Life in general is full of ups and downs. Some are bumps that challenge your day, some are peaks you work hard to reach and celebrate fully. Every so often we hit a deep valley that paralyzes you leaves you wondering when you’ll ever see the sun again. How can life ever get back to the way it was?
I’m certainly not a psychiatrist. These are my own personal experiences of overcoming the trauma from Columbine High School in 1999. It’s been a long road, and I continue to learn so much about myself from it. It’s my hope that in sharing my experience, I can help someone who is stuck in their own personal darkness to see that there is hope. You will come out the other side and perhaps one day, you’ll even develop an appreciation for the experience that left you there.
In the beginning
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, my body became so overwhelmed and confused by emotion that it was as if I was incapable of feeling anything. There was so much sadness and fear and pain, that my body literally shut down. At night, I refused to go to the bathroom because I could feel people standing behind me with guns and I was certain if I opened my eyes, they would shoot me. Food was flavorless; nauseating really. It was just existence, not life.
It’s similar to that feeling you get when you stare off into space and the world around you goes quiet. I wasn’t really looking at anything, but my entire focus was one small point of absolutely no significance. I walked through life somewhat normally. I created “scripts” in my mind so I could easily tell people what happened to me without feeling any emotion about it. I could accept the most heartfelt sympathy without breaking down. The wall was built.
Over time, somehow inadvertently, I was able to allow a few emotions to seep back in. It started when I wasn’t paying attention with something small like a delicious meal that was genuinely satisfying or even a half smile while watching something funny on TV. The moment I realized I was doing it, I would instinctively snap back into the flat emotionless zone. Not because I didn’t want to feel happiness, but rather because I was afraid that by feeling something, all that hurt and pain would overwhelm me again. It took a long time before I felt strong enough to allow any emotion at all.
With time, the memories fade and the fear weakens. It doesn’t all get better at once. When I look back at high school, I really do not have any memories. I know who I was friends with, but my brain has literally blocked out an entire 2-3 years of my life. It wasn’t until I met my (now) husband that I started to feel happiness again, and I can look back and have normal memories. He truly is my savior, in every way.
18 Years Later
I am at a point now, 18 years later, that I can genuinely look back at my experience and see the bigger picture. That said, I do still struggle with the wall I built. At times I have to remind myself to feel. I can be in Disney World and I have to actually remind myself, “you’re having a great time, take down the wall and enjoy this.” I am immeasurably fearful for my children. I can’t keep them inside my wall, and I try my hardest to not let my anxiety and fear control or affect their lives. It’s HARD, but I refuse to inhibit their ability to enjoy life with my own insecurities.
There are days where I can go without giving April 20th a second thought, and there are days where it seems like it was just yesterday. The good news is that those days are fewer and farther between. When they happen now, I try my best to remember those who lost their lives and pay my respects to all the innocence that was lost that day.
As I sit here today, I wouldn’t change that day if I could. I would give life back to those who lost it and obviously would never wish this experience on anyone, but that day made me who I am today. I don’t know myself without that giant scar. I like to think that I’m more compassionate and hope that by continuing to share my story that I can help others.