A School Shooting Survivor’s Story: Lessons Learned
October 14, 2016
October 14, 2016
Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Lisa Hamp ~
Trauma occurs in a variety of forms and to varying degrees. It has a lasting effect on those who experience it. For a long time, I underestimated the effect that trauma had on me.
On April 16, 2007, two weeks after my 21st birthday, I was sitting in class at Virginia Tech when I heard an unfamiliar popping sound. It sounded like gunshots, but I was confused as to why there would be gunshots inside the building. Part of me deep down knew something wasn’t right and that something might be terribly wrong.
Thankfully, several of my quick-responding classmates inquired about the gunshot noise, a few braved the hallways to confirm there was a shooter, and another had the idea to build a barricade with desks and chairs to prevent the shooter from entering our classroom. In just a few seconds, the gunman firing those gunshots was headed for our classroom. During the next twelve minutes, I laid on the floor pushing the desks and chairs against the door while the shooter shot at our door and tried to push it open. Fortunately, our barricade held and the shooter was unable to enter our classroom. Unfortunately, he entered the other four classrooms, killing 30 and injuring 17 students and professors.
When law enforcement arrived and knocked on our classroom door, we didn’t let them in. We were scared and unsure. Approximately thirty minutes later, with greater confidence that the police were who they said they were, we let them in. I hadn’t prepared myself for the tragedy, the horror, and the catastrophe that was all too visible outside my classroom door. I had survived the shooting, and law enforcement came to escort us to a secure location. As I was escorted out of the building, I thought, this has got to be a really bad nightmare.
The days that followed were filled with flowers, candlelight vigils, phone calls and messages from family and friends, and an outpouring of prayers from around the nation. The nights were filled with tears and nightmares. Friends and family told me that I was strong, poised, relaxed, and composed. In my mind, I was anxious, vulnerable, scared, and lonely. How could I tell my friends and family about my feelings of vulnerability when they were complimenting me about my strength? I wanted them to think highly of me. I fooled my family and friends at the cost of my mental health.
In order to push the anxiety and sadness away, I stopped feeling. To stopping feeling means I stopped feeling the “bad” feelings as well as the “good” ones. It is no way to live. I began obsessing about food and exercise. I thought that if I just lost weight, then life would be much better. I created a new problem so that I didn’t have to deal with the trauma that I had experienced.
At the time, I didn’t think my feelings of anxiety and vulnerability were justified. Professors and classmates had died, others were physically injured, and many watched their classmates die next to them. Mothers and fathers lost their children, and brothers and sisters lost their siblings. I didn’t lose a classmate, and I wasn’t physically harmed. I created an imaginary totem pole based on one’s closeness to the shooting and put myself and my feelings at the bottom. I’ve since learned that I’m entitled to my own feelings, regardless of how close to the shooting I was. I didn’t have to be shot to be injured. There is no totem pole of trauma, and there is no good in comparing my experience to others.
I stopped being present because for twelve minutes being present really sucked. I constantly felt vulnerable because for twelve minutes I was really vulnerable. I felt lonely because I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t share my feelings with others because I couldn’t find anyone who understood what I experienced. Trauma creates a wall between you and anyone who didn’t experience the event with you. I want to tell all survivors of school shootings and other traumatic experiences that these feelings are normal! Don’t push the feelings away because they are telling you something really important – you just have to listen to those feelings to find out what that something important is! I wish someone had told me that nine years ago.
It took me years to admit that I had a problem. I went to counseling a week after the event, the summer after the event, and eight years after the event. It took me three counselors until I found one that worked for me. “I don’t think people understand how stressful it is to explain what’s going on in your head when you don’t understand it yourself” (Instagram @veteranswithptsd). I had to realize that my eating disorder developed gradually over eight years and therefore, it wasn’t going away after one session of counseling. Recovery is not a linear process. There will be setbacks along the way. It takes consistent work, but it is so worth it!
Today, writing and presenting about my personal experience helps me continue in my recovery. I share my story so that I can encourage others who have experienced trauma and may be having similar feelings. Mental health illnesses are nothing to be ashamed about. Seeking counseling isn’t for the weak, but for the brave. The shooting lasted from 9:40 AM to 9:52 AM on April 16, 2007. While 9:52 AM marked the end of the shooting, it was just the beginning of a long recovery.
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Lisa Hamp is a survivor of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. Lisa has dedicated herself to sharing her personal experience so that she can encourage others who have experienced trauma and may be having similar feelings. Learn more about Lisa and the work she is doing by visiting her website www.lisahamp.com.