Mental Illness

Deserving It

It’s probably been a decade since I first became aware that a year can change everything and nothing at all. At the beginning of the decade I began chronicling the changes and stabilities in my life around January 1. It was a habit, a reminder, a pros-and-cons list spanning 365 days of choices.

In 2008, I began thinking of my life in Februaries.

That year, I was a junior at NIU, and a young man named Steven Kazmierczak, an alum from my own department, came up to DeKalb from his apartment in Champaign-Urbana where he was a sociology grad student. He had wiped his computer and left no trace of his mind from the days before he did this, but he’d cut off contact with his partner and family for a few weeks.

On Valentine’s Day, a Thursday, he walked through a back door onto the lecture stage in one of the primary lecture halls on my campus, less than a hundred yards from my bedroom, and with a shotgun proceeded to kill five people (four women and a young man), injure more than a dozen others, and then kill himself. The event currently stands on record as the seventh bloodiest school shooting.

When we came back to classes a little over a week later, the discussion buzzed around the fact that he’d been treated for depression in the past. That he was crazy, and that this was the only explanation for it. Crazy people, apparently, kill people. At the time, I was in the throes of one of my worst bouts of depression and anxiety. I was adjusting dosages of medication to find something that worked, but I was well acquainted with what it means to have emotions and thoughts go well beyond your control.

That I thought I could be like him, and that others might consider me like him, colored my experience of that even in major ways. Few people knew I was struggling myself, and I didn’t have a lot of support, and it was scary. It was hard. On the other hand, it helped me remember amidst a population that sought to dehumanize him that he was human. That something awful had happened, but he was still a person, and as much a victim as anybody.

In keeping him human, I gained a better understanding of the nature of mental health, and the nature of others to demonize it so they could feel safer in an unpredictable world. The impact of this realization on my psyche, though, was less positive than I’d hoped at the time.

The consequences of realizing that “crazy” isn’t an adequate explanation for violence, and that violence is usually not something that happens in the ways your mind and society wants you to predict, broke me. I don’t talk about this problem nearly as often, because while depression has a stigma, it’s a much more common experience than the one I have. I’m no longer afraid to say I’ve had depression in most settings, because I assume there will be at least one other person in the room who’s experienced it.

However, as a long-term result of the trauma, I also suffer from sometimes intense agoraphobia. There are only very rare days when I can spend the entire day in public without essentially passing out when I get home. Work and classes are manageable, most of the time, but to go into a crowded space like a grocery store or my graduate university’s student union can trigger paralyzing panic.

In reality, I have PTSD, but it’s a diagnosis I don’t feel I’ve earned, and this is where the title of the post comes in. I’m not a soldier or a rape survivor; I wasn’t even on my immediate campus when the shooting happened and I hid away in my room for several days afterward. What triggers me isn’t the threat of or stories about violence–though sometimes those can be problematic, too, especially when it happens in places people would never think to guard against it–but being put into situations where something could happen that would change the entire circumstances of the location and the people in it.

My home was destroyed. I saw my bedroom window on the news as the backdrop for this horribly violent, terrible event. We were all afraid for a very long time. It irreversibly changed the entire landscape of our lives. I knew people in the lecture hall; I knew the girl who had to have part of her colon removed because of shrapnel damage that happened even after her boyfriend covered her body with his own–an action that cost him his life, the only man to be killed other than the shooter himself. And I knew Steven. Not well, but he was from my department; we’d met, been at the same places and parties.

Every point of reference in my whole life changed that day. The way I thought about strangers; the way I thought about sidewalks; the way I thought about emergency escape routes and fire drills and storm shelters. Today, seeing an emergency plan laid out on paper can set me quaking.

And yet I still don’t feel like I deserve for my feelings to be real. When I am triggered and can’t go out, I have to lie about the problem even to friends and family members, because I assume people will either not believe me or not understand the gravity of the situation. I can’t say this would be different if I did feel I “deserved” it, but maybe then I would at least be able to believe myself.

In past years I have reflected on the event itself, memorialized it with essays on living my life in memory of the things that happened and the ways we built an incredibly strong community to deal with it together. These things are still hugely important to me, and I have a very deep place in my heart for NIU and the people I knew and loved there.

This year, though, I’m also going to try to accept that it’s also changed the way my brain works. To accept that means coming to terms with the fact that although my experience wasn’t the worst, it was real, and it was traumatic, and it has changed me.

Memorial image via the Chicagoist. Six white crosses on the Northern Illinois University campus shortly after the shooting on Feburary 14, 2008, memorializing Catalania Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace, Daniel Parmenter, Gayle Dubowski, and Steven Kazmierczak, the shooter.

NIU Huskie logo with black memorial ribbon was made available for public use by the university.

23 replies on “Deserving It”

This was a really great, moving piece, and on an emotional level very relatable. I’ve never experienced this kind of trauma, but there are definitely feelings I have that I don’t feel I “deserve,” too. It’s powerful and important to share that and helpful to articulate it for those of us who never have quite managed it before.

I get this entirely and it’s a feeling I’ve been struggling with ever since I finally starting doing therapy last year. I look back at my childhood and while there are significant negative events in it, I have a hard time accepting the effect they’ve had on me because “oh my god other people had it so much worse, how can this be such a big deal to me?” But it simply is a big deal and I hope someday I’ll be able to really believe that.

Really great article.

Thanks so much for this honest article. A few commenters have touched on this, but I can say from experience that PTSD has nothing to do with the level of trauma and everything to do with who you are. I know I had that same reaction after I was in a traumatic situation–how could I feel so bad when other people seemed so much closer to the tragedy, etc. etc. etc. and they seemed fine or far less disturbed than I.
But the truth is, as you said, it’s your own experience and you can never predict how something will affect you and whatever reaction you have is OK. The best thing is to try to remember that, and be gentle with yourself as you get better. It takes time and patience to heal wounds like this.

Thank you for writing this.

It’s ironic, really, because on the one hand, I want to say that you’ve managed to articulate something that I feel regularly, that I don’t “deserve” to be so affected by the fallout from my mother’s alcoholism, my father’s inability to recognize it in time to protect me, that I shouldn’t be so continuously hurt and angry because hey, at least my life was relatively happy through my late teens, and even then, it’s not like there was physical abuse, right? I think this even though I know that I absolutely do deserve my feelings, and all the complications that they bring.

And on the other hand, I immediately feel as though it’s insensitive for me to even begin to compare my familial issues, however complicated and destructive, to what you’ve experienced during the past three years, which really goes to show just what a wonderful job you’ve done with this piece. Trauma of all kinds wreaks havoc and changes and feelings that are complicated and messy and not easily pinned down, either in isolation or in relation to others, with the added bonus of their never truly fading.

So really, thank you.

I admittedly don’t know that much about PTSD, but what I’ve been learning of late is that to suffer from it you don’t even have to be near the actual ‘trauma’. It’s an emotional response.

It took me a couple years to realize that my panic attacks at grocery stores and crowded concerts never happened until after 9/11. I knew nobody in the twin towers, I was nowhere near it…everything I knew was 2nd hand information, but I think in some ways it triggered something in me that I wasn’t even aware existed.

Nobody ‘deserves’ PTSD. But everybody has a right to say they suffer from it for their own specific reasons.

I have no words, except thank you for sharing, Anna. The label of PTSD for you is appropriate–don’t like “entitled” or “deserved” because those are judgmental words. It happens in different forms in different circumstances.

You’ve already gained so much wisdom from this one event and reported it with clarity and eloquence. Again, thank you.

Please see my reply to the comment above this. I want to use the word “deserve” because I have a right to the diagnosis according to my experience. It’s not a punishment for me; accepting that I “deserve” to have PTSD is accepting that the lasting impression on me from the events is real and legitimate and I have a right to feel the way I feel. I deserve it the way I deserve to eat when I’m hungry or sleep when I’m tired.

I’ve never really asked anyone this before, but do you ever watch movies or tv shows where people are in a mental hospital and felt jealous because they don’t have to pretend that they are normal?
I don’t know why anxiety comes with the compulsion to hide what you’re feeling, but I’ve found that the more I hide it, the worse it gets. Talking to someone, anyone, takes enough pressure off of me that I get past my episodes much faster.

Liiiittle bit. I wish I could be somewhere sometimes where I didn’t have to pretend like I have it all together all the time. Where I was actually forced to deal with my feelings and the odd thoughts in my head rather than suppress them until I explode. Like, the entire first half of last season of House – totally jealous in the way you mean. But, if you ever wanna send me a PM sometime when you’re feeling anxious, my inbox is open. Seriously.

“I still don’t feel like I deserve for my feelings to be real…”

That hit me in a very deep spot. Thank you so much for sharing this and for sharing your internal journey with us. I can’t possibly be the only person who has trauma that’s never quite found a healthy path, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me a possibility to think on for myself.

That was very moving. I was (and still am) a grad student at Northern when this happened. It was a horrific day for the entire community and I can only imagine how difficult it was for the students and staff who had personal connections to the victims. Your experience was indeed real and traumatic. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Thank you so much for this, Anna. The way you write about this always deeply moves me – and reminds me a lot about my experience with Columbine. Truth be told I deserve the pain from that one even less than you and NIU. I was friends with a boy who was shot and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life because of the Columbine shooting – but we haven’t spoken since the retreat we met at and I doubt he remembers me. I doubt I’d remember him now if it weren’t for Columbine.

I was 250 miles away when the Columbine shooting happened – at home. When I first heard about the shooting I thought it was happening at Columbine Elementary which was across town. Every April 20th, though, I remember what happened when I was in High School. Going through disaster preparedness trainings at the library, I always want to give a good telling-off to the people who are scoffing. When I worked at a different library I was often alone in my section that was separated from the rest of the library by a long hallway. My supervisor told me that I was overreacting when I told her that I didn’t feel safe there alone late at night.

Thank you for writing this.

I’ve read what you have to say about this before, so I knew what to expect, but as usual, I find your treatment of this subject deeply moving. What I appreciate the most, I think, is how you keep from demonizing anyone (I don’t think I’d be strong or smart enough to do that.) Everyone is a victim, and it’s all too easy for everyone, me included, to forget it.

And that everyone does include you. What’s more, violence that results in triggered emotions is also violence against you, and you are a victim of that as well, albeit much more indirectly. I agree that you have to accept you have a right to be affected by what happened. To acknowledge that there are a lot of really scary things going on in the world. That trying to be blind to them doesn’t make them disappear. From my own experience, I’ve found that once you acknowledge the scary, it’s easier to calm oneself, to seek the help one might need, and to surround oneself with supportive people (or to discover that the people around you are more supportive than you expected – it can happen!)

I have gone on for way too long, so, like the previous commenters said, thanks for being brave enough to share this with us. I hope your goal for this year works out.

I keep trying to write something intelligent about this but I can’t. What you are struggling with is so close to similar issues I’ve thought about and struggled with since I was a child. In any case, much love to you. Thank you for sharing this.

Thank you for this article. It brought tears to my eyes.

I can relate to the idea of “deserving it”. Abuse in the past meant that I had a very hard time with relationships, and I felt guilty about my panic attacks because, compared to many people’s traumas, what happened to me “wasn’t that bad”.

Thankfully I’ve been able to work through a lot of the emotional damage, and I feel much better these days. I hope time and caring help with yours as well.

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