As the Columbine community comes together to help folks who’ve been through recent violence, we’ve been posting on FB and sharing our experiences with PTSD. I wrote this at the time of the Virginia Tech shootings and posted it on my now defunct blog at Blog-city. I am reposting for those who might need it now.
Virginia Tech 4/17/07
First, I would like to thank everyone who has left messages here or sent emails to me privately. Your kindness is greatly appreciated.
Obviously, right now, my heart and soul are with the students, faculty, and community at Virginia Tech. A friend actually had a neighbor say to her, “Well, look at it this way; at least we’re not the worst anymore.” Talk about cold comfort. I wish to God we’d kept that status. I wish I knew how to keep anyone from ever going through it again.
I also always feel like I want to go to places where this happens. I’ve said before and will say again, the one thing I really wished when it was us was that I could talk to someone else who’d been through it, just so that I could see that someone else had made it. Each time it happens, I ask myself, now that I am here in the journey, what would I tell someone who has just been thrust upon the path?
Here is what I would say now, with the eighth anniversary three days away. If anyone reading this knows anyone at Virginia Tech, please feel free to pass this forward:
This is about what happens to you as an individual who has gone through this experience. The person you were on April 15th is gone. It’s not entirely unlike having your house and everything in it burn to the ground. At first, you sit on the curb, watching the flames engulf everything, and you are in shock. You can’t tear your eyes away, though the smoke burns and the devastation is—well—devastating. That’s the first year. All you know is that everything you ever were and everything you ever believed is gone, and you can’t get off the curb and figure out what to do. People hand you coffee, and you drink it. They hand you a sandwich, and you eat it. They put a blanket on you, and sometimes you are aware that you are warmer, but more often you are too numb to notice.
When the embers have cooled, you get up and sift through the ashes, picking up anything remotely salvageable. In your life, you try to reconnect with the people you love, go deep for the bits and pieces of yourself that are intact, or maybe only singed at the edges. That’s the second year.
The third year, it’s time to rebuild yourself. You take what others will give (and many will be generous); you will also have to work for your own materials. Friends and family will help you frame the new house, but most of the work has to come from you. Every now and then, you’ll stop so that you can admire the work of those who went through it with you on their own structures. You’ll lend a hand where you can. Finally, the house is finished.
Year four, you start to fill it with new furniture, dishes, personal touches. You will find places of honor for the things you salvaged from the ashes. It is a house. It shelters you from the cold, but it doesn’t feel like home. You will realize that you are walking around in the body of a stranger—another person, whole and functional, you just don’t know her very well.
More years go by, and you begin to realize something. You’re no longer eating from the “new dishes.” They have developed a few cracks and chips from countless dinners with friends, Passovers or Christmases, Thanksgivings. You don’t sit on the “new furniture.” You flop down on the couch, get up again to search for the remote under the cushions, and encounter a handful of change and some stale peanuts. You can walk every stair and avoid every piece of furniture in the dark. This is not the “new house.” This is home. The “new you” is not a stranger, she is you.
You never forget the old you, just as you never forget the old house. You’ll always miss the things you lost, but you will also find new things to cherish. I imagine that a person who has lost his house in a fire still has strong reactions to flame, just as I can have some rather nasty repercussions from threatening situations, but for the most part, you settle into yourself. It’s a very long row to hoe, and there are times when it’s so tempting to give up. When you’re looking at smoking embers, you can’t begin to imagine that blessed handful of change and peanuts under the cushions of a couch you can’t conceive of, but the future is there. I swear it.
Right now, though, I know the people at Virginia Tech are sitting on the curb. In a few weeks, the country is going to start talking about “healing” and “rebuilding.” The people involved are going to try, God love them. They’re going to drink the coffee and eat the sandwiches and tell themselves that they’ll get up and start sifting through the ashes tomorrow. They’ll even make those first few abortive attempts, but it’s so overwhelming and so damned depressing. I would say to the folks at Virginia Tech, it’s okay. The ashes aren’t going anywhere. Don’t let anyone else tell you that you have to start building that new house today. You’ll know when it’s time, and there will be people there to help you. In the meantime, if I could, I’d be the one there to put the blanket over your shoulders, and I would understand if you were too numb to notice.