I don’t know who you are, but if you’re reading this letter and you have survived the unthinkable, I am sorry. I can relate to the strange feelings that you are having, so I want to share some thoughts with you.
My name is La’Nita and I survived a terrorist attack in 2016 in West Africa—crazy, right? I was 23 and it was really scary to see my life flash before my eyes. I was young and my eyes were opened to a completely different side of pain.
Although it has been two and a half years since the incident, I still think about it everyday. The details of what seemed to be my inevitable and horrific fate replay through my mind frequently, sometimes to the point I just think that the whole thing was a movie that never actually happened. You may feel that way for a while, and I want you to know that that’s normal. When you experience the sort of trauma that you have, your brain is attempting to process an unnatural event. So give yourself a lot of time and kindness during your healing journey.
As you are on this new journey that you most certainly didn’t ask to be on, I want to apologize for all of the things you’re going through or may have to endure. While no one can paint a pretty picture of what it will be like to live day-to-day healing from trauma, I hope my words offer you solace, knowing that you have an ally in your journey. So here it goes…
First and foremost, I am sorry that you are now dumped into this bucket of “mass shooting survivors”…it’s weird, isn’t it? It took me some time to get used to hearing “she survived a terrorist attack” aloud. It’s not a phrase that anyone should have to utter out of their mouths, nor should it be an identifying badge.
I am sorry that you were shot at. I am sorry you may have had to play dead to still be here. I am sorry that you had to see your friend(s) die. I am sorry you lost them in the crowd. It’s not your fault. None of this is.
I am sorry that you experience constant paranoia now. I am sorry that when you go to new places, you will always look for the nearest exit. I am sorry that it may take you months to be able to eat at a restaurant again.
I am sorry that it’s dangerous to go to a bar on a Wednesday night with your friends. I am sorry that going to school is frightening for you now. I am sorry that you can’t do yoga in peace. I am sorry you can’t go to a concert. I am sorry that your personal space and everything that you knew about safety was violated by a complete stranger.
I am sorry that the sounds of opening champagne bottles might send you spiraling into a flashback.
I am sorry that you may have a hard time reintegrating into your old social life. I am sorry that people don’t know how to talk to you about what happened. I’m sorry that you feel like you can’t bring up what happened without feeling guilty or like a Debbie Downer to your friends. I am sorry that you may lose friends because they don’t know how to handle your situation.
I am sorry you can’t sleep because you always have nightmares. They’re SUPER ANNOYING–I know! Turn your tv off an hour before bed, drink some hot tea, spray some lavender pillow spray on your pillow, and take a hot shower. This may not instantly put you to sleep every night, but get in the habit of self-care and the sleep will follow.
I am sorry that you feel alone. I am sorry you feel like dying would have been easier. I am sorry you don’t understand why you’re still living. I am sorry that you feel disconnected. I am sorry that you may not want to get out of bed sometimes. I am sorry that you’ve considered suicide. I am sorry you have PTSD, or depression or anxiety.
I am sorry you feel nothing. I am sorry you are wondering why you’re still here.
I am sorry that you will forever wonder “when is this going to happen again.” It’s one of my biggest fears honestly. But, don’t let this stop you from experiencing joy. My dad always tells me “the probability is in your favor,” and he’s right. There’s a really slim chance that it will happen again, your brain is just telling you otherwise because you were present during the “slim chance” the first time. But live, and LIVE OUT LOUD. Life is beautiful and scary, but you have a long life ahead of you and don’t let feelings of guilt, sadness and fear get in the way of why you’re still on this Earth.
I am sorry you’re going to have to pay exorbitant amounts of money for proper mental health care. I am sorry that you may not have the money to go to counseling. But it’s important to find a resource–a pastor, use TalkSpace, something! You’ll feel better after you unload on a professional, I promise.
I am sorry that your significant other may leave. You may be thinking, who does this? But trust me, people do–it happened to me. Not everyone knows how to handle trauma. But I promise it’s for the better. You need someone who can be there for you. You need someone that’s going to hold you. You need a person that wants to help you heal, and not just be there at the “end” when they think you’re all better. You need someone who won’t cause you pain. You need a rock. And if someone wants to leave during this incredibly tumultuous time in your life, you smile and say thank you for the lessons they taught you.
And lastly, I am sorry that your perspective on life has had to change and that everything is different now. It seems that every day, you wake up in this alternate universe of people complaining about having received the wrong coffee order or talking about how people at work pissed them off, and it bothers you now. It bothers you because you just witnessed the worst parts of humanity, and no one else around you has seen those things. You will be incredibly irritable for a while, because you want everyone to see the big picture of life and unfortunately, not everyone will be able to have this perspective. But use it! Although surviving a mass shooting is incredibly difficult, the universe chose you for some reason. So, use this perspective and find out why you’re still here on this Earth. Be an advocate for mental health, finally quit your job and pursue your passion, be a lobbyist for gun control…but whatever you do, make this tragedy make sense for you. It won’t be easy, but I promise it’s a helluva lot easier than punishing yourself with guilt and sadness for having survived.
But the one thing that I will leave you with is that there is hope. I know that you may ask “La’Nita, what hope, I just almost died?” And while, yes, that is true, there is a shiny light at the end of the tunnel—but there are steps you need to take for it to glimmer. While the steps for everyone are different, here are some things that I did:
I went to counseling, like immediately. You have to find a way to process what happened…it’s imperative. I got a dog—which was the best decision ever. For months, I’d found myself not leaving the house, so when I got a dog, I didn’t have a choice because I had to take him outside. I re-learned what I liked to do by trying new hobbies. The interesting thing about having your world flipped upside down is when you flip it back over, you’re in control. I started dabbling in photography, hiking, and doing things that I had always wanted to do. And most importantly, I also had a deep conversation with myself about why I believed that God saved me. This conversation resulted in me quitting my job and applying for fellowships to go to graduate school to study International Education. But these conversations that I had with myself helped me change my career path and ultimately helped me think about my life in a way that I never could have imagined. I strongly encourage you to envision what the “light at the end of the tunnel” looks like for you, and close your eyes to picture it whenever things get dim.
I don’t know who you are, but I hope these words will help you. I don’t know why the universe brought us these strange destinies, but I am thankful. Whatever stage you’re at in your healing journey, know that I am proud of you and that it gets better. Be gentle to yourself as you move forward and know that there are people around you who love you and want to help you get through this time. So here’s to a lifelong journey of loving, learning and growing.