April 30, 2021 is the two-year anniversary of the campus shooting that took the lives of two students, injured four others and affected a whole university community. It is a time of reflection on a traumatic experience. During this time of reflection and healing, you may be asking yourself, “am I doing enough?” or “is it worth it?” Below are two explanations for different ways of coping with trauma.
On April 30, 2019, UNC Charlotte became another name on a long list of mass shootings and gun violence. A list that we should have never been added to in the first place, but one that remains important to acknowledge as it gets longer and longer. As a student who lived through a shooting at their own university, I look at this list and can’t help but to think: is there more we could be doing to prevent people from feeling all the things UNC Charlotte students felt days, even months after April 30?
The day after the April 30 shooting, I attended the candlelight vigil held in the Student Activity Center. When I took my seat, I remember feeling extremely vulnerable; like someone would attempt to shoot at every student that was packed in that arena. Once that feeling passed, and former Chancellor Dubois began speaking, I looked around and saw not a single dry-eyed student. It was this weird sense of community—everyone there was hurting in some way or another. For me, it was the very first moment that I felt something needed to change.
Activism and participation are key to change. This means marching in any pro-gun-control protests you can find, calling and emailing your local representatives, staying educated on current gun laws and voting for people that value the gun reform this country so desperately needs. According to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, by the end of 2019, there were 417 mass shootings (defined by four or more people killed or injured), the highest number recorded since they began data collection in 2014. UNC Charlotte was one of those 417 in 2019.
It can be a human instinct to care less about the things that are not directly affecting us. While I cared about the gun violence in this country leading up to April 30, I don’t think I cared enough. Sometimes we feel that our voices are smaller when used to speak up against something we have never experienced. The sad reality is that gun violence, and mass shootings were just as prevalent in our communities in the years leading up to 2019. Maybe the number on paper was a little less, but even one is one too many.
Getting involved in your community can be a powerful way to cope. In an article by Vanderbilt Medical Center, clinical psychologist Dr. Chad A. Buck says, “positive community action can help channel your reactions and offer opportunities to engage like-minded people.” Sometimes, we need to be surrounded by those that are just as passionate about change as we are. Looking back at 2018, when a gunman opened fire at Stoneman Douglas High School, killing and injuring 34 people, we saw a group of survivors use their voices to speak up against gun violence. We saw them demand change.
For me, healing quietly in the comfort of my bedroom was only making it worse. That is not to say this is not a valid way to recover after such a traumatic experience. However, if you are anything like me, you may decide that activism is the only way to heal properly. Two years later, and 159 mass shootings into 2021, I stand by my personal decision to heal through activism.
As survivors of the April 30 shooting, we are semi-obliged to respect and honor those we lost that day. But as a community, we have an equally important duty to heal. Everyone's activism looks different, and everyone's path to recovery is different.
As soon as the campus lockdown ended, I grabbed a couple of friends and drove back to my hometown. I ran. I spent weeks there and did everything to forget about what I experienced. Even there, I was surrounded by reminders. I wore a UNC Charlotte shirt to lunch, and the server pelted me with sympathy. It was claustrophobic, and I almost had a panic attack at the table. I didn't attend the vigils because I just couldn't.
According to phyciatrist and New York Times best-selling author, Bessel van der Kolk, “Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable… It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.”
When shit hits the fan, humans are hardwired for flight or fight. Adrenaline spikes and we make an instinctive decision. Sometimes we're heroes, but usually, we're one of many running away. That is okay. Running isn't always cowardice. Sometimes it is survival.
One year ago, a student critically injured at the Virginia Tech shooting, Kristina Anderson, sent a letter to Niner Times in recognition of the first anniversary of April 30. "Every survivor's feelings and experiences are unique and valid," Anderson said. Her words apply to every member of the UNC Charlotte community, including those who chose a different form of healing. So if you were waiting for permission to heal, there it is.
However, you do not need an excuse for healing. While writing this article, I can still feel the room shrinking around me. My fingers become stiffer as I continue to type. From an outside perspective, I have little reason to feel that way. I didn't lose anyone in the shooting. I didn't even witness it firsthand. I just happened to be somewhat near the library as shots began to ring. Still, my feelings are valid, and regardless of where you were that day, your feelings are too.
There is no expiration date on trauma. Do good when you can, but forgive yourself when you can't. Activism can be a tool for healing, but you can't heal while walking on a broken leg.
As Anderson said, "Each of you has a unique story of where you were that day. Honor that experience and what it means to you."
So if you're struggling to help the community heal, start small. Start with yourself. Direct acts of self-care now will make you better equipped to help others in the future. Be a survivor today so you can be a hero tomorrow.