Three months after the shooting, we had to move to Washington, D.C. for my husband’s job. We didn’t know it when we signed the lease on our beautiful 1800s house on a historic street in a historic town that the war had never ended in this part of America.
Every week, without exception, we could hear gunshots from our back porch, violence playing out across the railroad tracks a few blocks away. Sirens were commonplace. I shrunk into myself. I became anxiety itself. I miscarried again and again. I rarely left home. When I did, I obsessively checked the locks on my car doors because I was so terrified of being hijacked like the woman in the bank drive-through in Denver. I skirted strangers on the streets, was startled into a panic when panhandlers would knock on our car doors at stop-lights.
Meanwhile, I was under the impression that my friends back in Denver who’d also witnessed the shooting were fine and well-adjusted. I felt guilty for how I carried my fear with me. I felt ashamed of not being able to regulate as quickly as they seemed to. I felt angry at my body, my mind, and my limited capacity for believing the best about others as I once had. I had gone through life completely unafraid before and now, the sound of a car door shutting unexpectedly could send a rush of adrenaline through my body, filling me with enough cortisol to flee or fight something that didn’t exist.
Our bodies aren’t meant to feel those surges of cortisol on a regular basis. They were made to feel it to escape real threats like lions and tigers, but not the car door across the street or the fireworks on the Fourth of July or the gunshot on a movie or the sound a ceramic plate makes when it slips from your hands and falls to the floor. My body would involuntarily go into fight or flight or freeze multiple times a day, rendering it incapable of doing what a body is meant to do during the day. Mainly to just live.
I replayed the shooting in vivid detail again and again every single day. Its images would rise, unbidden every time there was a loud noise, every time there was a siren, every time I came to a stop in my car in a populated place.
There is a West Wing episode where Josh, the Deputy Chief of Staff, is reckoning with having been shot and the aftereffects of it on his mind. It’s a Christmas episode, so there are carolers and jazz ensembles and a pack of bagpipers circulating in the lobby of the White House all week, something different every day. And Josh is losing his mind during it. He can’t think straight. He loses his train of thought. He feels a buzzing inside of him, pulsing constantly, he can’t do his work, he cuts his hand badly and won’t say why, he yells at everyone around him, and his job is at risk.
During the episode (which is one of my favorites), he sees a therapist specially trained for working with those who have the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the therapist helps him to really understand why these loud noises in the lobby are so triggering for him.
Afterwards he has a conversation with Leo, the Chief of Staff, who says,
“How’d it go?”
“He thinks I may have an eating disorder, and, uh, fear of rectangles. That’s not weird is it?” Josh replies.
“Josh.” Leo won’t break eye-contact.
Then there’s this ten second pause where they just stare at each other.
And then Josh says,“I didn’t cut my hand on a glass. I broke a window in my apartment.”
And then Leo says (and this makes me cry every time), “This guy’s walking down a street and he falls in a hole. The hole is so deep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you! Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. And our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!’ And the friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”
Leo continues on, “As long as I got a job, you got a job. You understand?”
Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh, won an Emmy for that episode.
I watched this episode about seven months after the shooting I witnessed and something clicked into place for me: First, as long as I was denying that this had affected me like it had, I wasn’t going to heal. And second, healing was probably going to take a long, long time.
Both were true. It’s now almost eight years later and loud noises no longer trigger me regularly, and when they do, I have learned breathing techniques and mindfulness practices that slow my heart rate and keep me from spiraling into visualizations. Sirens no longer bring to mind the image of the shooting every time I hear them. I never lock my car doors when I’m driving anymore. Why? Because I had the luxury of therapy, counseling, EMDR, and time to feel safe and secure again. It doesn’t matter that my friends experienced the aftermath of that shooting differently than I did. The specific cocktail of my story, my body, and my perspective meant that I needed a specific kind of help. And I was able to get it. And I’ll probably need more of it in the future. Violence changes us from the inside out.
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This is the third installation in a long form piece I wrote about the effects gun violence. The gun violence I was witness to was not a school shooting, and yet it irrevocably informed and reformed my views on guns, gun violence, racial conflict, the real risks of policing, gentrification, assault rifles, and gun ownership. I am telling you my story, but here is another story:
“As of late March, the Gun Violence Archive has counted 130 mass shootings in the United States this year.”
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Originally published in A Curious Faith: https://bakerbookhouse.com/products/412570
Thank you for sharing your story. I'm so sorry you have gone through these traumas and losses.
Thank you Lore for sharing your experience and how its trauma impacted you. I can relate to the anxiety that happens and stays with the body, sometimes for years. Although my experience was related to spiritual abuse, I am learning that the body doesn't lie and we need to pay attention. Healing is gradual and the time is worth exploring all the nooks and crannies of our fears and anxieties, even those triggered by childhood experiences. God is good and compassionate. He is our Handler, the One who knows the depths of rejection, pain, and sorrow. I am so thankful we are in good hands and that He meets us in the deep places where we need to be healed and released. I read your latest book and am grateful it is in the world. The story you shared here just reminds me that God uses everything in our life to birth new things of beauty. Thank you for writing and sharing with others.