Kat Atwell is a freelance writer, blogger & stage presence telling stories that deliver laughs, validation & community.

Mental Health | Wellness & Self Image | Experiential & Reviews

Afraid.

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Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.
— John F. Kennedy

I was going to write about my school shooting-related fears a few weeks ago when a young woman flew from Miami to Denver, presumably with the intent to harm students in our metro area a few weeks ago. That was the same week as the 20-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings.

It was too hard. I couldn’t do it.

On April 20th, 1999, I lived in Denver. Driving down I-25 (the major north-south highway that runs through the city), and I was happy. I was on my way to a weekend getaway in the mountains with some girlfriends. In a split second, though, I went from being happy to being terrified. My car was suddenly engulfed by emergency vehicles. It seemed like every police car, ambulance, and firetruck in the metro area had appeared and swarmed around me. I didn’t even have time to move to the side of the road. They flew past, sirens blaring. The music I’d been listening to on the radio was cut short, a person’s voice suddenly came on, frantically trying to describe that there was a mass shooting in progress at a school in Littleton. I was dazed, frozen. The emergency vehicles that had swarmed moments ago disappeared ahead of me. Numbly, I continued my drive into the mountains, listening to as much of the news reports as I could stomach.

I spent most of the time in the mountain condo staring at the news on the television, crying with my friends and wondering how this could have happened. When it got to be too much, we attempted to watch a movie. That went on until we couldn’t stand not knowing what was happening next on the news. It went back and forth. It was awful.

I clung to the phrase, “Columbine strong.”

Later that year, I moved back to Kansas City for unrelated reasons. However, I knew that eventually, I wanted to return to Colorado. And return I did, in 2005. Because it felt like this place - this city - was my home.

Seven years later, in 2012, the Aurora movie theater shooting took place. People I knew lost friends that night. Again, it was this frenzied, petrifying experience. And again, it was so close to my home. By this time, too, I had a daughter; she was five at the time.

Between 2005 and 2012, there were more mass shootings -the Virginia Tech and Fort Hood massacres come to mind. One of my friends in Kansas City lost her best friend in a random shooting at a mall. During that same period, I’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I lost one of my best friends to suicide, and my daughter was born. I walked through the halls of Columbine High School to meet with teachers about their retirement. All of these events changed the trajectory of my life.

Later in 2012, the Sandy Hook massacre took place. At an elementary school. Children died. Children the same age as my daughter.

I’d watch the news and stumble around online every time another tragedy occurred, watching the discussion quickly morph from details about the shooter(s), to details about the victims, to debates about gun control.

I jumped into the mental health fray, volunteering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I met Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the boys who was responsible for the Columbine tragedy - he was a young man who lost his life that day, too. My perspective shifted a little. I hadn’t looked past the victims. I hadn’t thought about the parents and siblings impacted.

Watching shows like Law & Order and CSI became too hard for me for a time, which was frustrating, because I love crime dramas. There were too many references to the bad guys “being” bipolar, or schizophrenic.

I live with bipolar. I’m not a murderer. I don’t have homicidal ideation. I don’t live with suicidal ideation, either. The vast, VAST majority of people who live with mental illness do not. But, trying to educate society about the fact that people with mental illness who do harbor harmful thoughts are exponentially more likely to self-harm than go on rampages just seems insignificant. There aren’t headlines about the number of people with bipolar (or schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder, etc.) who die by suicide. I doubt there ever will be.

People aren’t scared of folks who die by suicide. Those tragedies are hidden; silent.

Unless, of course, the person who has lost their life to suicide first endured the trauma of surviving a massacre earlier in their life.

And I am so sorry for putting this thought out there. I am ashamed about so much of this.

I don’t mean to sound callous. A life lost is a life lost, period. And it’s heartbreaking. There’s a ripple effect that touches hundreds, thousands, millions. I still carry the pain of losing Chris nine years ago. It doesn’t make me scared, though, it is a deep sadness that threatens to smother me from time to time, but I’m not afraid of that kind of pain.

I don’t think most people are.

Three weeks ago, though, when again, all of our news sources were running nonstop with vague details about a woman “somewhere in the front range area” who had purchased a gun upon arrival in Denver, forcing most of the schools (my daughter’s included) to go into lockout - that scared me. That made me desperate to protect my daughter, to watch the news obsessively, trying to somehow intuitively sense if this woman was going to show up at my daughter’s school with a gun.

I absolutely kept her home the next day. But that was one day. She saw it as a vacation. I saw it as a 24-hour reprieve from my anxiety related to her being somewhere unsafe.

I remember being dumbfounded when my daughter, back in 2012, experienced her first lockdown drill. Back then, she was confused and afraid about why they had to happen. She was in kindergarten then. Now, in 6th grade, she perceives the drills as a nuisance, much like I’d roll my eyes back in the 80’s and 90’s when we’d have to file out for a fire drill.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on how this impacts our teachers, the administrations, and the staff at schools everywhere. I used to joke about not following in my mom’s footsteps to become a teacher because I didn’t think I had the patience to deal with the parents and administrations, much less serve as a role model for kids. Now, if I was to be asked, I’d say it was because I’d be too afraid. Sure, adults in schools have always been there to protect our children in some capacity, but until the Columbine massacre occurred, I never considered they would literally be risking their lives.

And yes, I understand that gun violence can occur anywhere, at any time. If I think about that fact too hard, though, my anxiety spirals to a point where I’m paralyzed. And I still have to leave my house. I still have to assume my friends and family are OK when they’re out in the world. Waiting for the worst to happen is no way to live a life. But, sometimes, our brain chemistry makes that simple fact really hard to process.

Yesterday, in Highlands Ranch, yet another suburb of Denver, another massacre took place. I watched the news footage of parents running through yards in a frantic attempt to reach their children - to find out if their kids were safe - if their kids were alive. My heart pumped in my ears and my throat closed up. This happened in a K-12 school. My daughter attends a K-12 school. Oh god. What if? What if? What if?

Later that evening, I figured it was in her best interest that my daughter be made aware of what happened, so I told her. Her 11-year old eyes widened a bit.

“Was it close to us?”

“Well, it wasn’t in our neighborhood, no. It was closer to Ikea.”

Ikea is roughly 15 miles away, I think. Just for scale. I had to grab a landmark she would recognize.

“Oh, well I’m glad it wasn’t nearby. Those poor people, though.”

And that was it. She went back to organizing her Pokemon cards.

This morning, getting her ready for school, I went through the motions of waking her up, snuggling and giggling with her in bed for a few minutes before heading to the kitchen to make her lunch and begin the two-minute shouting reminders for her to get out of bed, get dressed, brush her hair, etc.

Also, obviously, I poured myself coffee.

I drove to her school on auto-pilot. We noticed the fog, listened to Ed Sheeran, and laughed. And then I pulled into the parking lot of her school. Suddenly, I wasn’t having a normal morning. My breathing shortened and I had to swallow back tears. Fortunately, my daughter didn’t notice.

As she was pulling her backpack out of the car, I started rambling. “I love you. I want you to know how much I love you. I’m so proud to be your mom. You’re such a wonderful kid. Be kind today. Thank your teachers for being such great people. Do your best. Try to have a fun day. I love you. Honey, I need to make sure you hear me. I love you.”

She laughed, told me I was “the mom bomb dot com,” blew me a kiss, and skipped off to the front door.

I drove to a nearby parking lot and cried. I had said all those things because in the back of my mind, I was thinking about whether or not that would be the last time I saw my daughter.

It’s going to be difficult not to grab her and squeeze her when I pick her up after school today. It’s going to be hard not to seem frantically relieved.

I’m already scared about taking her to school tomorrow.

This is not a way to live. I don’t want to become numb to this kind of ongoing atrocity, but I don’t want to continue to live in fear, waiting for a gun somewhere to fire.

I just want to love my kid and keep her safe.



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