When I was 15, I participated in a cross-community leadership programme which sent teenagers from Northern Ireland to the USA for four weeks. There were eight of us selected: four Catholics and four Protestants, four girls and four boys. The trip was heavily Christian in focus, based around a kind of peace-building ecumenism. Although it was an illuminating experience in many respects, one factor stuck with me: we weren’t allowed to discuss the past, or politics. Here we were, teenagers born in the early 90s, at the tail end of the Troubles, participating in a programme aimed at healing our country’s violent past. And yet, we weren’t allowed to discuss it. It wasn’t “ours”: in the words of one leader, we weren’t even alive then, so how could we possibly know?
There is much evidence that my generation, the “ceasefire babies” have the highest rates of suicide in the UK, and possibly in western Europe. The spike in suicides has become a cause of national concern. Every few weeks I read impassioned appeals on facebook for volunteers to search for someone my age who jumped into the River Foyle. Or grieving comments on a facebook wall for someone who took an overdose. Or hung themselves.
Neither the education system in Northern Ireland, which is still heavily segregated, nor extracurricular youth programmes, seem particularly well prepared for helping young people to manage the complex question of identity and self in the aftermath of an ethno-political conflict. It is almost taboo. And yet our most direct experiences of the Troubles are mostly private, taking place in the family home. We hear the stories of our parents experiences, their struggles and their traumas. This was a particular obsession of my father, who pored over literature on the Troubles, and talked with me and my brother, even as children, about what had happened to him, occasionally going so far as to break down in tears. Later, as a young adult, I came across an account of a Jewish man, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, whose experience of secondary (or tertiary) trauma was a grim echo of my own childhood: “For my father it was a daily conversation in my teens and early 20s and even though I very profoundly understood his pain, one day I had to say to him, ‘Dad, I can’t talk about this anymore.’ My father had a whole wall of books on the subject of the Holocaust – it was all he wanted to talk about, but it was so harrowing for me.”Nevertheless, the genetic effects of trauma on subsequent generations are fiercely debated, and still not well understood.
I was asked recently whether I was running from something in wanting to go live abroad; the directness of question startled me, but I had long accepted the possibility. After all, it’s a common pop-psychology trope. I am still working out what it means to be alive. It is a burning question, a dread that doesn’t go away. I have tried to trace the roots of my own difficulties, much of which is too dire for public exposition on a blog, but it never seems to lead to a resolution. I have tried religion, love, and every kind of hedonism. Sometimes I even enjoyed it, but mostly I come up blank. The only option left is to run.