If you survive a mass shooting, life changes quickly. For me, at Virginia Tech almost 11 years ago, it changed the instant I heard the gunshots.
When I learned about the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, the feelings I had during and after the shooting I lived through came back immediately.
There have been hundreds of other mass shootings since that one. The physically uninjured survivors are often considered the lucky ones. And we are lucky. But that doesn’t mean that life after a shooting is easy or normal. It’s not. We have struggles and a recovery journey that can’t be seen, only felt.
Before Virginia Tech, even when a mass shooting occurred, I didn’t think much about my safety at the grocery store or at church or at a movie theater. (Then again, 11 years ago, mass shootings were less deadly.) But when a fellow student opened fire on me and my classmates, my body went into fight-or-flight mode within seconds. After hearing shots, we built a barricade to prevent the gunman from entering our classroom. Bullets went through the door, and the shooter attempted to come in, but we were able to keep him out until law enforcement arrived. At some point, the gunfire ended, but my brain kept asking: When is it safe? Are the police here yet? Is the shooter in custody? Is he dead?
This is what’s in store now for the survivors in Florida: I remained in a fight-or-flight state for months. I kept wondering: When will it be safe again? Or, really, when will I feel safe again? I thought about safety everywhere I went. I overanalyzed which seat to choose at the movies or church, based on my best escape route. My eyes scanned everyone around me, looking for unusual behavior. My ears could hear a pin drop.
The feeling of safety I’d known my whole life was stripped away in seconds, replaced with terror, sadness, loneliness and self-doubt. Figuring out how to deal with these feelings — while regaining a sense of security, without pushing everyone and everything away — has been challenging. These days, when mass shootings happen, I write about what I went through to process my emotions. It helps me heal to know that I might be helping others heal, too.
I had a tremendous fear that it would happen again. People told me about the odds, but that wasn’t much comfort: I’d already defied them. I hear way too often: “A mass shooting won’t happen to me. Not at my school, and not in my community.” That’s what I thought, too, before it happened at Virginia Tech. The truth is that it is always somebody’s school and somebody’s community, somebody’s loved ones. And there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.
I eventually regained a sense of public safety, but it took time and counseling.
When the news media covers a shooting, the reporting tends to focus on the numbers of people killed or hurt. Las Vegas concert: 58 killed and more than 500 injured. Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church: 26 killed and 20 injured. Rancho Tehama Elementary School: five killed and 18 injured. Marshall County High School: two killed and 18 injured. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: 17 killed and 15 injured. So far.
But these shootings affect more than just the families and friends who lost loved ones and the victims who were shot. I wasn’t shot, but for me, recovery didn’t start until years after the shooting. During those years, I was in denial that I needed help, because I didn’t have physical wounds or scars. This reaction is common; it feels very selfish to ask for resources when others were killed or wounded. But the truth is, we need them, too.
By now, there are thousands of physically uninjured survivors of mass shootings, as well as law enforcement officers and medics who responded to these events. These people may think for a long time that, because the media didn’t mention them, they weren’t affected. But while they may have escaped gun wounds, the mental wounds run deep. They may walk wounded for months, sometimes years, before realizing the impact the shooting had on them.
It’s a long road to recovery for everyone. When is enough enough?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated there had been 18 school shootings this year.