Tag: survivor

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.

Battle Weary and Victorious

War, the unmistakable and continuous fight for your very existence, for your heart, mind, and soul.When everything in your world is so far outside the norm, outside of your control, and the enemy is using everything in your life, loved ones, work, your pets, to attack you at every angle, you live in chaos. If you are lucky, you experience moments of chaos that eventually resolve and you can move forward in life with new knowledge, resilience, and perspectives that will help you succeed. However, for many people, chaos is not an unusual experience, but the definition of their existence. For some people, the battle never ends. It seems as if no matter what you do, no matter where you are in your life, things are always falling apart and you are always fighting to stay afloat.

For whatever reason, I seem to live on the battlefield. There is always something, usually many somethings that are passionately seeking to destroy my heart, my soul, my mind, and sometimes my very life. Living in this state is beyond exhausting. I am a fighter but there are many times in my life where I can’t fight anymore. Where I am so beaten and broken that I can barely breathe, let alone pray for relief. Most days I’m on my face crying pools of tears and can’t even muster the strength to speak. These moments try to draw me into the darkness in which I’ve lived a lot of my life, seeking to drown me. And to be honest, most of the time, there is a period where these things win. Where I can’t find a hint of the light, where hopelessness for change reigns more than the knowledge of God and His purpose and His love.

Fortunately God is aware. His word says He is not blind to our tears and that he counts them and keeps them in a jar (the psalms are full of this truth). Sometimes this knowledge is the one thing that keeps me going forward. Because when no one else sees or cares about the pain I live with, God does and He will ultimately redeem my anguish. This is really the only thing that can break through the despair and give me enough hope to keep fighting one more day.

Ultimately, God is king, He is the creator, the Redeemer, the Comforter and the Healer. In an existence that seems harder and more excruciatingly painful than it needs to be, knowing the One who can heal, redeem, and comfort is counting and holding your tears, silences the chaos within.

I don’t know how to stop the pain, the disappointment, the trauma, from coming, but I do know how to keep my head above water. The answer is, I can’t by myself. In my own power and strength and I would have given up a very long time ago. But my deep and profound knowledge of God and who He wants to be for me, through the power of the Holy Spirit in me, I can wake up another day, I can keep going. Often I am going on full autopilot where I have to stop thinking in order to just do what I need to do, but I’m still going. Even when my heart, my soul and my mind scream out that I am done with everything, God speaks a little louder than the chaos to say “not yet, I have more for you. Hang on my child, there is something better.”

How I wish I could remember these truths and experience Christ’s love and peace in a tangible way, but that is rarely the case. My default is to drown in the darkness until He lifts me up and helps me see the light. I long for the moment when I can experience the pain and destruction that comes at me and immediately fight back the right way and not get overwhelmed. But I am not there yet. I long for the days when I can give myself grace in these moments but due to the nature of these attacks which reinforce the lie that I’m worthless, I’m not there yet. I often beat myself up for not being the right way, adding to what is already beating me up, and that makes me angry at myself again. But I know the truth and I do the hard work required to deal with what is trying to destroy me. And I know, no matter what, the battle ends in victory even if I can’t wield the sword. My God is fighting for me, His warring angels are deep in an intense battle for my soul even when I can’t breathe. Because of this, I can find the strength to get up, to mumble His name, to cry tears to Him and to rest in His hands.

Trauma Magnified

When you experience something horrible, something that leaves you scarred and broken, you think, this is it. You believe, naively, that this is going to be the only thing that you will have to overcome, the only thing that you will have to endure. For some this is true, and they are infinitely fortunate that their tragedy, their trauma has only one ending. But for so many of us, the trauma doesn’t stop. There are many additional traumas in our lives that we continually have to endure, to survive. That’s the part that is hard to understand. Why do we have to survive more than one horrific event, why can’t we have a break from all the pain and suffering just for a minute? I am a survivor of the Columbine High School massacre. You would think that’s enough, but it wasn’t. I’ve also been violently attacked at a train station, where my life was in imminent danger. Then I was woken in the middle of the night by my husband screaming that our house was on fire. In the 30 seconds that his alarm allowed me to get our infant son and all of us get downstairs, our lives could have all ended. Because after that 30 seconds, the fire broke through the patio door of our bedroom and filled the room with incapacitating smoke. If my husband hadn’t woken up and seen the fire, we would have not survived. Once our home was put out and we were all safe, I recognized the familiar PTSD symptoms inching their way into my consciousness again. I had fought like hell to heal and to survive after the shootings, and I hoped I would never have to experience the numbing, the flashbacks, the nightmares ever again…but PTSD never goes away. You can control the symptoms, but when you experience another life threatening trauma, those symptoms are right there to incapacitate you again. That’s the thing with trauma. One is bad enough, but even after you heal and move forward in life, that trauma response has laid a foundation in your conscious. Afterwards, you see everything differently, you respond differently, you exist differently. Any trauma after the initial one becomes trauma on steroids…trauma magnified. The magnification of additional traumas afterwards also leads to the magnification of those PTSD symptoms. What this means is that once you’ve experienced trauma, after you’ve fought through hell to reclaim some type of normal existence where you’re more than just surviving, you’re never truly free from the consequences. This is something that is really hard to accept. I really want to be free, to be mentally healthy, to remove the scars of all the horrible things I’ve survived in my life. But they are scars for a reason. They leave a permanent mark on our consciousness and our mind. You have to accept that this is normal and that you are not crazy when those scars begin to show again. When trauma becomes magnified, again, you have to fight back, again. It’s exhausting and it feels impossibly unfair that you have to do this all over again, but you survived once, you will survive again.


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