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.