Words from Roseburg, Oregon
Another shooting. This time at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. I lost my appetite for the day and went to bed early.
Some time between falling asleep and waking up Monday morning I decided to write about how this particular shooting affected those who had already experienced a mass shooting. I returned to Umpqua Community College (UCC) in Roseburg, Oregon where a gunman took nine lives on October 1, 2015.
I was on the UCC campus during the shooting, but I wasn’t in the room where the carnage took place.
I spent that morning cowering behind a bookcase in the library that day. I never really reconciled with what happened behind that stack. I don’t deal with my emotions. I swallow them. But trying to swallow the UCC shooting makes me sick. So I let it rot in the back of my mind.
It had been two years since the shooting at UCC. It had been one year since I last saw Melinda Benton, my former Communications instructor.
If it weren’t for Melinda I don’t think I would have been able to get through that year. I dropped half my classes that term. Hers was the only one I managed to get anything above a “D” in. She was also the advisor to UCC’s student newspaper, The Mainstream, and writing for the that paper kept me busy.
When we met Monday after the Texas shooting, we hugged and exchanged smiles and platitudes.
“How are you?”
No one ever answers that question honestly.
I only had a few questions prepared. I was only going to ask her to relive one of the most traumatic events of her life.
“Where were you when you first heard about Sutherland Springs?” I asked.
Melinda’s blue eyes reddened and teared up. Her voice cracked, “You ask the hardest questions.”
Great, I thought, I made her cry. I figured at this point I blew the interview before it ever really began. But she shifted in her seat and continued.
She was attending church, like the victims of Sutherland Springs. She said her church was small, but not as small as the one in Texas. She was sitting in her car in the parking lot when she looked at Facebook on her phone and saw what happened.
“I just went right back into church, went to the prayer-corner, sat down and prayed with my pastor about it. We were all crying,” Melinda said.
Melinda almost vomited. She still felt shaky and almost didn’t go to work at UCC Monday. But prior to that she said she felt like there was something dead inside her.
“With the shooting at Vegas and many of the other school shootings that have since occurred I didn't feel anything. Normally I have high levels of empathy,” Melinda said.
This was comforting. I, too, was beginning to numb when it came to the shootings that were reported every other week.
“It started to really worry me at Vegas because it was so large and I didn't feel afraid,” she said, “I didn't feel concern. I didn’t feel anything.”
Melinda was pulled in two different directions: one where she had to care and one where she could ignore the shooting. But Friday Melinda began to question why she felt so little. She was losing her ability to care and that scared her.
“I've realized there just doesn't seem to be any way to fix the shootings,” she said. “I can't expend energy on something that no one would ever help me fix.”
But the Sutherland Springs shooting was different. Her husband had previously volunteered as a pastor. She had a 14-year-old daughter who hung out with other friends at church.
“I could very easily put myself in those shoes and for every parent, your worst nightmare is to lose your child,” she added.
She criticized herself. “I had to open that door by asking those stupid questions like: why don't I feel anymore. Then it just hits. And it hurts.”
And then a realization. She didn’t have control over the “gate to where you don't feel anything or through no request of your own the gate is open and you have to hurt for a whole day. The ability to regulate your emotions after you go through those kinds of trauma is gone and that sucks.” Her voice wavered as her composure fractured.
“After you’ve gone through it as intimately as we have, I don't know that you can look at all the mass shootings the same way,” she said. “The general population is numbed and that is not okay.”
For people who have not experienced a mass shooting, there’s a lack of empathy when asking survivors questions.
“How could anybody know that you’re still processing things when you don’t even know yourself? I would be offended if someone walked up to me and asked ‘how did you do with the shooting?’” she said.
Counseling was available. Facebook support groups formed. But you had to go to counseling. You had to join the support groups. You had to initiate the conversations. You had to realize you needed help. And you had seek it.
“The only person I talk to about how shootings affect me, Brandon, is you because you’re the only one that really asked me,” she said. Other than family, “No one has asked me how I’m feeling about it.”
Melinda wished that she could go to Sutherland Springs, but she said she wouldn’t go to talk.
“I don't think that there are words because I think what people in these situations want to know is: What makes me safe? How do we keep this from happening to anyone else? The United States is not ready to have that conversation,” she said. “There’s so much anger around gun control and so much fear around gun control to the point where our population is in this ridiculous binary conversation,” she added. “I can't go talk to somebody at Sutherland who wants those answers because no one's talking about giving those answers.”
She added, “Even getting in the car and remembering how to get to place after you've experienced that trauma was so hard that I needed somebody to come just do something physical to help me like cook the dinner, clean the house, and get the kids to school.”
That’s what Melinda needed in Roseburg after UCC, too. Help with the everyday. I still visit Melinda every now and again. Just to see how she’s doing.