Theater 8, Part 2

Read Theater 8, Part 1 here.

*****

My daughters were crouched on the floor between rows of seats at the Aurora Theater only 2.5 miles from our home. Our phone call had been cut short because it was simply too loud in there to continue. Movie dialogue and music, growing crowd noise, and the piercing of the emergency alarm had sabotaged our conversation.

I lay in bed thinking it was probably a gang shooting, sadly not an unknown occurrence in the area. I figured the theater staff would come in, explain, and calmly evacuate everyone, handing them their free movie passes on the way out or at least telling them when they could come back to get them.

I waited to hear back from my girls. Nothing.

After about 15 minutes, I sent a text to my older daughter, who had been very concerned about her sister’s rising anxiety. “If you have to,” I wrote, “find an employee and tell them your sister is having a panic attack and needs to be away from the crowd. Maybe in an office or something.” This was at 12:55 a.m.

texting

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I pictured my younger daughter, shoulders heaving as they simultaneously tried to curl around and enclose her, breath catching, sobs racking the way these things happen when anxiety takes her into a place of full panic. Still, I did not yet grasp the enormity of the event. None of us did.

“Mom, I thought we were going to die. But I also thought that no matter what, I would do my best to make sure she got out of there alive, even if I didn’t. I had already decided that I would push people down, run them over, run past them, do whatever I had to do to just get her out of there.”

This is not the story that makes the news, but if you knew this girl, this big sister, and what she has endured in her 20 years, you would realize this protective determination was in itself a bit of a miracle. She took charge.

She led her panicked sister out with “We’re going. I’ve got you” as they joined a growing crowd finally exiting through the lobby.

They got to the doors leading outside when my younger daughter refused to exit the theater for fear of a gunman loose in the parking lot. “We are leaving and I am taking you home!” was the firm response from her sister.

So the younger, almost ever and always the leader in both mischief and fun, was taken by the usually more reserved elder out past the gathering throng of people, police cars, and emergency vehicles, loaded into the car, and driven the short route to home.

Granted, the younger cursed at the older pretty much the whole way. At the top of her lungs, it seems. But she had the grace to apologize a day or two later, after she left the confines of her locked basement bedroom where she hid for some time.

Unknown to me as I waited at home, the police blocked off the theater parking lot, putting it on lockdown just after my daughters drove out of it.

aurora theater parking lot

(Photo Source: www.transcriptionoutsourcing.org  via Google Images)

As I waited anxiously, having flashbacks of stories from Columbine High School (I’d had friends whose kids were there, who had hidden from the gunmen as best they could) and thinking my girls may still be crouched on the sticky theater floor, I was debating whether or not to call, to battle the piercingly loud emergency alarm, movie music, and people that had infiltrated and ended our previous conversation.

I was giving it “just five more minutes”, when suddenly there was pounding on my bedroom door.

“Mommy!” My 18-year-old threw herself onto my bed, onto my body, and sobbed in fear, anger, frustration and panic. I stroked her hair. She cannot be held when panic has hold of her, and even touching or standing close to her is normally off-limits until she feels she has regained some control. “It’s okay, honey. You can cry. It’s okay.”

Her older sister came into the room. We spoke a little bit, trying to piece together a clear picture in spite of all the confusion. “I don’t want to talk about it!” was all her younger sister would sob, eventually taking her refuge downstairs in the basement.

The next hours were spent online and in front of the television, trying to gather information, numb with the realization of what had actually happened and how close my children (young adults, yes – but my children nonetheless) had been to death and destruction.

aurora theater kusa tv

(Photo Source: www.scpr.org  via Google Images)

I remember the dawning thoughts of “Okay, wait. I think this is NATIONAL news. This is going to be everywhere. Oh, this is really bad.”

Thankfully, my daughters left the theater quickly enough to avoid the sight of carnage, damage, and bloodshed. They were spared what many were not. I am very grateful.

Even so, they were traumatized, adding yet another layer to what seem to be endless layers of challenge for our family. I don’t pretend to understand. I don’t pretend to be okay with it. I don’t pretend to think that the issues they were already facing will not be worsened and intensified by this experience; they probably will be.

But I will do my best to encourage them to face this head on, to allow for their grief and trauma to be processed (and my own as well), but not give it permission to control their lives.

These are ultimately choices they must make for themselves, and I don’t think we even yet fully understand what the entire impact of this experience will be. But I am not prepared to give up on their behalves.

One daughter is ready to head back to a movie theater, eager for the enjoyment she derives from films, toying with the idea of film production school.

The other is not yet ready to be on the light rail, or in a classroom, and especially not in a theater. These are the first steps and, faltering or not, they are necessary for all future steps.

“Mom, they’re calling it a massacre now.”

“Yes, I heard that.”

“I can’t believe we were there, Mom. I just can’t believe we were there.”

“I can’t either, sweetie. I’m so thankful you are home and safe, but I’m so sorry you were there. I’m so sorry you went through that.”

“Wow. Some day I’m going to be able to tell my kids this story, and that we were there.”

“Yup, you sure will.”

“I had a lot of friends at the movie; some were in our theater. Some were in Theater 9. But they all got out okay. None of them got hurt.”

“I’m so glad they got out okay. I’m so glad.”

“I just wanted to get her out of there, Mom, even if I couldn’t get out alive myself. I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“I know, and you did. You could not have made any better decisions than you made; you did everything right. Even if things had turned out differently, you did everything right, and I’m so proud of you.”

*****

Post Script written April, 2013:

It is now nearly nine months since the internationally publicized Aurora Theater Shooting.

My older daughter loves going to the movies, alone or with friends.

My younger daughter has been to one movie theater since July 20, 2012. It was one of those places that combines movies and dinner, where the seats are bigger, the aisles are wider, and the layout is not like that of a traditional theater. She was flanked by two trusted men, both members of the US Army, which was all by careful design. She knew what she needed, and she made sure she had it. I can learn a lot from that girl.

I am immeasurably proud of both of my daughters.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Part 1

July 18, 2013. It is now two days until the one year mark of the horrific tragedy that was the Aurora Theater shooting. Our city remains scarred but determined. I find that I can’t watch much of the local newscasts this week, though. And that’s okay.

In honor of those who lost their lives, those who survived their injuries, those who were “just” there at the Aurora Theater on July 19 & 20, 2012, and the families and friends of all the aforementioned: Please indulge me as I re-post (with a few updated revisions) the story of the time my daughters spent at the Aurora Theater that night.

colorado batman

(Photo Source: Google Images)

This account is written in three parts. The next two parts will be posted July 19 and July 20.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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 about two and a half weeks after what has since become internationally known as the Aurora Theater Shooting.

*****

“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.

movie theater interior

(Photo Source: www.mlive.com via Google Images)

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 what he thought might be 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? At the time he could not know, though he obviously believed it was someone who meant harm.)

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.”

emergency exit sign

(Photo Source: Google Images)

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 as I tried to awaken my half sleeping self.

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.”

mountain dew batman can

(Photo Source: Google Images)

(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 Mountain Dew in the color changing Batman 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

House Arrest

As we drove home from the therapist, my mind raced frantically. I was supposed to take both of my daughters to a weekend conference for teen girls, and the first session was to start in a matter of hours. Not only had my older daughter been placed on a 72-hour hold in her own home, I had been too.

This left my younger daughter lost in the shuffle once again. I ached so deeply for her, for all that she was losing and missing while I fought to keep her older sister alive. There was no way she could or should have to understand everything that was happening. But I also felt she should not have to have her life put on hold in deference to her sister’s struggles.

b&w-sad-teen-girl3

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I made some calls so that my youngest would still be able to attend the weekend’s events. It was hard to ask for favors from friends who didn’t know our situation, and I didn’t want to dishonor my daughter by airing her dirty laundry for her, so to speak.

Additionally, I did not want to put my younger daughter in a position of having to explain or defend or even vilify her sister. (This brings up the subject of the stigma of shame surrounding mental health issues, which is another post for another time.)

Finally, I reached my step-son’s gracious and generous wife, who agreed to accompany my youngest to the event we’d all looked forward to. What a remarkable and kind woman she was and is, to willingly change her weekend plans so she could step in and help us in our deep need.

They did miss parts of the weekend, and it was difficult and sad for my younger daughter knowing what was going on back at home. Even so, how could a sibling not resent, at least in part, another whose life problems were growing to take over the whole family, leaving everyone and everything else in virtual and unpredictable ruin?

I learned quickly that when you have to keep watch on someone 24/7, you don’t get to shower. You don’t get to relax, much less get any decent sleep. And you have to take really fast bathroom breaks.

You don’t get a chance to let down and grieve the fact that the person you are keeping guard over would really rather be dead. You just keep going. You have no other choice.

By Saturday, the day after her therapist had set up the 24/7 arrangement to avoid a mental health hospitalization, my daughter was already tired of me and her anger had returned full force. She wanted to leave home to go see her father.

She had already tried to run away. We had gone outside at her request, just to get out of the house. As we stood on the driveway, she inched her way closer to the street, eyeing me defiantly as I asked her to please come back up the driveway closer to the house.

Finally she did a quick double take and began to sprint. I caught her quickly, and in full view of the neighbor across the street. I grabbed her around the waist, wrestling her back towards and part way up the driveway, as she railed and kicked, ending with a scream of, “I hate you, Mom!”

She then went limp as a rag doll, landing on the ground with my arms still around her. “Oh, honey, right now I hate you, too” was the only resigned response I could mutter, trying to hold back the tears. I hate so much that I said that.

Our bewildered neighbor, meanwhile, was in his garage, staring, power tools in hand, wondering what was going on with that house full of females across the street.

confused man

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I hauled my teenager up off the pavement where she had collapsed and took her back into the house. And I agreed wholeheartedly that it was a fine idea for her to spend a little time with her dad.

“I’ll have her back soon,” he said to me as he picked her up. “Oh, please,” I responded. “Take a little extra time. I would really love to just take a shower today.”  We had a preplanned family birthday dinner to attend that evening, and I was in need of a good scrubbing by then.

Clearly he had never been the lone officer on duty during a house arrest.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

In The Beginning

It began about sixteen months after my husband died.

He’d battled a rare liver disease for a few years, his diagnosis coming less than two years after we were wed. His final two months were spent in the hospital, save for a Valentine’s Day discharge home that lasted less than 72 hours. About five weeks later, we gathered around him, saying our final goodbyes as he lay unconscious. The nurses, by this time very dear to me, were kind enough to turn off the alarms that began sounding after life support measures were removed.

Hospital Monitor

(Photo Source: Google Images)

We had cried, we had prayed, we had sung, we had told him the things we felt were most important to say, many of us at the same time. It was a cacophony of loving sentiments and earnest anguish expressed in the most grievous of times. He breathed his last. We lingered a while.  And then we all went home.

My adult step-kids and their cousins left to return to their families. (I sure love all those “kids”.) My in-laws drove back home after the death of their firstborn. (I love them even now.) My dear mother, herself widowed a few short years earlier, left with what I imagine were difficult thoughts at best.

My son (age 16) was living with his dad, so while he departed to a separate destination, my two daughters and I walked into our darkened and forever-changed home. And while I rarely allowed them to sleep the night in my bed when they were little, we all piled under my comforter together in the cold March darkness. It didn’t matter that they were 12 and 13 years old. No one was going to sleep much anyway.

Life changed, of course. In drastic ways that could not be undone. Grief is an odd phenomenon for so many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone experiences it differently. But we could say the same about life, couldn’t we? Everyone experiences it differently. The triumphs and losses a family experiences together are processed and assimilated uniquely by each individual.

As I did my best to adjust to being a widow, an unexpectedly single mom for the second time, my kids did their best to adjust to life without the step-dad that they had known and loved for more than half their lives. The wound was deep.

My older daughter, a few months shy of her 14th birthday when my husband died, began to grapple with adolescence in more marked ways when she turned 15. It was subtle at first, not nearly as obvious or aggressive as it became in time. She had always been quiet and observant, even as a baby. Though introverted, she was affectionate, with a natural talent for words, music, and bold creativity. But as she prepared to enter high school, any sense of worth or identity she had possessed seemed to disappear into thin air.

When the kids were quite young (ages 7, 4, and 2½), their dad had made the choice to leave our family. Having been the child of divorced parents from years ago (before the divorce statistics were so high, when – unlike today – I didn’t know anyone else whose parents had split) I knew the potential for damage to my impressionable children. I took them to a counselor, and the most useful long-term piece of advice I received was that, as young children of divorced parents, they would most likely struggle more than normal during milestone transitions as they grew up.

This had absolutely seemed to be the case up to that point, so when my daughter started to act out with impatience, eye rolling, frustration, and withdrawal, I chalked it up to the cumulative losses we’d all been through, plus the hellishness that adolescence in general can be. And I reminded myself that the ride would likely get bumpier than most, but we’d get through it.

I saw her as I saw her brother and sister: capable, full of life, with so much to experience and to offer the world. I hoped that as she entered high school she would be able to try a myriad of new things, to find her niche. I expected the confidence in her many talents and abilities would only strengthen. I was wrong.

I am not so old that I don’t remember high school and what it takes to try to find your way socially. In fact, I went to three different high schools in three different states all within the final year and a half of high school. I remember well. But as I said, we all experience life differently, and my daughter’s experience was nothing any of us expected. Her sense of identity and worth were shaken to the core. The beautiful and talented girl I saw was nowhere in her view. While I tried to reassure us both that she would return to herself, she was spiraling into an abyss of confusion and despair.

It’s worth noting that I don’t think there is one particular reason we can point to for this. I believe it was the culmination of so many things, both genetic and environmental, that landed my daughter where she ended up, with peers who tended towards emotional dysfunction and physical self harm. Her black hair, black fingernail polish, and thick black eye liner didn’t concern me near as much as the darkening shadow in her heart. She was trying. She was trying so hard. But she was at a loss, and I was simply not fully aware of all she was wrestling with.

Goth makeup

(Photo Source: Google Images)

At first she tried to make excuses about the cuts I saw on her arms and wrists. At first I tried to believe her. In retrospect, I can see that she was initially reticent and even somewhat delicate with her self injury. But as time went on, as her darkness descended, the increasingly aggressive scratches, cuts, and gashes began to mirror the turmoil she felt inside.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Part 2

You can read Theater 8, Part 1 here.

*****

I lay in bed thinking it was probably a gang shooting, sadly not an unknown occurrence in the area. I figured the theater staff would come in, explain, and calmly evacuate everyone, handing them their free movie passes on the way out or at least telling them when they could come back to get them. I waited to hear back from my girls. Nothing.

After about 15 minutes, I sent a text to my older daughter, who had been very concerned about her sister’s rising anxiety. “If you have to,” I wrote, “find an employee and tell them your sister is having a panic attack and needs to be away from the crowd. Maybe in an office or something.” This was at 12:55 a.m. I pictured my younger daughter, shoulders heaving as they simultaneously tried to curl around and enclose her, breath catching, sobs racking the way these things happen when anxiety takes her into a place of full panic. Still, I did not yet grasp the enormity of the event. None of us did.

“Mom, I thought we were going to die. But I also thought that no matter what, I would do my best to make sure she got out of there alive, even if I didn’t. I had already decided that I would push people down, run them over, run past them, do whatever I had to do to just get her out of there.”

This is not the story that makes the news, but if you knew this girl, this big sister, and what she has endured in her 20 years, you would realize this protective determination was in itself a bit of a miracle. She took charge; she led her panicked sister out with “We’re going. I’ve got you” as they joined a growing crowd finally exiting through the lobby. They got to the doors leading outside when my younger daughter refused to exit the theater for fear of a gunman loose in the parking lot. “We are leaving and I am taking you home!” was the firm response from her sister.

So the younger, almost ever and always the leader in both mischief and fun, was taken by the usually more reserved elder out past the gathering throng of people, police cars, and emergency vehicles, loaded into the car, and driven the short route to home. Granted, the younger cursed at the older pretty much the whole way. At the top of her lungs, it seems. But she had the grace to apologize a day or two later, after she left the confines of her locked basement bedroom where she hid for some time.

Unknown to me as I waited at home, the police blocked off the theater parking lot, putting it on lockdown just after my daughters drove out of it. As I waited anxiously, having flashbacks of stories from Columbine High School (I’d had friends whose kids were there) and thinking my girls may still be crouched on the sticky theater floor, I was debating whether or not to call, to battle the piercingly loud emergency alarm, movie music, and people that had infiltrated and ended our previous conversation. I was giving it “just five more minutes”, when suddenly there was pounding on my bedroom door.

“Mommy!” My 18-year-old threw herself onto my bed, onto my body, and sobbed in fear, anger, frustration and panic. I stroked her hair. She cannot be held when panic has hold of her, and even touching or standing close to her is normally off-limits until she feels she has regained some control. “It’s okay, honey. You can cry. It’s okay.”

Her older sister came into the room. We spoke a little bit, trying to piece together a clear picture in spite of all the confusion. “I don’t want to talk about it!” was all her younger sister would sob, eventually taking her refuge downstairs. The next hours were spent online and in front of the television, trying to gather information, numb with the realization of what had actually happened and how close my children (young adults, yes – but my children nonetheless) had been to death and destruction. I remember the dawning thoughts of “Okay, wait. I think this is NATIONAL news. This is going to be everywhere. Oh, this is really bad.”

Thankfully, my daughters left the theater quickly enough to avoid the sight of carnage, damage, and bloodshed. They were spared what many were not. I am very grateful. Even so, they were traumatized, adding yet another layer to what seem to be endless layers of challenge for our family. I don’t pretend to understand. I don’t pretend to be okay with it. I don’t pretend to think that the issues they were already facing will not be worsened and intensified by this experience; they probably will be.

But I will do my best to encourage them to face this head on, to allow for their grief and trauma to be processed (and my own as well), but not give it permission to control their lives. These are ultimately choices they must make for themselves, and I don’t think we even yet fully understand what the entire impact of this experience will be. But I am not prepared to give up on their behalves.

One daughter is ready to head back to a movie theater, eager for the enjoyment she derives from films, toying with the idea of film production school. The other is not yet ready to be on the light rail, or in a classroom, and especially not in a theater. These are the first steps and, faltering or not, they are necessary for all future steps.

“Mom, they’re calling it a massacre now.”

“Yes, I heard that.”

“I can’t believe we were there, Mom. I just can’t believe we were there.”

“I can’t either, sweetie. I’m so thankful you are home and safe, but I’m so sorry you were there. I’m so sorry you went through that.”

“Wow. Some day I’m going to be able to tell my kids this story, and that we were there.”

“Yup, you sure will.”

“I had a lot of friends at the movie; some were in our theater. Some were in Theater 9. But they all got out okay. None of them got hurt.”

“I’m so glad they got out okay. I’m so glad.”

“I just wanted to get her out of there, Mom, even if I couldn’t get out alive myself. I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“I know, and you did. You could not have made any better decisions than you made; you did everything right. Even if things had turned out differently, you did everything right, and I’m so proud of you.”

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Post Script:

It is now nearly nine months since the internationally publicized Aurora Theater Shooting.

My older daughter loves going to the movies, alone or with friends.

My younger daughter has been to one movie theater since July 20, 2012. It was one of those places that combines movies and dinner, where the seats are bigger, the aisles are wider, and the layout is not like that of a traditional theater. She was flanked by two trusted men, both members of the US Army, which was all by careful design. She knew what she needed, and she made sure she had it. I can learn a lot from that girl.

I am immeasurably proud of both of my daughters.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Part 1

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.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

“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

I Didn’t Know How

It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it. It’s more that I didn’t know how.

I’d had plenty of “Believe this and figure out how to live with it” challenges up to that point. I really had.

Years earlier my first pregnancy had ended in a complicated miscarriage that landed me in the Emergency Room. The graphic nature of the loss was jarring and disconcerting, to say nothing of the accompanying pain, both physically and emotionally. The grief was intense and stayed with me for what seemed like a long time, even though my son was born a year later.

But there was a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: Miscarriages happen. This isn’t the first time in history, and life can move forward from here. It really can.

Eight years and three kids later my first marriage came to a devastating and difficult conclusion that landed me in my first therapy session. The surprise nature of the circumstances caught me more than off guard as the truth of my husband’s infidelity and willful departure from the family we had created together left me wounded, but wiser.

But there was a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: Marriages end. And I will take this chance to learn and grow, and figure out ways to make more prudent decisions in the future.

Nine and a half years after that, my six-and-a-half-year-old second marriage came to a heartbreaking end when I was widowed, landing me on my own once more. The life changes were monumental, to say nothing of the heart changes that I had to face.

But there was even a mental file cabinet for that, helping me to make as much sense of it as possible: None of us will go through life untouched by the death of someone we love. And among the many gifts my late husband gave me was the fact that he believed in me before I was able to believe in myself. And so I knew that to honor him well, I would have to learn to live a new life without him next to me. It would not be an easy thing to do, but it would be the right thing to do.

Fast-forward about a year and a half, when my fifteen-year-old daughter began a supremely intense wrestling match with life, with herself, with all of us. And then she began to cut, to carve her beautiful porcelain flesh with sharp objects, leaving blood stained sheets and pillow cases, tender scabs that became fleshy scars, and an absolutely terrified and bewildered mother.

There was no mental file cabinet for this, nothing to help me make any sense of it at all.

It’s not that I didn’t want to believe it. It’s more that I didn’t know how.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013