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Student Voices: Survivor’s guilt is real

On Wednesday, January 22 2020, at about 5 pm, there was a shooting on 3rd and Pike, in front of the McDonald’s which has affectionately become known as “McStabby’s” because of the elevated number of crimes that take place in the area. 

At about 4:55 pm, I stepped off of the light rail at Westlake and headed toward the exit, the one right next to McStabby’s. I remember tucking my hair underneath my hood just as I was getting off that last escalator because it was drizzling and I didn’t want my hair to get frizzy. I remember seeing a guy bending down over a backpack to retrieve something – he stood out to me because he was wearing shorts and I thought of how cold he must’ve felt. 

When I reached the corner of McDonald’s, I picked up my pace; the crosswalk light to head towards the Macy’s building was in its last seconds. And then, literally just a second or two after reaching the other side, there were pops. Loud ones. In rapid succession. I remember that it registered in my mind that people were sprinting past me but that they were over reacting. It was fireworks. Or course it was. It didn’t make sense for there to be anything else making this sound in the middle of a crowded area in the heart of downtown. My brain just knew it was definitely fireworks. I stopped moving and looked behind me, toward the McDonald’s that I had just passed. Would it surprise anyone to know that I didn’t see fireworks? In fact, all that I could see were people sprinting in my direction. So many sprinting people. My brain was still in doubt but there was that whisper: “this many people can’t be wrong.” Someone in my peripheral vision close to me went down but I didn’t think to check if they had been shot, or if they had just stumbled. My survival instincts finally kicked in, although some part of me was still in denial, and I turned and began running too. It didn’t sink in until at the end of the block, a guy ran up to a police car that had been parked there while officers were investigating ANOTHER shooting that happened earlier. He frantically knocked on the window and shouted at the officer that gunshots were coming from that direction, and pointed behind me.

I’ve played it over and over in my head. And often, those thoughts turn into wondering how I could’ve possibly prevented it. Or helped. Or, if I heard those pops literally seconds after standing near where that woman was killed, had I looked at her during her last moments alive? Why couldn’t I have stopped to check on the people around me instead of running away? Or, how close to those men had I been? Their guns definitely must’ve been out at that point. How could I have missed that?

Someone told me that I’d been lucky  – that despite me looking around like a dumbass for fireworks, I wasn’t hurt. I survived. But I can’t stomach the thought of ‘being lucky’ when people I had been around were hurt. Not just that, but I also felt like by being as affected as I was, I was overreacting because, again, I hadn’t been hurt.

In a world where shootings and violence are increasingly common, and these attacks happen in schools, more and more people are getting caught in the crossfires of evil and deranged people. Of course, we know that the victims of shootings are the people who get injured. But there are also victims in the bystanders and witnesses. The people who run to help the injured. The people who beat themselves up for not doing more. The people who are convinced they are about to die and run for their lives, or take cover. Or are haunted by the blood and screaming. Those wounds run deep, too.

I’m not here to talk about the politics of gun restrictions or voice my anger over the lack of any action. Don’t get me wrong, it is important that as a country we change something to make deadly firearms extremely difficult to have access to, and I am extremely pissed off, but if you head to Google you can find a million articles on this. 

The days that immediately followed the shooting, I found myself taking my lunch breaks at work in the bathroom and googling if what I was experiencing was normal, even if I hadn’t been injured and hadn’t actually seen blood. The almost constant racing of my heart. If it’s normal to feel an increased sense of hyper vigilance even though you don’t get hurt. If it’s even okay to feel like shit in situations like that where you end up safe by sheer dumb luck but others around you weren’t as lucky. And for all of the coverage that instances of gun violence get, there’s a surprising lack of resources for the people who witnessed it. 

Following the shooting, it’s been difficult to maintain my focus on conversations I’m having with other people, and it feels a bit more difficult to relate to them than it used to be.

If mass shootings are characterized by the intent to kill as many innocent people as possible, maybe this instance doesn’t fit. The reason shootings like these are terrifying is that it’s completely random. You don’t know your attackers and they certainly don’t give a fuck about you. It’s not motivated by a personal vendetta, it’s completely unexpected and random, in an area people usually consider safe. That’s not to undermine anyone else’s traumatic encounters with violence, it’s just as terrifying in any situation, but I say this because despite logically knowing that the gunmen just had the worst possible aim and didn’t care about hurting the people around them, I’ve had nightmares where the gunmen (who, at the time of this writing have recently and finally been captured) have broken into my apartment building and are trying to break down my door as I’m trying to hide in my closet.

As I’m still actively wrapping my head around the situation, It’s been suggested to me to maintain my daily routines the best I can, for a sense of normalcy. I was surprised to realize that people spoke about the same incident from a “this was an inconvenient thing that happened to me” sort of perspective; and maybe even a little offended.

Two days after I found myself caught in that chaos, I made small talk with my well meaning supervisor, as she was showing me to my temporary desk. She asked where I commute from. I told her that I lived downtown and take the light rail to and from the Westlake station. “Oh! Did you get stranded, too?” For a second, I was back in the middle of that sidewalk, turned toward the McDonald’s where the gunfire had come from, the blasts and screams from people sprinting past overpowering the music that was still playing in my headphones, and my eyes focused upwards. “Ha!” It came out sounding a little bit louder and more incredulous than I’d meant for it to. “No, I got off the light rail at my stop. I managed to get there at just the right time, I guess.”

In all honesty, math has never been my strong suit and statistics has always been difficult for me. But that shooting happened downtown, during rush hour, with a ton of people around, and SCC has several thousand students enrolled, so statistically, someone else from SCC had to have been nearby and maybe even have been affected, too.

If my experience rings true with anyone who’s been affected by this shooting, or even gun violence in general, please know that it is completely okay to reach out to a school counselor, a therapist, or trusted friends and family, and that asking for help doesn’t make you weak. And, if nothing else, if you just need someone to relate to you, not necessarily to play therapist, but who you feel understands, feel free to reach out to me, as well.

I’ve been a vocal advocate for mental health for years, and because of this, I’ve fortunately learned to identify what are normal and valid reactions when someone is faced with trauma. And if you’re struggling with any experience of trauma at all, I’m here to establish a few things.

If nobody’s told you already, you are allowed to be affected by witnessing traumatic things. Even if you weren’t hurt and other people were. Even if you weren’t as close as other people, and even if you only saw the aftermath, your feelings about it are valid.

Survivor’s guilt is extremely real. It doesn’t happen to everyone and it comes out in several different ways and it can complicate the healing process. Some people replay the event over and over and try to figure out how they could’ve stopped it. Or replay their actions during the incident and are disappointed that they didn’t help more. Or survived when others didn’t, were unharmed when others weren’t. Or even feel like they have no right to be affected because they were unharmed. If you’ve ever felt these feelings, not just about this particular incident, but at all, you need to know that it’s not your fault if your brain is telling you that you didn’t do enough to help. The only people at fault are the ones who committed the violent act. It’s okay that you survived and it’s a good thing. And it’s okay to feel affected by things even if you weren’t hurt. You can feel horror and grief while also being grateful that you survived and it does not make you a bad person to be glad you’re alive, or invalidate the sadness you feel. It’s a very normal and human reaction, I promise.

On a more personal note, it’s taken me nearly a month to finish this article. There were times where I didn’t think that I could bear to talk about it, times I was ashamed of my reaction and even embarrassed by it, and by my propensity to cry when the topic comes up. And while I’ve been fortunate to have people around me listen with compassion and empathy, it’s difficult for people who haven’t been through it to completely understand; there’s always that sense of feeling like everything’s different now, that I’m different now. I’m not here to bullshit anyone and tell people that good things come from random attacks like this, but, as I’ve said earlier, if there’s anyone out there that ever feels like they just need to talk to someone who gets it, you are more than welcome to stop me in the halls or reach out in anyway you can.

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