Today's guest post is from Amanda Duran, and never more important than now, when school shootings are becoming commonplace, and gun regulation remains unchanging. Looking at the lives these tragedies change is sobering. It's a discussion we need to have.
It's been fifteen years.
Maybe it's not a nice, round number like the tenth anniversary, and therefore perhaps not as note-worthy. But for me, it serves as a reminder that I've spent half of my life living with the echoes of gunshots in my head, echoes of taunts and threats made as I hid under a table in the back of the library, the stench of gunpowder filling my nose. Because I was fifteen at the time, a sophomore.
Fifteen years old then. I've lived a whole 'nother lifetime since that day. And yet, it still seems like yesterday that I was walking to school, singing along the way, offering my biology teacher one of my breakfast donuts before my test. It was just yesterday I was taking notes in Spanish class while watching a video. Just yesterday that I went upstairs to the library to kill time during lunch break before my appointment with a counselor. Just yesterday that I heard popping noises outside the window, other kids standing up to look and see what was going on before seeing nothing and sitting back down. Just yesterday that my art teacher, Mrs. Neilson, came running in, screaming that there was "a guy with a gun."
Just yesterday that a fifteen-year-old me witnessed things that a girl of that age, nor anybody, should ever see.
I still have the shirt I wore that day. It's a black shirt with the words "Can't sleep, clowns will eat me..." over and over in increasingly smaller print, a shirt that my brother Joe bought me from Hot Topic for Christmas a few months before. I wore it for a week straight afterwards, believe the dark shirt had helped keep them from seeing me, even though in truth I will never know whether I was spared because I was unseen, or because they saw me and recognized me as Joe's sister. For Joe was the founder of the Trenchcoat Mafia, and he knew Eric and Dylan. He had graduated the year before, and hadn't even spoken with either of them in six months. But because of them wearing trenchcoats during the shooting, my brother took a lot of flack, getting death threats and being accused of being in on the whole thing. Nor could he wear his own trenchcoat in public anymore, which upset him.
I only started seeing trenchcoats in public again within the last two years. And despite myself, I cringe every time. And that is only the least of it.
It is with hindsight that I can say this, but I can honestly say the first few years after the shooting were easier than the subsequent years. It has to do with being around people who have been through the same thing you have, who know what you're talking about, even if I never was able to talk with anybody who had been in the library. I graduated from Columbine in 2001, and suddenly, I was without that support. No one could relate to me and my experiences. I was on my own, and that was when things really started.
I'd had panic attacks starting several months after the shooting. I still have them to this day. In fact, I've never been diagnosed with PTSD proper; rather, two separate psychologists, in 2003 and 2009 respectively, have diagnosed me with panic disorder because panic attacks have been my main issue. Through the first ten years after the shooting, it was shooting-related triggers that would set them off. Popping noises, shadows on the wall, seeing the Rampart Range video on Fox News for the first time... That last one really did it. I wanted to hide under the desk in my dorm room for the next day after that. Since the tenth anniversary, however, non-shooting-related things can set me into a panic attack as well. And many times, I can't even pinpoint a specific trigger. I've had them at work, at home, in public. Would you know it if you saw me having one? Probably not. Contrary to what you may picture in your head, I don't scream and grab my head. Rather, my heart starts pounding. My body gets heavy. It gets hard to breathe. I try to think about something, anything else, which is impossible because my mind is already in panic mode. I become like a zombie. It can last five minutes or it can last an hour, but when it's over I'm utterly exhausted. After fifteen years, dealing with them is no different than how I dealt with them in the beginning; once it starts, all you can do is ride it out. It's a ride I hate taking.
There's panic attacks, and there's tremors. The tremors didn't start until four years after the shooting, in 2003. My doctor was quick to rule out MS, and it was only after an MRI of my head and an EEG test (which was negative despite my arm literally jumping when the lights started flashing) that they were determined to be PTSD-related. I still have the tremors to this day as well. They worsen with stress, and my handwriting, already bad before, is nearly illegible because of them. Aside from a brief period where I tried propranolol to control them (which didn't work, suffice to say), I can't do anything about them but just try to not be stressed.
Unfortunately, I've had a lot of stress in my life. I can't honestly tell the fifteen-year-old me that things will get better after the shooting, because they didn't. My dad had gotten sick with encephalitis five months before the shooting, and paralyzed as a result of a stroke in his spinal cord. I lost my great-aunt to cancer three months before the shooting. And soon after the shooting, I was molested for three years by a guy I thought I loved. I lost my great-grandpa in 2004. Dad in 2005. Grandpa six months later. Joe in 2007. But what truly started my decline since the tenth anniversary, I believe, was the death of my cat in late 2008. I had adopted him at eleven; he had been a constant in my life, my rock. And it was in 2008, after I moved to Colorado Springs to live with my now-husband, that I discovered he was sick with jaw cancer. I cared for him for two months before he let me know in his own way that he was ready to go. Putting him to sleep was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and that, combined with the knowledge that the upcoming tenth anniversary would draw a lot of attention from media and copycats alike, led to a mini-breakdown. And at the tenth-anniversary memorial itself, despite the crowd there marking the occasion, I felt utterly alone. It seemed like unless you were related to someone who died or were injured yourself, you didn't exist. Unless you had an inspirational story about finding God after the shooting, you didn't exist.
The years since the tenth anniversary have not been kind, either. I lost my grandma in 2012 after her fourth battle with cancer, and seven months ago, I was fired from a job that I had held since a year after the shooting, another sort of rock. Losing a job must be traumatic for a normal person; for someone with mostly-untreated PTSD like me, combined with everything that has happened since the shooting, combined with knowing that people at my job knew I had untreated PTSD, it was a death blow. I freely admit that I was suicidal after my firing; I had a mental breakdown five days later, threatening to cut myself because I had felt like karma was punishing me for surviving the shooting; everyone within ten feet of me had been shot, after all. Why else would so many bad things have happened to me? Why had I survived? Why did I have to fight so hard for my "happy ending"?
Seven months after my firing from that job, I am at another job that I am about to lose, not because of anything I did, but because the store is in liquidation. It feels like another cruel blow, but I am doing my best to keep a smile on my face and be hopeful.
You may ask, why haven't you gone to see anybody? Why haven't you been treated? Because mental health care is expensive. It was covered when I had insurance at my first job; it was how I was able to get a script for Klonopin for my panic attacks, which stopped them in their tracks but which I have been unable to refill because I no longer have insurance or that first job. And because I no longer have insurance, I couldn't go see anybody when I had my breakdown. In fact, I'm relatively certain I would have been put on a psychiatric hold if I had, which is another expense I can't afford. The cost of treatment is a major barrier, and not just for me, but for anybody who's been through traumatic events. If there's a place that offers free mental health care, I sure don't know of it.
My mind is tired from the journey of the past fifteen years. Sometimes it still feels like I'm being punished for surviving. But I keep on fighting, because I have no other choice. I keep forcing a smile, hoping that happy ending is right around the corner.