No one wakes up one morning expecting that their life will forever be changed. Each day is another day of expectation and hope that things will turn out alright, that this day will bring a sense of peace and comfort in this life. No one expects that their life is going to be turned upside down, that something no one thought was possible is going to happen to them or around them today. That’s the chaos of trauma, it’s sudden, unexpected and violent. Even when the trauma suffered is a continuous and daily, such as in the case of abuse or being in a war zone, there is a part of you that hopes and believes that it will be different today. In a world where trauma, terror and pain is on a constant reel on the nightly news, you begin to be desensitized to all the violence in the world. Still, there is a part of you that believes that those things happen to other people, not to you, and not to your loved ones. That’s how it was for me. I was raised to believe that evil exists, that there are people who do horrible things simply because they want to. There were multiple events in my life growing up that validated this knowledge of the nature of humanity, and I began to look for and try to find the answers for how to survive in this world. I wanted to understand so I could keep my head above the water. For a long time prior to the event that changed the course of my life, I had already experienced trauma and pain. I was suffering in a way that no one could truly see or understand. I was the rebel, the loner, the one who always seemed to mess everything up. No one really knew and I believed no one could understand the pain I was experiencing. I believed the lie that if I told someone what was going on in my head they would commit me to an institution, deeming me incurable for life. This was all before the traumatic event that terrorized and debilitated my life. One of the greatest lies the enemy perpetuates in someone’s life  is that there is no hope, no help, no healing. We are told that there is no one who will understand, that we are all alone in dealing with the pain, and that if we tell anyone, horrible things will happen to us or our loved ones. These are the same tactics used by predators to silence their victims, and believe those lies is incredibly effective at silencing someone. The silence of trauma and of the ongoing suffering following the trauma needs to be shattered. We need to believe that we are not alone, and that we do not need to hide and keep secret the torment going on in our lives.

Not much was different the morning of April 20, 1999. I woke up hating myself and hating the world, and expecting another day of severe bullying, pain, and isolation. I definitely didn’t expect that day to be both the final straw in the trauma of my life that would push me over the edge to dissociation and chaos and the catalyst to change the course of my life. Truth is, I never expected much of anything to break the daily monotony and torment. Although the memories of my past were scattered and incomplete, they haunted my life. Even in that place, I had managed to create a pseudo-safe reality where I could try and keep the pieces together, where I could feel safe. In one moment, the small amount of safety that I felt, was ripped from beneath me. I was breathless, devastated, and shattered. The next five years are completely gone, a vague awareness of reality that never really materialized. I had jobs, met people, and did things I have no memory of. I was barely existing in this life. Then one day, I just decided that enough was enough, that I was tired of barely surviving and that if I wanted anything different in this life, I was going have to start living my life. I had been slowly self-destructing for years, and I just woke up one day and realized that I wanted more than the destructive life I was living. All of the experiences in my life had destroyed my sense of safety, of self-worth, and distorted my reality in such a way that I couldn’t realize that the things I felt and thought about my life and of others in my life were furthering the destruction. The truth about trauma is that even if people experience the same event or suffer from a childhood of abuse and torment, no two people will have the same reaction to that trauma. Our minds were created with the amazing ability to protect themselves from destruction. People’s experiences before trauma and the patterns of beliefs and behaviors that develop in response to the traumatic events are unique to that person. This is part of the reason why no one really knows the best way to help someone who has been through hell. Because we are all individuals with unique abilities to learn and experience life, we must speak up for ourselves and tell others what we need in order to heal.

In order to heal from a painful and horrific past, you have to have the courage to ask for help. For me, I had been the person who actively sought help from the beginning, before I even knew what was going on with me. I trusted that professionals would accurately and carefully evaluate what was happening in my world and give me the help that I needed. What I quickly found out is that there are many people who claim to be professionals who will ignore everything you say because it’s easier to label you with a destructive and sometimes permanent diagnosis than it is to truly uncover the cause of the distress. During those five years after the shootings, I sought help from dozens of “professionals,” none of which were willing to look past the easy answer and tackle the difficulty that is dealing with severe and persistent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had all but given up at that point. I was overly medicated with drugs that did nothing to alleviate the symptoms I was experiencing, and did nothing to treat the true cause of my psychological symptoms. However, once I woke up and decided that enough was enough and I wanted to live my life healthy and whole, I had to acknowledge that I couldn’t heal on my own. The damage of my past was too devastating to allow me to figure it out alone. This meant trying once again to find someone who would help me and not just slap me with some destructive and permanent label, someone who cared enough to help. Through everything I experienced, I never lost faith that God was real and that He was somehow involved in what was going on. I was terrified to be stuck in the trauma cycle of psychological and emotional distress, so I began praying for someone to help me. Fortunately, God already had those plans in motion, I just had no idea how those plans were going to play out. The counselor God had lined up to help me through this trauma was someone I had met 10 years before. I had babysat for this woman’s children many years before, and God brought me right to her. God had already known what I was going to need to recover from the evil perpetrated on me, and began putting things in place years before I needed it.

When I began dealing with the effects of the shooting on my life, it started to come to light how many other things had happened in my life and that the effects of those traumas were exaggerated by the shootings. I knew that I was barely holding on to the broken pieces of my life, but I was just beginning to be able to put names and understanding behind what I was suffering through. I was absolutely terrified of everything. Throughout my past and the things I had experienced, I had lost the ability to trust anyone except myself. I deeply believed that this world was horrifically dangerous and that I was in someone’s cross hairs every minute. I couldn’t sleep and I forced myself to get through each day, just waiting until I could retreat to the “safety” of my home. I realized that even though the shootings were the catalyst to the free fall into darkness in my life, the other things I experienced had left permanent marks in my mind as well. This distorted how I viewed the world, how I viewed myself, and how I viewed God. I realized that every relationship in my life, every self-destructive behavior, every overwhelming fear response to benign situations, was all the result of the compounding trauma. Realizing this gave me an opportunity for true healing, complete healing, rather than just trying to alleviate the symptoms that were disabling me. So often, we try to deal with the immediate issue, the most recent trauma, and ignore the effects of cumulative trauma, those other things that compound the negative effects trauma has on our lives. What I quickly learned is that since everything in my mind was so intricately entwined, I had a choice, I could deal with my past as a whole or settle for partial healing. I chose to dive in head first. If it was going to be painful and if it was going to hurt to deal with the shootings, I might as well deal with everything so I could finally feel complete.

16 years later, I am mostly free and healed from the pain of my past. I have realized that the life I had, and the life I had hoped for as a child was not possible to recover. I could never go back and undo what was done to me, what I experienced. I had to redefine and learn how to thrive in the new normal. The lingering effects that are the constant battle in my life are the negative thoughts and beliefs about myself and others that were created and cultivated through years of pain and trauma. The difference is that now, I am aware of those things and can actively work to heal those parts of my life when the come up. I am no longer blind to why I think and believe the way that I do, no longer unsure of where the pain and continuing struggles come from. Before the shootings, I was wandering in pain, just hoping that one day it would all end. For the first few years after the shootings, I was the same way, just on a massive destructive scale. However, if it was not for the shootings, my determination to get whole again, and the grace of God as I struggled and failed spectacularly in my attempt to live life the way I wanted to, I would never have been able to be the person that I am today. The shootings were the beginning of the end to my barely surviving this life and finally embracing myself, all the brokenness and the pieces of my shattered existence, and beginning to live and understand the new normal that is my life now.

I wish that no one would ever have to experience the pain of severe trauma and hurt, but I have a new understanding of the role those terrible experiences play in my life. Surviving hell has allowed me to find strength in a way that I never knew I was capable of. It allowed me to be able to help people in a way that is intimately entwined in who I was created to be. I was always meant to help others, to be the  light in the darkness, and to speak truth and justice in every aspect of life. I would have been able to accomplish that without the trauma and pain in my past, but I don’t believe I would be as effective and capable of fulfilling this calling, if I hadn’t experienced pain and tragedy in my own life. I never wanted to experience so much pain in my life, never really knew what this world was capable of producing in other people, but every tear that has been cried, every painful spasm in my body, and every broken heart and broken piece in my life, God has cataloged and seen, and they will not go unused or unhealed. This is the true story of healing and redemption. This world is desperately broken and there are millions of people who are experiencing trauma and horrific acts of abuse and devastation in their lives every day. This world does not offer true hope, there is very little in this world that says that you can be free, that you can recover from what has happened. People are desperate for the truth, they are desperate for one moment of relief from the overwhelming pain they are experiencing. Those of us that have been through trauma, that have witnessed and experienced true evil, and have been able to heal and regain a sense of normalcy and peace in our lives, have a responsibility to speak hope and truth for the people who are still in the middle of their destruction, their devastation. There is peace and tranquility in the middle of the chaos of life, there is hope for true healing and restoration of your life in Christ Jesus. He is the healer and the redeemer and He has already defeated the enemy that desperately wants us to believe that there is no hope! The reality of the sacrifice and mercy of Christ is that we never walk through suffering alone. I know this to be true, to be reality. Had it not been for the tangible presence of Christ in my life as I went through the deep darkness of trauma, I would not have made it out alive. I was on a path that would have inevitably led to my destruction, but God kept me from the more severe consequences I could have endured, had He not been guiding my life. I would not have been able to hold onto the truth that there is something beyond this pain, if I didn’t know and believe that God is who He says He is. This world was not created to be devastated and broken, but it is. The only way to find your way through the broken pieces and painful black of night, is to cling to the true light, the only thing that makes sense in this life. I cannot begin to understand why horrible things are allowed to happen, but I do know that no matter what, those events and circumstances are not ignored, they are not glossed over with God. He has a purpose for both good and bad for each and every one of us. Healing from your past allows you to find that meaning and purpose in a profound way that you may never have fully experienced without the trauma. Those of us who have experienced trauma are not alone, we are connected in a way that no one wants, but we have to live with. There is hope, there is healing, there is restoration no matter where you are in your journey to healing. Some may just be thinking about taking the step towards healing, others have been on this journey for a long time. No matter where you are, the journey will get easier, you can thrive in this life, not just survive.