There are several misconceptions that can result from sharing a story like ours. One that strikes me in particular is, knowing that our family has faced and overcome certain mental health issues, people assume we get to move forward without further crisis. There may be a mistaken assumption that struggles are over, communication and relationships are flawless and forthcoming, and there is a big red bow tied around our lives, like those commercials where people give bow-topped new cars for Christmas gifts. (Just where is that universe anyway?!? I might like to live there.)
In families where teens are in an extended time of crisis, their parents and siblings can and often do develop issues and concerns of their own. We have certainly experienced that. And we have also learned the truth that no one gets a pass. One trauma does not exclude anyone from the next. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s simply life. Yes, it can be frustrating and feel unfair. But, as with everything, we get to choose how we approach, resolve, and integrate these circumstances that are life.
The following piece, split in to two posts, was penned on August 6, 2012.
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“Mom, I thought we were going to die.” My daughter tells me this as I gently delve further into the as of yet not-fully-shared story about my girls’ time in Theater 8. Theater 9 was where the gunman began his rampage, and the pops and smoke my daughters and many others mistook for firecrackers were in fact bullets and chemical ‘smoke’ coming through the wall.
At first they were annoyed. “Oh leave it to some idiot at the Aurora Theater to shoot off firecrackers during the midnight Batman premiere. It figures.” But as some people began to get restless and others got up to leave, they were a little confused as well.
I read an online account of a young man who stopped to help a girl who was shot in the jaw by bullets and/or shrapnel from gunshots fired from the theater next door. I learned from his story that there was potential for so much more destruction. I am paraphrasing from memory, but it seems this man got up to leave Theater 8 after the bullets came through the wall. He happened to pass a stranger, the girl who had been shot, and (his mother must be so incredibly proud) he was taking her and her friend out to find help. They made their way to the doors leading out to the lobby, but when he started out, he saw the gunman in full regalia heading towards Theater 8. He closed the door, holding it shut, even against the sound of someone banging on the outside of it. (The gunman? Someone needing help or refuge? Who could know, but we do know that whoever it was, there were no shots fired in the lobby. So it could have been either.)
At this point, the kind stranger tells another theater patron to pull the emergency alarm. The story I read did not tell the details of what else he did or how/when they finally got out, but they did. Or maybe it did tell, but I don’t remember. I had to stop reading and watching.
My daughters tell me that someone started yelling out to the moviegoers in Theater 8. “I don’t work here; I’m just a patron. But there has been a shooting, and there is a gunman in the lobby. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.” I’m not sure if I would have believed it. It makes sense to me that it could have been the next part to a stupid prank that began with the ‘fireworks’ that sounded a few moments ago. Because really, it’s a midnight movie, not a battleground. Someone just has a sick sense of humor. I could have thought that had I been there. Definitely. My girls made the decision to try the emergency exit. They and the others who wanted out were told, “I saw someone out there. It might be a shooter. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”
There was no way out. They were told that no escape option was safe. They made their way to seats near the front of the theater. “Some people scooted in for us, and we crouched down on the floor between the seats.” This is when I got a phone call. I had only been sleeping for about 20 minutes (curses on my night owl tendencies), so my mind was in that dizzy place between wake and sleep, and I recall stumbling across the bedroom to find my ringing cell phone sitting on the floor next to my purse.
“Mom! Someone set off fireworks in the theater or something! We were just trying to watch a movie and someone does something stupid, and now we …” I really can’t recall the rest. My youngest was having a panic attack, and became irritated because I was repeating her words back to her as I tried to make sense of them, and also as I tried to make my brain wake up more quickly. She was fighting the anxiety as her voice strained and she held back the sobs that nearly always accompany her panic attacks. This made decoding her words even more challenging. To try to calm her and stem her frustration with me, I said, “Sweetie, I am having a really hard time understanding what you’re saying. I’m just repeating back to you so I can try to make sense of it. I’m really not trying to anger you.”
“No, Mom. It’s me.” My other daughter was on the line now. Her sister had thrust the phone at her in frustration. She tells me some of the same things I’d already been told, and explains that they are crouched on the floor between rows of seats. What? This is something I cannot process. I simply cannot wrap my head around it. Even the fear that starts within me is somewhat muted, somewhat confusing and surreal. I am thinking, “Why is there no theater staff in there taking charge? Why is some stranger saying there’s a gunman? Who knows what’s true here? They better refund those theater tickets or give them passes for a free movie after this.”
(Yup. Straight to the bottom line; that’s me. But I knew my girls had bought their tickets days earlier and had been waiting excitedly for this night. We had even bought Batman Mountain Dew in the color changing can. I was angry that some jerk had played a joke and ruined it for everyone. And I was slightly conscious of the fact that there really may be a gunman in the lobby.)
The movie was blaring in the background as we spoke. Dialogue and music swelled, but there was also an exceptionally loud sound my mind was trying to comprehend. They told me they were on the floor hiding between rows of seats, but this noise suggested they were outside instead. “Are you standing next to an ambulance? It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance. What is that awful noise?” “It’s the emergency alarm in the theater, Mom. It’s going off.” “Oh. It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance.” Very intelligent response, right? Which led to the next comment, “Mom, it’s too loud in here to try to talk. I’m going to hang up now.”
This is the time, I later learn, when she was pretty sure they were going to die.
© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013