Long Reads

“I survived a mass shooting - but I will never get over the trauma”

In January 2011, Emma McMahon, now 25, was waiting to meet a politician in Tucson, Arizona, when a 22-year-old man pulled out a gun and opened fire at the crowd. McMahon was saved by her mother, who was shot three times shielding her. Both survived. Here, McMahon tells of the psychological impact of surviving a mass shooting - and questions whether enough is being done to support survivors.

I was with my parents and younger brother waiting outside of a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, to meet our Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. I had worked for her the summer before as a congressional page, a programme for juniors in high school to work at the House of Representatives and go to school in Washington DC. During my time as a page, I didn’t get to meet Gabby, so when we heard that she was going to be at one of our local grocery stores, my family and I planned our trip.

It was a sunny day, typical for Arizona winters. I was 17, a senior in high school, still working on college applications. My mum and I were waiting in line while my dad and brother were in the car park about 15 feet away.

I was filling out a form when I heard what I thought were fireworks. I looked up and saw a man walking down the line aiming a gun at people’s heads. The shooter was at point blank range, less than three feet away. My mum pushed me against a wall, blocking me from the shooter’s line of sight. She was shot three times protecting me, in the back of both her arms and her lower back.

People gather at a vigil for victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, which claimed the lives of 11 people last weekend

A nearby shop employee reported that he heard around 15 to 20 gunshots, before the shooter ran out of bullets and stopped. A woman grabbed the magazine he was trying to reload and this gave the opportunity for a man - a 74-year-old retired army colonel - to tackle him to the ground. It had been less than 30 seconds.

I was in total shock. I don’t remember people panicking per se, but everyone sprung into action to take care of those who were wounded and dying. The first thing I did was call 911 because it had been drilled into me that after an emergency, that’s what you were supposed to do.

There were medical professionals (who happened to be there already) helping people who had been shot. There were people holding down the shooter before the police arrived. There were others who were extremely distressed, crying and wailing over loved ones who had been killed, but it’s not what I would have described as panic.

I was very methodical and logical - again, I was in shock. I knew that my brother and I couldn’t join my Mum in the ambulance and that my Dad would have to go with her, meaning we needed to get a lift to the hospital. So I called around until I found someone who could come and pick us up.

In total, six people died, including a nine-year-old girl, while 13 others were shot.

Within four minutes of the first call being made to the emergency services, the police arrived. The shooter, later identified as Jared Lee Loughner, was subdued by several bystanders until he was arrested by officers at the scene. Although he had two previous offences before the shooting - including drug possession - he passed the background check to buy his gun. People who knew him described how he had abused alcohol and drugs and also spoke of his obsession with Congresswoman Giffords.

He pled guilty to 19 charges of murder and attempted murder and was sentenced to life in prison in 2012. Giffords was shot in the head and was taken to hospital. She suffered a severe brain injury but survived and underwent rehabilitation to help recover her ability to talk, speak, read and write, although she still struggles with her eyesight.

Immediately after the shooting, McMahon says she was in shock and straight away began to feel the effects of surviving the traumatic event.

A woman lights a candle for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh

I began experiencing flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. Usually something would trigger them. For example, any loud noise that sounded like a gunshot - a car backfiring, fireworks or loud bangs. The smell of gunpowder - surprisingly similar to the smell of a car accident - would immediately transport me back to that moment. I would feel as if I was there, in danger and unable to escape.

Seeing the shooter’s face would also give me flashbacks. So when the story was first in the news, and I would see a photo of his face, the same thing would happen. Now other, seemingly unrelated things, also cause me to panic, most notably crowds. I didn’t have a problem with them before the shooting but now they make me very uncomfortable.

I have panic attacks less and less as time goes on, although I still experience very violent nightmares where I am being pursued by a shooter who is killing everyone in his path. I also have nightmares where I have been kidnapped and forced to watch people being executed and shot in the head. I was officially diagnosed with PTSD last year, over six years after the shooting. Following my diagnosis, I started having regular individual counselling. 

People join a rally to demand political leaders stop gun violence in June 2018

In terms of my work and everyday life, I really struggled in college. I didn’t realise at the time that this was mainly because of the trauma, and the anxiety caused by that trauma. I had always done very well in school and so I expected to excel in college, but PTSD really blocked me from success. A lot of my symptoms were similar to depression and anxiety; I struggled to ask for help, I was overwhelmed all the time, I didn’t sleep well and I had trouble concentrating. None of these symptoms helped me to be academically successful.

I had days when I couldn’t do my coursework, or show up to the on-campus part-time job I was working at alongside my studies. As a result, I didn’t do as well as I could have. This led to me being incredibly hard on myself; at the time, I wasn’t aware of the way the trauma was affecting me, and just thought I was lazy or not very smart. That I wasn’t trying hard enough.

But the trauma impacted my life in ways that I am only now just starting to understand, more than seven years after the shooting. It colours the way that I think about situations, and changes my reactions to unrelated situations. 

Any time I am in a new space, my first reaction is to think of an escape route and find hiding places in case something happens. I used to do this everywhere I went: friends’ houses, classrooms, airports and stores. Now, concerts and movie theaters are probably the worst for me, while anything that is a wide open venue is especially bad.

Even though the shooting has changed integral parts of myself, I am often hesitant to tell people about it. Partially because when I tell people, I am bringing the reality of gun violence in America closer to them.

Another reason is that it’s traumatising to tell the story, so I try and do it sparingly. Finally, and probably the biggest reason, is that people treat me differently once they know. Especially at the beginning, people would treat me like I was made of glass, and that anything they did would break me. This drove me nuts and I trained myself out of sharing the story in order to avoid it. I think this stunted my friendships and romantic relationships with people, since I was always holding back.

People lay tributes to the victims of the Santa Fe high school shooting, which claimed 10 lives in May 2018

My family and I had access to special services. People in the community provided things like counseling free of cost as a donation because they were moved by the shooting. I went to therapy with my family for about six months after the shooting.

I also now have access to free or low-cost Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (a form of psychotherapy) through the non-profit that I have done advocacy with, Everytown for Gun Safety.

However, I went for six years between any sort of specialised, discounted, or free services. I found it incredibly difficult to find counsellors with experience in trauma and PTSD.

I personally found it difficult to find counsellors because I was going to a college that was relatively isolated. We had on-campus counsellors, but they didn’t do long-term treatment, and none of them had experience working with trauma survivors.

Even after I graduated, the first few counsellors I saw were not specifically trained in how to deal with trauma. I also know it takes a lot out of therapists; for example, my current therapist limits the number of trauma survivors that she sees because it takes a toll on her mental health.

Also, even though gun violence and mass shootings are a part of American culture, I have yet to find a therapist who specialises in gun violence survivors.

I don’t think that my mum protecting me that day changed our relationship. I was very lucky because she was always there to keep me safe.

However, what did change our relationship was me having to take care of her after she was shot. I was used to being the one who was looked after. It also made me realise that my parents - and mum specifically - are mortal, and they aren’t going to be around forever.

When we hear of victims of gun violence in the US, many of us think of those who lost their lives - such as the two people killed in a shooting at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, earlier this year. But thousands of people who survive shootings are left with psychological scars and catastrophic injuries. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 315 Americans are shot every day on average, causing 93 deaths per day.

In recent years, groups and networks for survivors of gun violence have emerged to provide support and call for an end to shootings. The Everytown Survivor Network was launched in 2015, following the attempt to assassinate Giffords. The Gun Violence Survivors Network helps survivors and their families deal with the emotional and physical aftermath of violence - and to help communities affected cope.

Images: Getty

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