When a bullet tears a jagged path through a body, it may end one life…and dramatically alter others: the friend who was standing right there, the neighbor who called for help, the girlfriend who rushed to the scene. Along with those who survive physical injuries, these are the living victims of gun violence in America, an epidemic that kills 35,000 each year and cripples countless more, both physically and mentally.
This growing group includes survivors of mass tragedies, like the one in Parkland, Florida, as well as anonymous victims of random shootings and domestic violence. Because, while public massacres grab headlines (and indeed, more than 214,000 kids have experienced a school shooting since 1999), it’s the incidents we never hear about that disproportionately affect women. Nearly a million American women alive today have been shot at by an intimate partner, according to one study.
Together, these victims represent a little acknowledged or studied diaspora of trauma. “An event like this shatters your belief that you’re safe in the world,” says Gerard Lawson, PhD, a licensed counselor and professor at Virginia Tech, who helped coordinate the counseling response to that school’s 2007 mass shooting.
Survivors can suffer nightmares, flashbacks, and sleeplessness. For some, this morphs into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can linger for years, even decades. Up to 30 percent of people in Atlanta’s most violent neighborhoods, for example, have lived with symptoms of PTSD (the same rate as Vietnam veterans). And a pilot study found that black women in one underprivileged Chicago neighborhood also have high levels of PTSD, since many have experienced gun or domestic violence.
While treatment does exist, it’s often not available in the communities that need it most. Meanwhile, the guns keep firing, and the media plays new horrors on a loop, causing some survivors to relive their pain again and again.
To map the invisible scars that remain after a trigger is pulled, we asked four victims of recent and long-ago gun incidents to describe the moment their life changed — and their ongoing quest to heal.
“I walked around numb.”
Melissa Falkowski, 35 · Parkland, Florida
A rampaging gunman attacked her school on February 14, 2018
When the fire alarm went off, I was with my fourth-period newspaper class. I told them, “Let’s go.” But in the hallway, a security person sent us back into the classroom — she said it was a code red. The kids gathered in a corner, like they’d been taught. I moved them into a storage closet when I saw on my phone that shots had been fired.
Twenty of us stood shoulder to shoulder in that closet for an hour and a half. Some students were like “Ms. Falkowski, is this real?” Others were crying. They were on their phones, checking social media, texting other students. At one point, my mom called, and I could barely talk to her. I didn’t want to completely fall to pieces. I had to stay calm for the kids.
It wasn’t until I got home later that I heard the number: 17. I cried on my front porch, and that night I slept less than two hours — I couldn’t quiet my mind. For a few days, I walked around numb, not eating much. I couldn’t be alone or not doing something, so I threw myself into media interviews. I felt like it was my responsibility to keep people talking about what happened. I had planned to go to six funerals, but I ended up going to only three because I just couldn’t handle it. At one, for a student I’d taught last year, her dad stood up and addressed the shooter. He said, “You piece of shit. You killed my daughter.”
Some of the teachers are extremely traumatized. One, a friend of mine, hasn’t been able to come back to her classroom yet. I’m trying to help, but my husband has told me that I have to stop trying to solve everyone’s problems.
I worry that once things slow down, I’ll break down in moments of quiet. I’ve already been through phases where I was numb and in shock, then totally upset and crying, then angry. There are so many emotions. You don’t know which one you’re going to get at any given time.
“My mind blacked out.”
Bre’Anna Jones, 27 · Chicago
Her fiancé was murdered on the street by a lone shooter on July 25, 2016
I called him my gentle giant. Jonathan looked intimidating, but he was super sweet. He was a basketball player who took his college team to the NCAA tournament before going pro in Canada. He eventually wanted to make it to the NBA.
We both grew up in violent parts of Chicago, but we really felt like we beat it. We had moved to the suburbs and were planning our wedding.
On the day it happened, I was at work when I started getting texts from his mother. I called her, and she was hysterical. I remember her saying, “He’s dead, he’s dead.” I asked, “Who’s dead?” She responded: “Jonathan. They killed him.”
I said, this can’t be true. I checked Facebook, and the first thing that popped up was a video of him lying on the ground. We’ve heard so many stories that I don’t know what to believe, but it seems he was targeted. He was with friends, going to work out with his old high school coach, and he was the only one who was shot.
At first, I was so angry. We went to speak with a woman about the funeral, and she said, “Give it some time. You’ll find love again.” My mind blacked out. Next thing I knew, I was asking my mom what happened. She said, “You went haywire. You flipped that lady’s desk over.” I had to apologize. That’s not me.
I couldn’t go back to our condo, so my mom moved our stuff into storage. I know it sounds weird, but I kept some of his T-shirts and socks in a Ziploc bag to preserve his scent.
Our 5-year-old daughter still looks at pictures of him on her iPad almost every day. I hear her talking to him in her sleep. I’m really trying to figure out how to deal with this in a positive way, because I know she’s watching me.
Now, my anger has decreased, but I’m still sad all the time. Sometimes, I’ll go into this dark space for days, and I won’t talk to anybody, won’t answer the phone. A year after his death, I started working on a book about my experience. It helps soothe my mind.
“I never thought he would actually pull the trigger.”
Star Myles, 36 · Richmond, Virginia
She was shot in the head by her husband on February 22, 2011
From the moment we started dating in high school, he was jealous — he’d wait for me between classes, accuse me of looking at other guys. But in my eyes, it was love, him wanting to be with me all the time.
He threatened to kill me several times during our relationship, but the first time he physically pulled out a gun, we were in our 20s and living together. He put it in my mouth, to my head, to my throat. I never thought he would actually pull the trigger.
The night of the shooting, he was pissed that I was studying for a nursing exam instead of paying attention to him. I felt like he was about to hit me — which he’d done before — so I raised my hand in defense. I don’t remember anything after that. My oldest daughter, who was 11 at the time, told me I was holding our 1-year-old when he shot me just beside my eye.
The bullet ended up lodged in my neck. My daughter called the police, and my ex-husband is now serving 50 years without parole.
For a few years, I was so depressed that I left the house only for doctor’s appointments — I needed 16 surgeries, including one to get a prosthetic eye. The bullet was lodged near a main artery, so the doctors didn’t want to remove it. For years, I could hear a click every time I swallowed. Eventually, it worked its way out near my tonsil, and I had it pulled out in the ER. I kept it as part of my closure. But I still have bullet fragments stuck in my face.
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I started counseling, and little by little, I began going out. I always hid behind sunglasses because I didn’t like the feeling of people looking at my face, which was crooked and covered with scars. They couldn’t tell from looking at me that I’m a good person or what I’ve gone through.
My depression has improved a lot since then. I wear tinted eyeglasses now instead of sunglasses, but I still have rough moments and often feel frustrated by invisible complications — I struggle with multitasking and short-term memory loss. Sometimes when I talk, my words get twisted.
About two years ago, I started volunteering as a peer mentor to other victims of gun violence. Now, I’m an advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. I find it therapeutic to connect people to resources I wasn’t aware existed during my situation.
“I lived in that night constantly for seven years.”
Nurjahan Boulden, 33 · Rancho Cucamonga, California
At a nightclub, she was hit by a ricocheting bullet on July 17, 2006
I never saw the gunman or heard shots fired. One minute, I was laughing with my cousin on the rooftop of the club; the next, I felt a vibration in my leg and fell to the ground.
The man standing next to me was shot three times. I was lying on my side on the ground, looking at him. He bled out before paramedics arrived. In that moment, I accepted that I was going to die. And I did, a little.
I lived in that night constantly for seven years. I would be in the shower or the car, and in my head, it’d be me on the floor, the man dying next to me. Any loud noise or argument would just flip a switch and send me into a complete panic. I felt like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just get over it.
Every new shooting felt like it validated my fears. After the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, I became really depressed. How can you move on when this is just constant? It felt like the country didn’t care, that it was chaos.
I went to see a therapist, who told me I needed to tell my story out loud to heal. I’d never really talked about it, even with my husband, who I met a year after the shooting. I told him everything, shaking and crying the whole time. I felt like I released something.
Today I share my experience publicly and on YouTube to let other survivors know that they’re not alone. After the Vegas shooting, I started a Facebook group for survivors. But it’s still hard for me when someone says, “You were meant to live.” If I was meant to live, then what was I meant to do? Am I doing it right now? Am I doing it fast enough?