“The media loved the shot of us praying with candles in our hands, crying. Within days they moved on from us young, broken people and neglected to cover the real tragedy. The tragedy that exists in the quiet moments that last for years to come. No one bothered to cover the trauma that plagues the victims of mass shootings.”
I remember the sweeping shots the news took of our students at the candlelight vigil we held the night our campus experienced one of those “mass shootings” that are all over the news right now. The university I work at is just another number in a string of all too common incidences. It was random. The young man who killed our student did not know our university, or the students, or the professors – he never attended. We felt safe and happy for the most part as a community but it only took a few moments to plant the belief that no place will ever be safe again.
I was proud to receive my job at the university. At 24 yeard old, the biggest feather in my cap was to have my own office with walls, windows and a door. I remember waiting eagerly every day for my business cards to arrive. I bounced into work every morning – joyous. The weather was gorgeous that day. I was three weeks into the position and feeling more confident than ever.
I remember clearly the minute I knew something was wrong. I recall hearing screaming a couple of seconds earlier, but students were always screaming to each other. My office shook slightly as my coworker ran down the hall. I thought she was late for something until I heard her that shout we were going into lock down. I was confused. I hadn’t gotten the memo we were doing a drill. I popped out of my office to ask about the procedure. Was it common to have surprise drills? And then I saw their faces.
My coworkers began to run in every direction. I ran straight for the door – I needed to get my students inside. Our administrative assistant grabbed me and told me not to go, so I ran back to my office, threw my windows open and began screaming to students.
It’s not a drill! Get inside! Now! Leave your stuff!
It is funny how so much can happen in a few seconds. All my coworkers ran into one office to wait together. I didn’t realise so I slammed my door shut and hid under a table. It was incredibly quiet and I was all alone. Then there was a gust of wind – I heard helicopters and sirens. The noise was deafening. It was the only sound I heard for four hours until we were released. The gunman never made it to my building and I barely got a glimpse of the ambulances, one of which carried away our dead student.
My trauma started the minute I tried to sleep. I was staying close to campus and the helicopters hovered around us all night. I didn’t sleep then – or for several nights after that day. My building is the first one that people see when they enter campus. I couldn’t stop thinking about how close we came to this young man walking into our building. If he hadn’t turned and went for the fringe building my mom would have heard a very different voice on the phone once the lockdown was over.
The next morning I walked back into work. I had a responsibility to be available to my students. As I approached my office door my breathing became labored. My office, my crowning achievement, had suddenly become my own hell.
I could still hear the screaming and the sirens.
I stepped inside and a wave of loneliness and shame met me there. I felt shame over the fact that I was supposed to have kept our students safe – and I had failed. I developed a slight shaking for several weeks after. It got worse when I had to work in my office. I couldn’t sleep. When I did I dreamed of helicopters and blood.
The mandatory counseling did very little. I got into fights with my friends as they said horribly insensitive things about shootings not being a gun problem, which led me to cut them out of my life for good. The shooting made me lonely and that drove me further into loneliness. After several months the nightmares stopped. I still jumped at sirens but it was manageable.
We started to go back to normal.
Until there was another shooting.
We cried because we knew what they were going through. It hurt us and the healing process had to start over. And it did. Until the next one. And then the next one. And then the next one after that. I think most of us are still waiting to be ok. We were still waiting last week while our coworker read us the news about the Oregon shooting just several hours south. I went home and cried that night.
There was a time I was proud to get a job at a university. That was before I knew I was accepting a job in a war zone.
Now there are some days where the last thing I want to do is go back.