“I thought it would get easier, you know, after a while?” I remarked to a couple of friends during a coffee date a while back. They both nodded. Our conversation prior to this point had been lighthearted, catching up as old classmates who worked on staff of our community college’s student newspaper. The guys at the table are currently at the university I plan on attending eventually. To a passer-by, we probably appeared to have nothing in common. We all looked remarkably different, me in my mid-thirties, a small round woman; the two of them- younger men in their early twenties. And yet, there are similarities: a glance at the doors and exits, tightness in our body language, eyes scanning out the windows, ever vigilant and calculating. Because we can’t help it.
The shooting follows us around, not only in our conversations, but in our day-to-day interactions with people and spaces. It haunts us like the ghosts of the fallen, always in the back of our minds, whispering against our skin.
One friend says every time he goes to the movie theater he checks the exits. The other nods quietly agreement. We tense when someone raises their voice, know the fastest route out of any room we’re in, whether classroom, store, hospital room or entertainment venue. We calculate our hiding places. The level to which we feel unsafe is different for each of us, but we share one thing in common: We are the forgotten survivors of horrific violence. Its aftereffects stick with us even almost four years later.
Four years. Some days it feels like yesterday or a lifetime. Other days it feels like an unbelievable nightmare shared by hundreds of consciousnesses in a community affected by school shootings.
Four years ago, on October 1, 2015, a very angry young man ended his life and the lives of others. I will not presume or examine his reasons why he did what he did. There are plenty who have and that is their way of coping. Good for them. I cannot. Because knowing doesn’t change the outcome for me.
Four years ago, Umpqua Community College, the beautiful, quiet and comforting campus nestled outside of Roseburg, Oregon, my hometown, was hit with a tragedy we never saw coming. Like so many before and after us, we never thought a mass school shooting would happen on our campus, shattering our lives and changing our community forever. The reality of such a violent act is something that so many of us will never fully come to terms with.
I haven’t, not completely. How can I? I do not remember everything from that day, or the following two and a half days afterwards.
What I do remember is how sunny that Thursday was. It was warm enough to wear shorts in the morning, which is a bit rare during autumn in Oregon. My first class that day was Sociology at 11 a.m. in Jackson Hall in the mid part of the campus. I had a paper due that I was planning on finishing in Snyder Hall’s computer lab. Snyder was clear across the small campus from my class in Jackson Hall, but it felt like home.
Being an introvert and terrified nearly speechless the first week of my first term, Snyder was where I had my very first classes and made friends. It was where I met my best friend, now my partner in life. And it had the bathrooms I was used to, which I relied on for familiarity and comfort. So despite being across campus, Snyder was where I felt at ease, and where I planned to finish my paper that morning.
I’m not a fan of God, nor do I believe in the idea that someone’s looking out for me. I won’t apologize for relying on instinct in most situations, and when I do, it hasn’t led me wrong. So, when a student, who I’d given a ride to campus earlier that day, suggested I use another computer lab in the Educational Skill Building instead of the one in Snyder, I dismissed them at first, but then conceded. It’s a decision that has haunted me ever since that day.
Approximately fifteen minutes after I began working on my paper, the shooter hit Snyder Hall, starting with the computer lab and moving to the classroom, room 15, right next door to the lab. There he shot and killed nine people and injured nine others before taking his own life. There were many people I knew who were killed in room 15 that day, including a friend I had known from a previous class.
As word spread about the shooting to our lab in the Skills Building, a certain amount of chaos erupted. An instructor whom I had for Math during Spring term raised his usually mild voice at the faculty and students in the room. “Move your asses!” he yelled. His call to action shocked those in the room that didn’t register the dire nature of the situation or the urgency to act. They walked slowly, chatting and checking their phones. But his outburst, at least, got them to move their asses.
The passage of time and its connection to memories is strange in a stressful situation. For me, time became non-existent. And once we were huddled on the floor of a small room packed full of students, teachers and others, the minutes and even hours blurred into compartmentalized moments. Moments of panic and people trying to get the word out to their loved ones. Moments where those loved ones were trying to make connections too. Moments of worry, fear, anger and disbelief.
There were some moments of an odd calm as we searched the Internet on our phones for some news, any news of what was happening. I felt emotionless, robotic as I, too, searched for answers. Somewhere in the blurred chaos, I realized that information was the best way to keep those next to me focused on something other than their own horrified thoughts. Speculation and imagination can often hurt worse than reality. But that distraction didn’t last, and word arrived that lives were lost. That moment filled with grief. My robotic motions became empty spaces. My mind blanked out, blacked out. There is nothing in my memories beyond that time. For the next two and a half days, Friday until midday Sunday, I remember nothing. It’s like a tape got erased. Video paused.
I’m not sure I can convey the pain, panic and frustration that still haunts me, years afterwards. How do I explain what it’s like to not know what you did, said, saw or felt during such a terrifying time? Blank. Therapy has uncovered only slivers of memory, asking others who were present has too. But for a large portion of October 1 to October 3, 2015, there’s nothing.
My story of being a survivor isn’t about being hit with a bullet. I wasn’t physically hurt unlike others I know. The scars I bear of that day are not visible. But they hurt nonetheless. I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, panicking. My body literally feels like it’s too small to contain my soul, like I want to break open my own chest and escape. I still shake anytime I have to talk about that day or the days after. (I’m shaking as I write this.) And as far as I know, it will be like this in varying degrees for the rest of my life. I may never know what happened during that day or the days following the shooting. I won’t lie and say I’ve accepted that. But I can say I’m OK with not being OK all the time. I know I’m not alone in all of this either.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It doesn’t always get easier, either. I remembered this recently when sitting in my preemie son’s NICU hospital pod, mapping out a “safety plan just in case,” even though somewhere inside me I knew I was in a relatively safe place.
Time, however, does allow us to adjust to a new normal. We learn to check exits, everywhere we go. We know that the first Thursday of Fall term, even if it isn’t October 1, will make us emotional, nervous, angry and sad. We realize this even after graduating from UCC. We understand that we are all survivors. Not just the wounded, but the forgotten—the whole campus, community, nation, world. We share common ground with thousands because we have been touched by the senseless loss of life and innocence. We face days of violence now, never knowing what may happen, but realizing that a shooting can happen anywhere to anyone. We teach our children to be aware. We question whether or not to send our little ones to school, or to homeschool them. We connect with those who, like us, are forgotten by most, neither “victim” or “hero.” We help each other any way we can. We listen and we talk. We hope it won’t happen to anyone else ever again, even though we know it will. We struggle and we try our best to live day after day with our hidden scars, our depression, our lost memories. And we survive.