Picture Day

The 24/7 vigil for my daughter’s safety continued. It was President’s Day weekend, just a few days past Valentine’s Day. My stepdaughter had been keeping up regularly with the goings-on at our house, and she offered to return home with us after Saturday night’s family dinner celebrating her grandfather’s birthday.

She left her two small children in the care of her more-than-kind husband, and came to offer her support, wisdom, and insight. I will forever be grateful for that gesture of love and caring.

I took advantage of her presence and went in to work for a few hours on Sunday, knowing that the week ahead was unpredictable at best. I could not neglect my work duties, though I could not even guess at what the next days might hold.

President’s Day arrived on Monday and my daughters and I prepared for a scheduled appointment of pictures for the church directory. No one but my stepdaughter, my two daughters, and I knew the incongruous events that were unfolding: self harm and suicidal ideations resulting in a “homebound hospitalization” lockdown, punctuated by curling irons and mascara as we prepared to take a family portrait.

 mascara

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

My stomach was queasy with anxiety, and the whole thing was ironically laughable. But true to form and in imitation of her wonderful father, my stepdaughter brought moments of laughter and fun as we posed in front of the photographer in a corner of the church sanctuary.

She shared private jokes with my daughters under her breath, loud enough for only them to hear and respond with laughter just as the camera snapped. Her presence is a bright spot in the memory of an otherwise truly awful day.

The evening before the four of us had been sprawled in the family room watching a movie together. My “lockdown daughter” has always been an artist at heart. She spent many hours during her most depressed times drawing pictures that may have seemed innocent enough at first glance, but a closer look revealed a dark poem, morbid musings, or subtle death motifs. Other drawings were blatantly filled with death, torture, or self mutilation.

Another theme of her illustrations was the mix of seemingly innocent childhood objects like dolls, teddy bears, and hair bows, with gruesome symbols of death, blood, and suicide. I had been told that drawing those thoughts and images could be a good help for my daughter, that they could aid her in processing some of the difficult issues she was dealing with.

While that was likely true earlier in her struggles, by this time it seemed more of a prophetic sign than a helpful coping mechanism.

 Bloody_doll_ETM_by_Ci_Sy_nestesia

(Photo Credit: http://fav.me/d28qt7c via Google Images)

As we watched TV that Sunday night before Monday’s picture day, my daughter worked intently in her sketchbook. After a while she leaned over and said matter-of-factly, “Here, Mom. Look.” She put in front of me a meticulous drawing she had just made of a young woman lying dead in a pool of blood. Was it a cry for help, or a blatant challenge?

My stepdaughter was preparing to leave and go back to her family after she helped us through our photo appointment early Monday afternoon, but she graciously offered to stay if I needed. I knew how badly she wanted to go home. I knew how badly her family wanted her home. I knew that asking for help even when I should is nearly impossible for me.

But this time, I did. “Please, can you stay just one more night? Just one more?” She agreed, of course, and it was the best thing I could have asked for. As it turns out, after our short drive home from church, all hell broke loose.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

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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.

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(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

Darkness Descending

After my husband’s death, I took over the off-site property management of an apartment complex he’d managed for years. I did my best to learn the job without the benefit of a teacher, and even managed to figure out some of the many details he’d kept brilliantly within his own mind, thus taking them to the grave. (I had plenty of one-sided conversations with him about this, believe me!)

But a year and a half after he died, the apartments were sold and the new owners brought in all new staff. Not only did I have to lay off some dear and hardworking people, I lost my own job as well.

I found more work relatively quickly, but the stressors of a sharp learning curve and constant change, both personally and professionally, were wearing me down. I missed the calming reassurance of my husband’s presence the most in the quiet, solitary hours of nighttime, so my sleep schedule was often erratic at best.  I was weary and worn, pulled on every side, knowing there wasn’t enough of me to cover all the bases that needed to be manned.

I felt that I was leading my little family into a new school year in about as unsettled a manner as I could imagine.

schoolbooks

(Photo Source: Google Images)

The previous fall, less than 6 months after my husband died, we were of course all still reeling with the loss. I had homeschooled both of my girls up to that point. They had always been involved in enrichment programs, youth groups, parks and rec activities, and/or homeschool co-op, as well as having friendships with neighborhood kids.  In the interest of allowing them to honor their own grief and needs, I let them each choose whether or not they would stay home for school.

My younger daughter had chosen to no longer homeschool. But my older daughter chose to remain at home for one more year, her final year before high school. She was an introvert to be sure, but had always made friends easily and was fierce and loyal in her friendships. She was compassionate and empathetic, with a heart quick to love, give, and forgive.

A year later, in preparation for high school, she had gone to freshman orientation. Later, we had walked the empty halls to find her classrooms so as to ease her in to her daily schedule.

As I dropped her off that first day of school, she was anxious and tense. “Mom, I just want to throw up.” I did my best to lovingly but firmly send her on her way, confident that she would make friends and find her place. After all, aren’t the majority of high school freshmen nauseous with worry on the first day of school? Don’t we all have to learn to make our way, to take a big, scary leap into the world at some point, and learn that we will indeed survive?

I watched with curiosity and concern while she went about making her way. I came to learn later that because of her quiet nature and unique style, other students made erroneous and unkind assumptions about her. Like all of us who were not in the popular crowd in high school (which by definition is most of us), she was misunderstood and unfairly mislabeled by adolescents whose opinions I wish hadn’t mattered to her. In response, she latched on to the first crowd that welcomed her.

They wore, for the most part, black clothes, black hair, black makeup, and hair in their faces to obscure wounded and mistrusting eyes. I observed relational dysfunction, adolescent angst, and the deep longing we all have to find a place where we feel loved and worthy.

They talked of things dark and macabre, and from them she learned of self harm and the relief they claimed it offered. While some of them had blonde hair and wore neon colored clothing and toothy smiles, they all shared a brokenness that drew them together. And I could fault none of them for the wounds that had been visited upon them.

I was sad for their pain, heartbroken and even angry for what my daughter was exposed to through them, but I understood that they were really just a group of wounded souls, holding on to one another for dear life. They were brokenness begetting brokenness. Still, when your child is in the quicksand, you don’t just feel sad that she has fallen in. You fight through hell and high water to get her out.

quick sand

(Photo Source: Google Images)

As we neared the end of December, my anxiety increased as I realized my daughter’s depression, confusion, and self harm were increasing. She had written a lengthy and scathing diatribe of a suicide note to her sister shortly before Christmas. And while many siblings may go through times of severe dislike and perhaps even loathing of one another, this note was particularly troubling. It was rambling, coherent, precise, and inconsistent all at the same time.

My younger daughter had the sad and scary task of first reading it, and then bringing it to my attention. I will always be proud of her for summoning the courage to do that.

Chaos, despair, and self injury were enveloping my daughter’s first four months of high school. The road ahead looked more desperate and steep to me than any I’d ever seen, darker even than the realization less than two years earlier that my husband would soon die.

In an effort to bring order to the chaos, my daughter and I went to see the family doctor who’d treated her for most of her life. He prescribed an antidepressant and made it clear that mental health counseling was not optional.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Responding to Your Teen’s Self Harm

“I wish he would just tell me it’s all my fault. Then I would know I could fix it.”  This is what a shocked and saddened father told me recently when he found out his teenager was self-harming. How do we process the fact that our adolescent is purposefully choosing to physically wound him- or herself?  How do we fight the panic as we wonder if this is a suicide attempt? How do we answer the ensuing questions: “Does my child want to die? What did I do wrong? How do I make it stop?”

I have been that parent. I have asked those questions. I have cried in bewilderment and fear, wondering just where I went wrong and how I can back up and make it right again. I have pondered what happened to that toddling child who looked to me to make the world right, just as I have wondered what has happened to me, the mother who lived in the illusion that I could do just that.

Mom and Toddler from Stock.xchng
(Photo source: stock.xchng)

There is a deep and abiding sadness when we realize that what we are dealing with is well beyond the scope of our knowledge or experience, and also has the potential to be dangerous and destructive in the long-term.

IS IT A SUICIDE ATTEMPT?
Many parents wonder if their teen is harboring a death wish, if self-harm is a suicide attempt gone awry. I certainly wondered this. It made no sense to me whatsoever. The good news is that the vast majority of adolescents who self-harm fall into the category of non-suicidal self injury (NSSI).

If the emotional struggles that prompt one to self harm are ignored or left untreated, it stands to reason that this could eventually lead to a higher risk for suicide. And certainly there is cause for concern that self injuries could become more severe and dangerous than intended. This is not a behavior to be ignored, but non-suicidal self injury is just that, self injury without the intent of suicide.

I sometimes explain it this way to friends or parents who are as baffled as I was: When I was young, back in the olden days, and someone was having a tough time, they might get drunk, smoke pot, or engage in promiscuous and risky sexual behaviors in an attempt to relieve their anxiety and sadness, or just to get their minds off their problems. Granted, those are pretty poor coping skills, and self-injury can be classified as that as well, as a poor coping skill.

Like other poor options, it doesn’t mean kids want to die. It means they want the pain to stop; they want a distraction from whatever is causing them distress. Ironically, they are causing themselves physical pain in response to emotional or psychological pain.

But more often than not self injury is a non-lethal attempt to escape distress.

WHY SELF HARM?
Why would anyone choose to carve their own skin to the point of pain and bloodshed? Why do some teens intentionally burn or bruise, pick at, puncture, scratch, pinch, embed foreign objects into, or otherwise harm their bodies? When I was in high school, self injury was simply nowhere on our radar. It just wasn’t thought of. Southern Comfort, joints, and parking cars in dark deserted areas were, but purposefully harming oneself was not.

In today’s culture, estimates say that 1 in 8 to 1 in 5 teens hurt themselves physically on at least a somewhat regular basis. Some numbers indicate that 1 in 3 to even 1 in 2 adolescents have tried self harm at least once. It may be unknown to us parents and other adults, but it’s quite well known among the kids themselves. It’s not an unusual phenomenon to them and science shows the release of endorphins (a ‘feel good’ chemical our bodies produce) when one self injures can in fact give temporary emotional relief. This can lead to repeated acts of self harm, as teens look for a continuing, albeit short-lived, reprieve.

Some teens say they practice NSSI in order to “feel anything at all”. This may not be typical risk-taking behavior as we think of it. For instance, if I wanted to really feel something, I might take a bungee jump off a land bridge just to feel the adrenaline rush. (Thankfully, I don’t need that much adrenaline to get through my days.) Sometimes the rush of self harm can feel addicting. It can be devastating to hear your child say they are engaging in ongoing self harm or other risky behaviors just to feel anything at all. In my experience, this is a clear sign that there are some serious concerns to be addressed.

Self harm is not so much the problem as the symptom.

IS IT MY FAULT? DID I CAUSE THIS?
Short of being an abusive/neglectful parent or person in your teen’s life, I would advise you to not point a finger at yourself or even at a spouse, ex-spouse, grandparent, or anyone else you might like to lay blame on for what your child is experiencing. Of course we have said and done things that have caused our children angst, anger, embarrassment, and exasperation. (Isn’t that our job??)

We live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people, and neither we nor our children are exceptions to that. We can second guess ourselves until we run out of breath and life, and we will always come up with things we should have or could have done better. Welcome to The Wonderful World of Parenting.

Here is an example from my own experience: My first husband left our family when our kids were 7, 4, and 2 ½. As time went on, it became clear that our parenting styles were very different. By observation as well as admission, it was obvious he was quite permissive, and I felt the kids were exposed to things that they weren’t ready for (such as R-rated movies in elementary school).

In response to this, I chose to be a more structured and sheltering parent, which most likely came across as overprotective and controlling. And perhaps in response to that, their dad became even more permissive. Were we trying to offset one another’s perceived parenting flaws? In doing so, did we cause confusion and frustration for our children? Of course. (And there are plenty of things I did just plain wrong on my own, regardless of my ex-husband’s actions and choices).

Life is challenging, and we all do the best we can with what we have. This applies to our children as well. Sometimes our best efforts fall short of the highest good. We keep trying, but we are far from perfect. Some teens (and some 50-year-olds!) are at a lower spot on the learning curve, and this can be part of the bigger picture of one’s choice to self harm. Sometimes mental health or emotional issues are involved, and sometimes we just need help learning healthier ways to cope.

Usually there is not one specific incident we can point to and name as the cause for self harming behavior.

WHAT DO I DO NOW? HOW DO I FIX IT?
Like the father mentioned above, we parents often question our own responsibility when it comes to our kids choosing to self harm. And like him, we may wish to have the blame placed squarely on our own shoulders so that we can guarantee the result: “I broke it, so I can and will fix it.” We hope to regain something we never really had in the first place: complete control. That control would seem to remove the possibility of an unknown outcome, eliminating worry and pain for both ourselves and our adolescent children.

But it really doesn’t work like that.

Remember that self injury is a poor coping mechanism in response to some kind of emotional difficulty (anger, sadness, anxiety, fear, and many others). Recall also that NSSI is more often than not the symptom, not the problem. We cannot go back and undo the many things that have caused our child’s struggle, nor can we wish into sudden existence the ability for our teen to skillfully and maturely deal with difficulties.

We cannot learn what our adolescents need to know; they must learn it for themselves. They must take in the possibility of acquiring better ways to cope. Then they must actually practice those better ways. Ongoing NSSI issues can, and often should, be addressed with the help of a trained mental health counselor.

This doesn’t mean we renounce the responsibility we have as parents, though. It means we don’t blame our kids or others, especially not in front of our kids.  It means that we take an honest look at things we ourselves could do better, that we have the courage to face the things that frighten us, and that we choose to enter in to the process of becoming as emotionally and mentally healthy as we can be.

The road to wellness can feel challenging and overwhelming. As my late husband used to say, “That’s why parents get paid the big bucks!” (Funny guy, he was.) But as difficult and scary as it may be, facing those big issues is the best road to health for all of us, and we give our children a great gift when we choose to offer such an example.

Threats and intimidation of your teen will do more harm than good, as will pretending everything is fine. Continuing self injury is a sure sign that some emotional distress needs to be tended to. Parental negligence or fear caused by threats will not serve our kids well in any way. While the majority of adolescents practicing NSSI may outgrow the behavior on their own within 5 years, receiving help is still encouraged. If we can offer our growing children better alternatives to handle pain and anxiety, why would we not?

Let go of the concern that your child’s struggles will reflect poorly on you as a parent. Choose instead to seek and make available the best help and support you can find.

And if contributing factors indicate that your teen will not be in that 80% who may eventually stop self harming on their own, then seek immediate help. If you see behaviors that concern you (such as depression, anxiety, substance use/abuse, change in personality or behavior) please be courageous enough to intervene on behalf of your teenager.

Oftentimes, in order for a self harming teen to change and heal, the family must change and heal as well. A good therapist – and a good parent – will look at the family system and help to identify areas that may have contributed to the difficulty. This is not a blame game, this is an opportunity to step up and learn healthier ways of relating to yourself and each other. It’s not a matter of “fix this kid”. It’s more a matter of “how do we all learn and heal and grow healthy together?”

Winter Walk from Stock.xchng
(Photo source: stock.xchng)

My daughter shares that her high school dance teacher used to tell her students, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Not that we will ever be perfect parents, but we can learn to use better, wiser skills, and to model them for our kids. My formerly self injuring daughter adds her own concluding thought: “In rehearsal, on the stage, and in life, we need to give it our all to expect rewarding results.”

We learn better so we can do better.

© 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