A Letter to A Survivor

From A Survivor

Right now you are in shock. You’re broken, numb, and wondering what just happened. You’re questioning everything. You’re life no longer makes sense. You are desperately trying to undo what has happened, but you know that you will never be able to undo this. You understand that your life has been forever changed. Tomorrow you will have to return to life in some capacity. You cannot comprehend how everyone else’s worlds did not just shatter like yours did. You are wondering how you will ever breathe again, let alone go back to a “normal” routine. As you lay your head down tonight, you wonder if you will ever sleep again, whether or not you will be consumed by nightmares, and if you will ever be OK again.

What you won’t hear from most people, especially those who have never survived these horrible things, is that, you’re not supposed to go back to being who you were before. Witnessing and surviving most people’s nightmares should leave you questioning everything. It is the people who are not changed by trauma that are the most unhealthy and detached. The truth is that the life you lived before you survived is no longer there. You are not the same, you will never be the same, you will never go back to the way it was before. And that is ok. It’s completely healthy, normal, and human. Embracing these truths rather than trying to live in the before, is what will allow you to heal. To finally be OK again.

After Columbine, being a senior, my classmates and I had to navigate this nightmare without any resources or connections. We were simply dismissed and ignored while the rest of the school were given everything they could ever need. Because of this, we had to learn how to survive on our own. I had to learn what was wrong with my by doing research and studying my psychology text books. I had to learn what treatments were most effective for Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or PTSD that has been compounded by additional traumas. No one knew how to help us. No one knew what to do, so they just ignored the problems and let us flounder alone. The result of that, for me, was a 5 year dissociative black-out in which I have very few memories and essentially existed without any cognitive or coherent life. Some of my classmates succumbed to addictions or resigned themselves to be barely functional for the rest of their lives. Some of my classmates founded The Rebels Project, which is a non-profit that provides those resources we never had to other survivors of mass shootings.

Right now, you don’t really care about any of that because you are in the middle of your nightmare, not 20 years removed from it. But you will care soon, the numb will wear off, and you will start to feel everything. It will feel like every thought, emotion, body sensation, is magnified exponentially, and you will again start to question everything, hope for something to change, but wonder if you will ever get out of the black cloud that surrounds you. You are now part of a community of survivors, a community that we never asked for, never wanted, but desperately need. You will need people who know exactly what you went through, people who are struggling like you, people who have healed and taken back the life that evil threatened to destroy. This is why The Rebels Project and trauma specialists exists. So that you never feel alone in this journey to reclaiming your life and healing.

This is why I wrote my book, Healing the Invisible Wounds of Trauma: A Columbine Survivor’s Story, and why I am a certified trauma specialist working in private practice. My path to healing and regaining my life was more difficult than was necessary. I do not want you or anyone else to have to suffer more, or for longer, than you already have. I want you to know that you:

  • are not crazy
  • are not alone
  • are not a monster 
  • you are completely normal
  • that you are responding exactly as you should when you survive a nightmare
  • that there is absolutely hope for the future

You can heal, you can break free and regain the life that was taken, you can be OK again.

Those of us who are part of this not so exclusive community of mass shooting survivors have been there before, or are just beginning the journey towards healing. If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. Not every treatment for PTSD works for everyone. That is OK if some things don’t work for you but work for another. We are unique, we are individuals whose response to trauma is influenced by our past, our perceptions, and our life experiences. No one will react or respond the same way, even if they were right next to you and experienced the exact same thing you did.

The most important thing you can do now, is take care of yourself. Sleep if you need to, get away if you need to, cry if you need to. It is not selfish to put your healing above other things that used to dominate your life. Reach out. Do not suffer alone or in silence. You are not alone. 20 years ago, there was nothing. Now, we know how to heal from trauma. Those of us who are both survivors and counselors have made it our mission to reach those who are suffering and who have lost hope that things will ever change. There are many people and professionals, who can help you navigate this winding and bumpy road that is healing. Your family and friends may never understand what you’re dealing with, but someone else will. There is always another person to turn to, another treatment to try, another day to live.

When you wake up tomorrow, after a long night of nightmares and exhaustion, you will be OK. Tomorrow, reach out and ask for help. Don’t wait until you’re in a dark hole before you ask for help.

When you wake up tomorrow, go outside, breathe in the light of a new day, engage every sense you have to experience the world around you. Then choose to take that hard first step to reclaiming your life and healing.

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