In a way, the mass shooting that occurred at my high school this February wasn’t so much personal as it was public. The whole country huddled around their TV screens to watch my classmates cower in closets, grieve their fallen loved ones, and march on Washington. But six months later, as the media attention, which had always bordered on the invasive, finally dies down, it often feels as if everyone outside of the city limits of Parkland, Florida, has elected to forget it.
Somehow, I can’t quite bring myself to blame them. If the violence that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had happened in some other small, unremarkable town—rather than my small, unremarkable town—I might have been just as quick to dismiss it from my mind. But now that I’ve moved 1,244 miles away from home, the disconnect between me and my non-MSD peers feels just that much more prominent.
Back in Parkland, our new reality is an unspoken and constantly looming presence. We are all anxious, we are all paranoid, and, therefore, this fact of our lives does not have to be explained. Here in the Barnard and Columbia community, on the other hand, my restless behavior and strange phobias are exactly that: strange.
I told my roommate that the world around me looks remarkably similar to how it did the day before the worst day of my life, only darker, stormier, and crueler. Every man on the street with his hands in his pockets is reaching for his gun; every unlocked door is an assailant’s entry point; every police car with its lights on is responding to mass casualties, and someone I know and love is a victim of those casualties.
I jump at loud noises, cry while reading the news, and wake up sweating—still desperately trying to outrun my dreamed attacker. All of my “normal” anxieties about moving away from home are amplified by the perpetual threat of death. I painstakingly prepare myself for social situations because post-traumatic stress has become my own personal villain.
The intricacies of small talk escape me. The honest answers to questions like “Where are you from?” “What was your hometown like?” “Where did you go to high school?” make people uncomfortable: They flinch, shift their gaze, mumble hasty apologies. The most significant moments of my high school senior year—some terrifying, some heartbreaking, some so twisted that all I can do is laugh at the surrealism of it all—are isolating in their uniquely horrific nature.
My situation is unusual, but I am by no means the only one suffering. While searching for Barnard and Columbia PTSD support groups, I stumbled upon many organizations for college students enduring the loss of a parent, chronic illness, eating disorders, and parental substance abuse. I realized that, if not for the loss of life I witnessed this year, I would never have considered the struggles of students balancing extreme hardship with academics, extracurriculars, social events, and personal time. The first year of college is supposed to be one big glorious adventure in which we immerse ourselves into a new life, but after a personal—and public—tragedy, your world stops. Still, everyone else’s keeps spinning.
How do we, the survivors, catch up?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer or even a right answer to this question. I could list the merits of being open and honest and while it is probably at least partially beneficial, it certainly didn’t make me feel much better. But then again, neither did anything else.
I wish I had a more positive ending. However, in keeping with the “open and honest” BS, I will be the first to tell you that tragedy, for lack of a better expression, freakin’ sucks. Nothing about this is fun, or welcome, or fair. But we all have survived this far, so I suppose we will continue to heal. Maybe we can all do it together from our home in New York City.
Isabelle Robinson is a first-year student at Barnard College studying English with a concentration in something, probably. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Debbie Downer runs alternate Thursdays.
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