I was shot when I was seven years old, in a school shooting, along with five other kids, in an affluent suburb of Chicago. The shooter was a thirty-year-old woman I didn’t know. No one she shot knew her.
Since then, I’ve seen shooters everywhere.
The worst years for seeing shooters were the ages of twelve to twenty-one. They were all over: street corners, elevators, escalators, grocery stores.
I never understood why I was mostly fine from ages seven to twelve—I seemed to have come out remarkably unscathed—and then suddenly I wasn’t okay. I was the opposite of okay. I had almost every symptom of PTSD.
Later, as an adult, someone told me that’s normal—PTSD often grows worse during puberty, or waits to announce itself until then.
Symptoms of PTSD: experiencing the trauma in nightmares or flashbacks, emotional numbing or dissociation where a person loses touch with their surroundings, varying from something like a daydream to blacking out completely. Other symptoms include: increased arousal, such as hypervigilance—increased sensory sensitivity and scanning an area for possible threats. Also: anger, exaggerated startle response, difficulty falling or staying asleep, anxiety, impulsivity, irritability, aggression, depression, survivor’s guilt, and suicidal tendencies.
That truth lives in my body, next to the bullet that’s still in my back.
I’m thirty-four now. I mostly don’t see shooters anymore.
But when a mass shooting happens, I still sometimes do. Most people seem to think only school shootings make me think of being shot, but any kind of shooting does.
Or if the anniversary is close I may see shooters.
Or if someone seems particularly strange.
Or if someone starts talking about guns.
Or if someone has a gun.
Or any kind of sudden, random violence, reminds me that we are at each other’s mercy and that’s not always a good place to be.
This is what my past does: I’ll see a man muttering to himself, over there in the corner of the deli, his eyes darting around. He pulls out a gun from his backpack and shoots everyone in sight. People scream and collapse, blood spills and pools. While I watch everyone die, whomever I’m with asks: “What kind of sandwich are you going to get?” Or: “Did I tell you what my boss said to me?” Or she says: “I like your shoes.” Or he says: “I went to a BBQ yesterday.” “Where was the BBQ?,” I say as the woman in the yellow dress bleeds out on the tile floor in front of me.
I blink the images away.
Sometimes I have to blink more than once.
But sometimes I’m lucky and they vanish as quickly as they appear.
Most people think they know when they’ll be hurt, that they’ll see it coming, but they won’t.
Most people think they’re safe, but they’re not.
Or are they?
I can’t tell which is more real—fear or safety. Both seem impossibly crazy. One means I’m living in the past. The other means I’m denying its existence.
When I first started having symptoms of PTSD at twelve years old, I mostly didn’t know what they were, like how’d I sit with my friends in the school cafeteria, my lunch spread out before me, and my friends were laughing and talking. I was there, but suddenly not there, flying high above them. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get back down. I watched them smile and laugh like it was the easiest thing to do. I thought: something’s unknowably wrong with me.
Someday, much later, I learned to my comfort the something wasn’t unknowable at all. It wasn’t a mystery. It had a name and was a common symptom of PTSD: dissociation.
Last summer, I was canoeing on a lake in Washington with a friend, and a married couple my friend is friends with, and the married couple’s toddler and dog. While we were taking the married couple’s red canoe out of the water, their dog barked like a mad dog at a woman on the shore with a cane. The woman with the cane screamed and her husband who had long gray beard yelled: “Tie that motherfuckin’ dog up or I’m gonna go to my truck and get my gun and shoot him in the head. I’ll kill that son of a bitch. I’m not kidding. I’ll kill him.”
What I heard was: gun + kill.
My friend’s friend was initially calm. He apologized to the man with the long gray beard. He said that the man was right. He said: “The dog barks like that sometimes but it’s only a bark, she doesn’t ever bite.”
But the man did not relent. He kept yelling about the gun in his truck and how he’d shoot the motherfuckin’ dog in the head, how he’d gut him.
I took three steps back from them all.
I’d have walked away from the whole world if I could have.
Three parts of the brain have been shown to function differently in those people who have PTSD than in those individuals who do not: the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the medial frontal cortex. Findings indicate that the amygdala plays a key role in the formation of memories, particularly fear-related memories and that the amygdala is hyper-reactive to triggers or reminders of the trauma. Some of the defining symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks and exaggerated startle response, may be caused by the hippocampus and the medial frontal cortex’s failure to lessen the exaggerated feelings of distress and arousal that are caused by the amygdala’s response to reminders of the trauma.
Three days before the canoeing incident a man walked into a church and shot and killed nine people. Later that day, I walked to get a smoothie in my neighborhood. While I waited, I noticed a woman crouched by the cash register, her legs folded up to her chest. My past saw this: she popped up, pulling a gun from her purse, shooting and killing everyone.
That day it took more than a blink: I had to shake my head back and forth to get those images away.
I spent most of that day in bed crying for those people in that church, watching them die before me because I know what being shot looks like, feels like, is. I cried because I’m tired of some version of this happening again and again, as though none of us ever count. And I’m tired of everyone’s shock. And I’m tired of, We didn’t think it could happen here.
Here is another truth, written in the scars on my skin: it can happen anywhere.
And then, at the lake in Washington, the man and my friend’s friend were yelling at each other as loud as they could.
“Fuck you!” the man with the gray beard yelled.
“Fuck you!” my friend’s friend yelled back.
I thought: Will he shoot us along with the dog? Will he shoot me? I haven’t said anything, but the man with the beard looked at me, stared me right in the face. What if he doesn’t like my camo hunting hat? What if he can tell the hat is ironic and the joke is on him?
All I wanted to do was run, the feeling exploding in my chest. Run, Kathryn, run, the voice said. Hide.
But I stayed.
The bearded man was still in the parking lot, pulling his boat out from the lake. My friend’s friend had to tie the canoe to the top of their car before we could all pile in it and drive away. His wife said: “Don’t say anything else.” He said: “Oh, he’s not actually going to do anything. People who talk about shooting people never actually shoot people.”
I thought: the woman who shot me did.
I said: “As someone who’s actually already been shot, really please don’t say anything.” Saying it felt gross and desperate, like its own kind of weapon. But no one reacted and I realized my friend must have already told them.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched the man with the gray beard move around his boat and truck. If I lost him, even for a moment, I turned my whole body and watched him fully, not trusting a partial view. Every time he reached for something, my breath caught, terrified the something was his gun.
I scanned the area around me for where I’d dive if I needed to, maybe behind the brown van a few feet away.
The wife of my friend’s friend, toddler strapped to her back, said: “It’s not like he’s going to shoot a kid.”
I said: “I’m evidence to the contrary,” like I was kidding, making it small for everyone else.
My friend’s friend was in no hurry to get the canoe attached to the roof. He threw one strap, slowly moved around the car. Threw another. Pulled it. Tied it. Another adjustment here. Another adjustment there.
Deep breaths, I told myself.
The man with the long gray beard began to pull his truck toward where we were standing, circling the parking lot. He stared at us all as he approached, eyes hateful, face angry.
I said: “He’s coming this way.”
I took several steps away from them, trying to wish myself invisible. I’m not here, said the voice in my head.
“Kathryn,” my friend said, laughing as I backed away.
But I didn’t laugh. Holding my breath, I watched the man with the gun approach.
The first time I imagined a shooter it was five years after I was shot. I was twelve years old. I was walking up the stairwell alone during a class period and a woman, a stranger, began walking behind me. I don’t remember what is was about her, maybe only that we were alone in that stairwell and she reached into her jacket. Run, the voice said. Run, run, run. She’s going to shoot you. You’re going to be dead.
I’ve tried before to explain what that feels like. Like many things about being shot, it exists somewhere beyond words, a feeling without boundaries or beginnings or ends. But it’s something close to this: more than naked, more than exposed, my very skin peeled back, all of me a raw wound.
As the man with the long gray beard drove by he gave us all a long, hard look, daring each of us to say something. He parked his truck twenty feet past us in the middle of the lane, so no other cars could get by. Getting back out of the truck, he slammed the door behind him and started reaching for things I couldn’t see in his boat.
“His wife was weird looking,” my friend said. “No wonder the dog barked.”
“He’s standing right over there,” I said quietly. “Maybe we shouldn’t say the man with the gun’s wife looks weird.”
My friend said: “I’m not afraid of him.”
I said: “I am.”
I thought: stupid isn’t the same thing as brave.
I knew I shouldn’t expect much from this friend, who knows I was shot, but never acts like he does. This is the friend with the bullet tattoo on his chest, the friend who said in front of me: “I’m feeling really pissed off. Tomorrow I’m gonna shoot off a bunch of guns.” I didn’t say anything when he said that. That the woman who shot me felt the same way.
This is the friend who also said: “You know how I want to die? With a bunch of people shooting me.” He said it as he made a machine gun hand gesture pointing at me, simulating the firing of several bullets. That time I responded. “You do realize someone actually tried to kill me by shooting me? And now you’re also fake shooting me with your hands?”
In Washington, in the lake’s parking lot, I wanted to say: “Don’t you see me standing here with a bullet in my back?” I wanted to say: “How do I make what happened to me real?”
I watched the man with the gray beard pull out a plastic step stool for his wife to use as she climbed into the truck. I used this moment of tenderness as reassurance that he wouldn’t hurt us, but I know most people are capable of moments of kindness. It’s what else they’re capable of that’s terrifying.
The man with the long gray beard started his truck, the engine rumbling. He slowly circled the parking lot again, staring at us.
I stood there suspended, saying something like a prayer as the truck was about to pass us. I thought: this is the moment. He’ll shoot us and drive away.
And they were gone.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.