Reflections on Recovery from an “Uninjured” Survivor
My heart is heavy. After learning about these recent suicides, I feel like I’m not doing enough. I’m sharing my story, but maybe I’m not sharing it with the people who need my help the most. If you haven’t been impacted by a shooting, it’s natural to wonder, how did this happen? Why didn’t they seek mental health resources? The answer is not so simple.
As a physically uninjured survivor from the Virginia Tech shooting, I’m often told that I’m lucky. “Lucky” totally resonates with me. I feel lucky that I walked out of Norris Hall on April 16, 2007 unharmed. But it is important to recognize that “lucky” doesn’t correspond to an easy recovery journey.
It feels very selfish to ask for mental health resources when others were killed or wounded. But the truth is, physically uninjured survivors need help. Often, we as physically uninjured survivors, are in denial that we need resources or recognition. We have trouble raising our hands and advocating for ourselves. After trauma, it is so difficult to see clearly.
The psychological impact from mass shootings is difficult to measure. It can’t be measured quantifiably, like the number of gun shots fired. The psychological impact from mass shootings is close to impossible to see. We can’t see mental health the same way we see physical wounds and injuries. Mental health is something we feel.
For many shooting survivors, the feeling of safety in public is stripped the instant the gun shots are fired. It usually takes years to rebuild. In the interim, it is replaced with terror, sadness, loneliness and self-doubt. Survivors have to figure out how to deal with these feelings while regaining a sense of safety. We have to deal with anniversaries that evoke intense emotion and bring back traumatic memories from the tragedy. The thought of “moving forward” can be overwhelming and feel impossible.
It is common for survivors to create hierarchies of pain in their minds. Individuals who lost family members at the top, followed by physically injured survivors. We put ourselves, physically uninjured survivors, at the bottom. We start to think we don’t need resources, because others are experiencing more pain than we are. We start to think we should just suck it up and move on.
But what we need is quite the opposite. We need to feel validated that something traumatic happened to us. We need therapy dogs to pet and shoulders to cry on. We need good listeners. We need each other – fellow survivors. We need our families and friends. It requires a village to get through recovery after a traumatic event. But so often, we don’t have that village. Most people will return to their daily routines and try to forget the horrific events of the past. But we as survivors, we will never forget.
By now, there are thousands of survivors of mass shootings, parents who lost loved ones, and law enforcement officers and medics who responded to these tragic events. These people may think for a long time that they weren’t impacted by the event. But while they may have escaped physical wounds, the mental wounds run deep. They may walk wounded for months, sometimes years, before realizing the impact the shooting had on them.
The most recent and public losses of survivors in Parkland and Sandy Hook remind us all that this road is long and it takes strong support and connectedness to survive the mental injuries of tragedy and loss. Our hearts and prayers are with these victims and their families today and always.
Lisa Hamp, Virginia Tech survivor and Safe and Sound speaker