to maximize another emotional response, something he calls survivor's obligation.


    I think the obligation, to live, to live fully, and to give something back to the people that I have — that I meet in my life.

    I saw four people's lives extinguished very, very quickly right in front of me. And that, I will — that obligation that — is to give something back to the people I meet in the course of my life, not just professionally, but also personally.

    And whenever I feel like relaxing or just wrapping myself up in my own bubble and tuning out for a bit, then that's what I'm going to remember, that four people I saw no longer have the opportunity to give something to somebody else. Could be a loved one, a family. Could be the bus driver. Could be anybody, anybody on the street, a pedestrian, a random occurrence.

    And that will keep me in a more giving space, rather than in a more reclusive, kind of tight, closed-down space, if that makes sense.


    So, is that something that all of the survivors have to do?


    Oh, no, that's — again, that's an individual path, I would say.

    All the people who weren't shot, but witnessed getting — people getting shot or similar things, they will each take home with them something meaningful from that event.

    And I really, really hope they take something where they find more meaning, rather than less meaning, in the occurrence.


    Is there any justification in feeling guilty about surviving?


    It's a process.

    I think, when people see other people getting shot dead, when civilians see other civilians getting shot dead, it's a process we have to go through to figure out, should I have done more, could I have done more, but what if I had done more? What would have — what would my contribution have been then? I

    think these are very — these are very existential questions that run into when you see people getting shot right in front of you.


    Mark Colclough says that he was impressed with the level of psychological support that the French authorities gave to the survivors in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

    But he's at pains to stress that there is no broad spectrum path to recovery, that every survivor has to navigate that road individually.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Copenhagen.