My students cheered me: they laughed at my poor jokes and had kind comments for old features I’d written. I was, though, glad to be on the bus home. My nerves have been frayed, I’ve been distracted and easily irritated: one young woman tutting at a man in a tracksuit who had asked for a light made my jaw clench.
I considered sleeping on the bus but knew I’d miss my stop. I was distracted from lazily watching a girl, who was busily tidying her bobble hat over the edges of her dragon mask, by the chattering of a young boy. He was determined to tell me about his day in words only his mum could understand: I nodded and smiled as enthusiastically as I could.
Commuters sat around me, some reading the paper I used to write for, others magazines I was once thrilled to see using my byline. A woman had fallen asleep midway through some journalist’s piece of exciting news, nodding awake when the bus reached stops and checking where she was before falling back to sleep. Her calloused hands suggested she’d worked harder than me today.
A pair behind me discussed the gossip from work. There had been nothing official, just rumours of redundancies, threats of cuts, everyone could feel it coming although nothing had been said: it was only a matter of time.
The talkative boy got up, now demanding a farewell from us all as his mum pulled him away: even the woman who had fallen asleep in the the newspaper mustered a weary, “bye bye, darlin'”.
I watched people, as I often do, and considered how journalists view the world through others. We witness lives and the emotions of those around us, finding the right words to express their feelings or taking photos so harrowing it’s hard to imagine the person behind the lens. It offers us a protection from reality and a chance to distance ourselves from our own experience: if we write about it or photograph it we can’t feel it.
Research in 2009 found that between 86%-100% of journalists had witnessed a traumatic event while covering the news: I’ve interviewed the families of murdered children; women who’ve been raped; adults who were victims of abuse; people with terminal illnesses; grieving siblings and heart-broken spouses. Most journalists, though, exhibit resilience despite repeated exposure to work-related traumatic events, the report concluded, and this was evidenced by low rates of post-traumatic stress and other psychiatric disorders.
Those of us who aren’t war correspondents or risking our lives undercover still experience danger and emotional trauma in our daily work. We can be among the first to arrive at accidents, crimes, family tragedies and other traumatic events, regionally, locally and nationally. Unlike police officers, firefighters and others who are the first to scenes, we don’t receive counselling and perhaps we should but our innate resilience comes as no surprise to me. We’re adept at recognising that the emotion of the trauma we witness belongs to others.
Today, though, it was the stress brought by the tedium of bureaucracy that proved more than I could stand. I was closer to tears on the bus home than I’ve ever been during an emotional interview. I’m told I should still get Jobseekers’ Allowance. I’m told paperwork was lost. I’m told sending more information will put things right. I’m told this but my complete lack of faith in the system means I’ll not rest until I have the cash in my hand.