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bearing witness

A screen grab from a video The Globe and Mail's Josh Wingrove shot showing the takedown of the shooter on Parliament Hill.Josh Wingrove/The Globe and Mail

Bearing Witness: 2014 — The Globe and Mail looks back on the cataclysmic news events of 2014 through the eyes of the people who were there – be they bystanders, participants or journalists. Their accounts shaped our perceptions, while their witnessing the events changed their lives.

I never saw him – alive, anyhow. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau ran past Parliament's rotunda, after an early bout of gunshots, before I was there filming with my BlackBerry. I had been in a nearby hallway when he burst in that day. RCMP and guards chased him, and I followed, before gunfire erupted again and his body slumped over.

The events of Oct. 22 happened quickly and remain, to varying extents, a blur to me. In the hours afterward, my video went online as those of us locked down inside pieced together details – including the fact that the invader had shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo moments earlier nearby. Since then, I've talked about the day – with greater and greater ease, it seems – with some of the others who were there. How are you doing? What will change? What was his plan?

Trauma, including the kind stirred by Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, gets to people in different ways, researchers say. It can trigger anxiety, nightmares, irritability and interrupted sleep, among other symptoms. In a small number of cases, it develops into post-traumatic stress disorder, but most people rebound without that.

"Usually, the symptoms are highest in the first couple of weeks," said University of Manitoba professor Jitender Sareen, a Canadian Psychiatry Association board member. "… If it's one month to the day and you're still having difficulty with sleep, you're still having irritability, you're still not back to your normal self, that's when the diagnostic statistical manual says, 'okay, you might have PTSD.' "

Time will tell, in other words. Guards and staff have taken days off since the shooting, I'm told, as have I. For just over a week, I felt a knot around my chest, like heartburn. My heart regularly raced. I slept poorly. On Nov. 2, 11 days after the shooting, I was in another city far away from Ottawa when a car door slammed. I jumped and my heart raced once more. I later dreamed I was in a full auditorium when a man came in and opened fire on us. For a while, I avoided watching my video – which has since been viewed more than four million times – as I was wary of the sound of guns firing, over and over. But it's been better lately.

The way psychiatrists describe it, that fallout is, in a word, standard – some early symptoms spun off from the ordeal, levelling out after a month or so. Very few see symptoms of the trauma continue for weeks on end.

"For the vast majority – the way we're built in terms of our physiology, our emotional capability and also our processing capability – the natural defences take over, and at the end it becomes just a bad memory," said Dr. Jacques Bradwejn, who has researched PTSD and is now dean of the University of Ottawa's faculty of medicine. "…The best thing you can do is to let the natural healing process, and the resilience that we all have, occur."

Jakov Shlik, an associate professor at U of O's department of psychiatry, echoed that in a lecture the week after the shooting. "You have to accept that bad things happen, we feel bad and it's going to last for a while," he said, "but it doesn't mean we'll all have PTSD. In fact, we will not."

People with past trauma exposure, other mental-health issues, low IQ or a family history of problems are at greater risk of developing PTSD, according to an article written by Dr. Sareen and published in The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Women are also at greater statistical risk, while many other factors – such as pain, brain injury and financial stress – also exacerbate the risk, the article said.

In some cases, trauma symptoms can have "delayed onset," meaning they take weeks or more to pop up. Even so, not all of those become PTSD, Dr. Bradwejn said. In other cases, known as "traumatic growth," the trauma can actually improve someone's mental health, he said.

"They actually develop more coping mechanisms than they would have if they did not have the stress," Dr. Bradwejn said.

As weeks have passed, my own recollection has faded, though the mind plays tricks. I've been told Constable Samearn Son – the guard who grabbed Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau's gun at the door, and was injured by a ricocheting bullet – yelled "gun, gun, gun" to warn others. When told that for the first time, I felt immediately like I had remembered hearing that when it happened, though I had earphones in. I still don't know if I actually did.

I've since walked through those halls regularly. I see tours come by, and wonder, because Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau had taken one. There are more police on Parliament Hill now. A single Mountie is stationed in front of the door I used the morning of the 22nd. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau went through it shortly after me that day. In the days after the shooting, the Mountie had been displaying a conspicuously large gun, but is no longer doing so. It seems like things have come back to normal.

Since Oct. 22, I've been asked a lot of things. "What was going through your mind?" is chief among them. I don't remember, and am not sure anything was. Then again, I can't be totally sure if I heard Constable Son's warning. But the knot in my heart has faded, along with the dreams, unease and restless nights. There's a sweet spot between forgetting and reliving. And, anyhow, I'll always have the video.

Josh Wingrove covers Parliament Hill as a member of The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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