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.
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.