Trigger warning: This blog is a memoir of being in an active shooter situation
December 13th, 12:33 pm is a date and time that is burned into my brain just as is your birthday, or Christmas Day, the 4th of July, the day your kids were born, or maybe your wedding anniversary.
I was a teacher at Arapahoe High School in my 5th hour class giving a test. The silence of my room was interrupted by the loudest firecracker-ish sound I had ever heard. And it was not a familiar sound for being at work. I tried to attach it to something that would happen in a school...a locker slamming, a book dropping? I looked up, and a second later I heard the same sound and immediately after, a third.
This was no accident. These were gunshots.
I ran to the door, shut off the lights and made sure the door was locked from the outside. Students dove out of their desks and landed around the perimeter in piles. I landed by the door on a heap of approximately 10 kids.
The following minutes were filled with darkness, silence, paralyzing terror and disbelief. Was this real? It was soon replaced by loud muffled yelling and heavy footsteps running down the hallways. Who was yelling? The shooter? OMG were there more than one? S.W.A.T.? Are they here already? I had no idea. To add to the chaos, the fire alarm went off. Do we evacuate? Is there really a fire? How can we evacuate when there were just gunshots? Wait, what if there IS a fire? What do we do? My questions were answered when a coworker, whose voice I recognized immediately, came over the PA system and instructed us not to evacuate the building because we were in an “active shooter” situation. I knew we were, but there was something about hearing someone else confirm it out loud that took my breath away for a second.
After two hours of agony, not knowing anything, listening to sniffles and cell phones vibrating in backpacks, legs falling asleep, my students and I were evacuated by three SWAT team members. When I opened the door, I saw something that I was not ready for. Two police officers had guns (big ones) drawn in each direction, while the third gave me instructions on how to exit the building. Upon opening the door I smelled the most chemically induced smokey smell. What had happened just outside my door?
Upon exiting the school, I simply couldn’t believe I was part of the scene you have seen too many times on TV. Kids walking out of a school, slowly, hands above their heads, law enforcement everywhere. Helicopters were in the sky. Fire engines and police cars lined the surrounding streets. Flashing lights as far as your eye could see. Blood on my administrator's and security guard’s pants and shirts. The overload of emotions of what I did know and what I didn’t know was just too much to process.
We stood outside for what seemed like forever. After being bussed to a nearby church (for students to be reunited with their parents), we were free to leave. By then I knew who the shooter was. I knew who had been shot. It was not good. That was it. It was over. Little did I know it was just the beginning of what still is the journey to heal.
Beginning to Heal: My Therapy Journey
A month after the event, I began seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma. I had never been to therapy, and to be honest, I was not open to going in the beginning. I was mad that I had to go. It felt like punishment, like something I had to do that I didn’t want to do. I also couldn’t understand how someone who hadn’t been through it could help me.
Fast forward to present day and I can tell you that I was wrong on all accounts. Spoiler alert: Therapy saved my life and I cannot imagine going through this alone.
After the appropriate amount of time, my therapist and I started EMDR therapy. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation, right/left eye movement, or tactile stimulation. Any of these techniques will repeatedly activate the opposite sides of your brain. In turn, releasing emotional experiences that have gotten "trapped" in your nervous system. Since the nervous system is the basis of the mind-body connection, this release can help break free from the blocks that hold us back from healing. As images and feelings are processed by the brain, the resolution of these triggering issues can happen.
For me, EMDR looked like this: my therapist gave me two small buzzers that were about the size of a quarter. She would ask me a question about the event. I remember one was “Tell me something you were proud of regarding the way you handled keeping your students safe while you were in the classroom waiting for the police to come and get you” (That is a loaded question, by the way…not an easy one to answer). As I began to speak, the buzzer in my right hand buzzed for a few seconds, then it would stop, and the left one would vibrate for a few seconds. This repeated until I was done answering the question. Then she would turn the buzzers off, ask me another extremely loaded question, and we would repeat this for 45 minutes or so.
I did this every Monday for over a year. I can assure you after a few sessions (along with other strategies my therapist taught me), my anxiety was lower, my fears started to dissipate, and I was able to feel more normal again. I can’t explain the how and why of it, but it worked for me. I also wasn’t concerned about the how and why of it working. I would have done anything to go back in time and live in a December 12th, 2013 world.
I saw my therapist weekly for over a year, and I can tell you single handedly that this was the difference in me being able to go about my life in public and not fear another shooting. I have learned that the trauma will never go away, it is always going to be there. It is like this little person that lives inside of me that is sleeping most of the time, but there are times when they scream so loud it encompasses my every move.
It has been eight and a half years since the shooting and I still see my therapist from time to time. Sometimes it is for a quick check in. Sometimes it is when there is another school shooting and I am triggered. I have grown to love therapy and love her. She saved me, and I am forever grateful to her for that.
What to do if you or someone you know has/have experienced Single Event trauma
If you live in Colorado, there is a good chance you or someone you know has been affected by a shooting…in a school, movie theater or grocery store. First, I want you to know that you are not alone. There are so many of us who have experienced this. Second, please seek out a therapist who is trained in trauma and/or EMDR therapy. They have an amazing skill set that can help you through and allow you to live in a world that is not as scary as the one you may be living in now.
How We Can Help
At Catalyss Counseling, we can help. We have trauma therapists and a trained EMDR therapist on staff who can help you through your horrific experience. You are not your trauma.
If you are looking for general support, or if you would like to talk to someone more about how we can help you, follow these simple steps:
Contact us today for a free 20-minute phone consultation
Begin your journey towards a calmer, more relaxed life
Other Therapy Services Available at Catalyss Counseling:
Here at Catalyss Counseling, we want to meet all of your counseling needs in the Denver area. Our supportive therapists provide depression counseling, therapy for caregiver stress, grief and loss therapy, stress management counseling and more. We also have specialists in trauma and PTSD, women's issues, pregnancy and postpartum depression or anxiety, pregnancy loss and miscarriage, and birth trauma. For therapists, we can also provide clinical supervision! We look forward to connecting with you to help support your journey today.
Jessica Walsh works behind the scenes for Catlayss Counseling, running the social media channels as well as marketing the practice. Her passion for mental health stemmed from this horrific ordeal, and she wishes to thank all of the mental health professionals who not only have helped her (s/o to Jenny B. and Laurie E.!!!), but to all the therapists who work tirelessly to help us through the tough times life throws our way. You are true gems. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.