Hypervigilance often accompanies post traumatic stress disorder of gun violence survivors. Someone shot in a movie theater may choose to watch movies on television at home. Someone whose child was killed in school may be wary of sending their other kids back to school, whether or not it’s the same facility.
For some survivors, time eases the hypervigilance. For others, being afraid never completely fades. And still, many refuse to let the fear run their lives.
In June 2018, Pardeep Kaleka, whose father died in a racist act of terror six years earlier, was still feeling hypervigilant, especially in crowded spaces.
“If I’m at a coffee shop, I’m a little bit hypervigilant. If I’m in a public place, I don’t really feel safe,” he said, sipping a bubbly water as he sat on an outdoor patio of a Milwaukee coffee shop in June 2018.
Kaleka’s father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was president of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suburb. On August 5, 2012, Satwant Kaleka and five others were shot to death by a racist neo-Nazi, and four people were injured.
A former police officer, Kaleka said it took will power and a leap of faith to let his kids walk from his car into school after the temple attack. The Sandy Hook shooting happened the same year as the Sikh Temple shooting — just four months later.
“If I’m in a school, and I’m dropping my kids off and, you know, this was at the time that Newtown happened, that thing happened, and you’re just seeing it all over the place,” he said.
“And the threat is real. And that takes you processing.”
And during an interview a year later, Kaleka, who after the shooting went back to school to become a counselor, said he no longer felt fear in the same way.
“I think the hypervigilance has kind of left,” he said, sitting at a large table inside his counseling office in June 2019. “And I’ve been able to process through it. And it was really like saying, ‘Okay. I existentially embrace the vulnerability of life.’”
He says that outlook often leads to living in the current moment, while still hoping for a future.
“I have things that I need, I want, to live for. I want to watch my kids grow, I want to see them get married, I want to see my grandchildren. I want to see life,” he said. “But at the same time it’s just, I’m not going to be scared. I’m not. Either you can be scared of life, either you can be scared of the next shooting happening. Or you can, you know, really do something about it, and try to prevent people from getting hurt. And also not be scared of it.”
For Polly Sheppard, who survived the 2015 African Methodist Episcopal Church racist shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, fear of returning to her church, often referred to as Mother Emanuel, does not mean she is afraid to leave the house.
“The atmosphere is different,” she said of the church where her best friend Myra Thompson and eight others, all African Americans, were murdered by a white man who later told police he had hoped to reignite the race wars. “I get a kind of eerie feeling when I'm in there.”
Since the shooting, Sheppard worships at another AME church in Charleston. Occasionally, she will visit old friends at Mother Emanuel, but only during the day.
On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist entered the AME church basement where Sheppard and 11 other worshippers were attending an evening bible study group. They welcomed the stranger into their midst. The gunman sat with the group for nearly an hour, and when most of them were praying with their eyes shut, he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack, and began shooting. Nine people died, including senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, and four other church ministers. The gunman did not shoot Sheppard, telling her he wanted her to live to tell the story.
In addition to the fear the gunman hoped to bring, a faceless group also applied hatred and pressure toward Sheppard after the shooting.
“I got a message on my computer from the Ku Klux Clan one day after I’d been on TV,” she said. “Telling me to stay off TV. And, ‘We know where you live.’”
This was soon after Sheppard’s story aired on NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt. He interviewed Sheppard and survivor Felicia Sanders approximately three months after the shooting. Sheppard said she called the police about the message, but they did not track down the intimidating email sender. While the message frightened her initially, in the long run it mostly made her angry.
“I'm not actually that afraid of them. I just hate for them to even be able to tell me anything,” she said, frustrated that strangers with such a dark message could get onto her email. “But it didn’t, it didn't scare me to where I wouldn't go out or nothing. I was angry. But that's it.”
She paused and then smiled mischievously. “[If] I could catch him, I would ring his neck,” she said. Sheppard laughed in spite of the seriousness of the situation.
She did admit that, since the shooting, she’s not as active as she once was.
“Well, I’ve kind of slowed down,” she said, again uttering a quiet but deep laugh of someone who has known great joy over the years. “I'm not interested in going out too much. 'Cause it’s, — I realize I don't know everybody. But I can't be afraid all the time either. But I don't go out too often.”
She said that since the shooting her life has changed in other ways, too. Now strangers recognize her, and people known and unknown to her want to speak with her.
“Life is altogether different. And everybody wants you to talk. And everybody think, they think I got something special. Some people that they have seen all I saw, they wouldn't be quite as stable,” she said, adding that more than a year of counseling helped her. “I don't have anything special. I say, the Lord does it. And he's available to everybody.”
Sheppard, who said because of the shooting she has met civil rights activist John Lewis, South African former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, feels privileged to be one of the informal spokespersons for the AME worshipers.
Still, when people want to touch her, she takes it with a grain of salt.
“They say, ‘Oh I just want to touch you, I just want to’ — everywhere I go somebody want, they want to hug you,” she said and paused. “I think it's just amazing. They're just amazed that I'm still alive and my mind is straight. Yeah.”
And here came that laugh again.
Fourth of July: Parades, peppermint-candy ice cream, and fireworks. What could be more fun than these Independence Day traditions? If you are a survivor of a shooting, however, this holiday may not feel like a time to celebrate.
Exploding fireworks, or the crush of a public event like a holiday parade, can trouble survivors of gun shootings — even if the bullets never reached them.
Mindy Scott is a waitress who survived the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting in Las Vegas October 1, 2017, and drove many of the wounded to the hospital. Later she found solace in her closet when fireworks exploded on the next New Year’s and again on the Fourth of July. She, her 21-year-old daughter, and her two rescue dogs made it through together.
“I lived right next to the Strip. So on New Year's Eve, I got to hear all the fireworks from the Strip,” she said, adding her family moved to a different house after the shooting to try to get away from the horrendous memories.
“I hid in my closet with the headphones on,” Scott said about the Las Vegas New Year’s fireworks that occur every year. But this was not just any year. It was only three months after the shooting that killed 58 people and left more than 400 wounded.
“I sat with my dogs, my pit bulls, as they snuggled me,” she said. “And that’s how we did it through the night. And when it was done, we went to bed. It was just getting over that little hump. The next one was Fourth of July, of course.
“And it’s not the big booms. It’s the little ones, the popping ones that affected me. Or you just sit outside and somebody would, like, a month after the Fourth of July, people were still letting off fireworks. And that would get to me.”
It is not only fireworks that can spin survivors into a panicky flashback.
“It could be a vehicle backfiring, or a door slamming, or a car driving over a manhole cover that can send people over the edge,” Scott said, sitting in her new backyard a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. It is quieter than in her former house.
“Or we would hear too many sirens coming down the street. And it was almost like my heart felt like it was just beating out of my chest. ’Cause my anxiety would just get so high from it. I mean, now I don’t hear it.”
Pat Maisch, who survived the January 8, 2011, Tucson shooting, was credited for grabbing the gunman’s magazine before he could reload. Thirteen people were wounded, including U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, the target of the attempted assassination. Six people were killed, including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green.
Maish said she still can be triggered by being in the vicinity of the shooting.
“I would drive by there, and after I get over to Ina [Road] and First [Avenue] my hands, I just start flexing my hands because they felt really tense,” Maisch said. “One day I stopped at the light, and I found myself clutching the steering wheel tightly. And so, it does have a long-lasting effect on your inner being.”
Like Scott, Maisch said even the most common sounds can cause flashbacks.
“It doesn’t have to be a gunshot that takes you back. Right over Swan and Sunrise [roads], even though I know this big grate is in the street. If I am not paying attention and I hit that grate with my truck, just that ‘ka-kow’ will take you back,” she said. “You know, it’s just any kind of sudden noise.”
She added that even if a loud noise is expected, it can still have a negative impact. Approximately a year and a half after the Tucson shooting, Maisch went to a funeral during which there was a 21-gun salute.
“Even though I knew it was going to happen,” she said, “a 21-gun salute, I don't know how long that takes, but it shakes you to the core.” That is mostly because she had experienced the 33 rounds being shot in approximately 20 seconds in Tucson in 2011.
Like many gun violence survivors, Maisch has become hyper-vigilant.
“When I go to airports or crowded places, unintentionally or unconsciously, you sort of look around and see what’s happening and what you might do if something did happen. So that becomes part of your life, where you don’t have the freedom not to think about,” Maisch said. She slipped into the third person as survivors sometimes do, perhaps as a self-protective mechanism. “You look for that tornado shelter when you’re in St. Louis, you know, or Atlanta. You think, ‘What would I do if something happened?’”
For one survivor of the June 12, 2016, Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, going out at night has become a challenge.
Ricardo Negron-Almodovar, a Puerto Rican lawyer who moved to Orlando less than a year before the shooting, was not injured that night. In fact, he ran outside when the shooting began, and did not realize it was a major incident until he woke up the next morning. Still, it changed his life.
“It comes, like, it varies,” said Negron-Almodovar a legal services coordinator at Latino Justice, an Orlando nonprofit. “Like if I go out on a Saturday night to a Latin [music] place. That’s when it’s mostly there. But I still, like, I want to go out and enjoy and have a good time. I love going out to dance and stuff. So it’s kind of like a mess.”
The shooting still impacts his emotions.
“Sometimes I find myself getting very angry,” Negron-Almodovar said. “And I know it’s related to that, to that feeling of impotence almost that you had that day.”
Many gun violence survivors share these feelings.
Too many others, thousands — including children who were at school or simply walking in their neighborhoods — can no longer experience any kind of feelings, or participate in Fourth of July activities. They do not get to decide if they want to go to the parade, spread a blanket out to watch the heavens light up above them, or take a peaceful walk in the woods.
They are dead.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.