On Saturday, March 24th I traveled from my home in Boston to Washington, D.C. for the March for Our Lives, doing my part to support my country’s youth in stopping the devastating epidemic of mostly preventable gun violence that continues to mark the United States as an absurd outlier against every other major industrialized nation on earth. In so doing, I also fought back against the trauma I’ve developed living in a country where this constantly happens, and the gaslighting the NRA has attempted to instill in those daring to challenge the chokehold it has over Congress. If you, like me, have long been feeling depressed and anxious about this situation, I’m here to tell you: you’re not alone.
I was in middle school when the mass shooting at Columbine happened. I was in college during the Virginia Tech massacre. And I had just started graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2009 when I found myself on lockdown in the office of my graduate advisor amid reports of a gunman possibly in the building. I remember feeling like this couldn’t be happening as I envisioned a shooter barrelling down the hallway to find rooms he could unlock or blast his way through. Would someone start shooting under the door? Rattling the lock? Should my advisor and I try to hide under her desk? As she called her wife, who also worked at the university, to tell her she loved her, my heart raced. After what must have been a few minutes but which felt much longer, police with large military-style guns showed up to evacuate us, telling us, “GO! GO!” as we scurried down the stairs with our hands up in the air.
It seems that the report of the gunman was a false alarm, as I strangely never heard another update about it from university officials. It would be an eerie foreshadowing of the actual massacre that would unfold at UCSB in 2014, where a mass killer would murder six students and injure thirteen others along the same popular strip I had frequented heavily during my time there. Had this atrocity occurred just a couple years prior, it could have been me.
In 2011, still in Santa Barbara, I watched as a mass shooter killed six people and wounded thirteen, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona. Shortly after my brother graduated high school in 2012, yet another mass shooter gunned down twelve people and wounded seventy in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater. I’d just moved to Boston when a man obsessed with the Columbine massacre decided to murder his mother, twenty first-grade students, and six others, wounding two additional school staffers, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The following spring, my first in my new city, I experienced being on lockdown in my partner’s apartment during the Boston Marathon bombing as I could hear distant explosions from the gun-and-bomb battle between the police and suspects. Fast-forward to 2016, when my partner and I joyously celebrated the LGBTQ Pride festival with dancing and laughing, only to wake up to the news that forty-nine people had been massacred inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. (That number, of course, would then be outdone by the shooter who opened fire on a concert of 22,000 people in Las Vegas in 2017, killing fifty-eight people and hospitalizing almost 500.)
The shooting at Pulse had a particularly chilling impact on me as a queer person, and it would change how I felt entering clubs, even to the point of shaking and wanting to dive for the bathroom when I heard a DJ play a song with gunshot sound effects not long after the shooting.
And so, even before the recent massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, massacres caused by a lack of gun control and toxic masculinity have punctuated my life as sinister milestones alongside my own achievements, as they have for so many of my fellow Americans. I’ve been spared being the closest to gun violence, but I’ve grown up in its vicinity, and I’ve been scarred by it. I’ve grown jittery, skittish, shrinking from loud noises in public places, such as my poor decision to watch a horror movie in surround sound at my local theatre soon after Pulse, or the loud metallic sound effects when my partner treated me to tickets to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. My anxiety has gone through the roof. I’ve become hyper-aware of possible threats to my safety in ways that are toxic to my mental health, such as my increasing fear of flying on airplanes.
My brother, who is younger than me, has it even worse, and is scared to sit in the library at his community college, always trying to find a seat closest to an exit. He tells me it’s hard to focus during tests at school because he never knows if a shooter is about to invade his classroom.
I know that my brother and I are not alone. According to a recent report released by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, almost 60% of current high school students are afraid of gun violence occurring at school or in their local communities, and almost 40% of children exposed to a shooting will ultimately develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
But meanwhile, the gun lobby at the NRA continues to gaslight America. Gaslighting is a term used to understand how emotionally abusive and manipulative people treat others poorly and then deny their realities until, over time, the victims begin to doubt their own minds and feel like they’re the problem. The NRA, similarly to Donald Trump and his allies (like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders), engage in gaslighting with abandon, hoping that if they repeat enough lies with enough confidence, their detractors will melt away under their control.
In the NRA’s case, they gaslight by attacking the Parkland survivors, accusing them of being “paid crisis actors,” while right-wing politicians and pundits like Leslie Gibson and Laura Ingraham have taken to emulating the Twitter cyberbullying of their President and his son Don Jr., choosing the Parkland youth survivors as their targets.
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However, it’s important not to let the gun lobby rewrite our experiences of reality as they attempt to deny the material existence of the massive gun violence problem facing the United States, from school shootings to police shootings of unarmed Black people. The NRA’s goal, they’ve made abundantly clear, is to sell as many guns as possible regardless of the consequences while promoting strawperson arguments and asserting that they’re protecting American freedom and liberty. But as Parkland students continue to voraciously challenge the NRA’s obfuscation and gaslighting, the rest of us must hold on to the truth of our experiences in the midst of this epidemic, allowing our bravery and our love for each other to guide us in demanding a better future.
Remember: your trauma around these issues is real. It’s legitimate. It’s not something that you should have to disregard, or silence, or make smaller inside you because it’s seen as inconvenient or “too much” for someone else. As the Parkland survivors are publicly attacked and demonized in the midst of their trauma, you may be scared to speak up and voice your own truths. Be gentle with yourself and hold yourself in compassion during these moments. Allow yourself to grieve and to feel both the fear and the outrage at the fact that these are atrocities you should never have to be processing.
At the same time, it’s useful to remind yourself that if these amazing teens can be such incredible champions for justice (though they also shouldn’t have to, and it’s important for them to engage in a whole lot of self-care), you probably can too. You are never alone, and there are many amazing resources at The Body Is Not An Apology to help you begin addressing your trauma, anxiety, and fear.
Know that there are millions of us fighting together. I remembered this when I marched in D.C., when so many people came together that I found myself hundreds of thousands of people from the stage in an outpouring of grief and love and resolve for change. Never doubt that we can make change — we’ve only just begun.
[Featured Image: A gray scale photo of a person looking downward. They have long blond hair. Source: pexels.com]