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The Lasting Trauma After A Mass Shooting


More tragedies have struck Parkland, Fla., and Newtown, Conn. The father of a student killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was found dead on Monday. That came after two students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting apparently took their own lives last week. Of course, we do not know the exact reasons for these deaths, but the incidents have sparked conversation on how to support people after stunning tragedies over a long period of time.

Sherrie Lawson was inside the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard when a gunman shot 12 people dead and injured three others on September 16, 2013. Sherrie Lawson escaped by scaling an eight-foot brick wall. She joins us now from the studios of Colorado Public Radio. Ms. Lawson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHERRIE LAWSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The Washington Navy Yard shooting happened over five years ago. Can you begin to help us understand what life has been like for you since then?

LAWSON: Yes. I can describe what life has been for me since the Navy Yard shooting. It completely derailed my life. Escaping the shooting was extremely traumatic, and losing my co-workers was traumatic. I did know three of the victims and was working with two on projects. And in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, I was in shock. I was confused. It took a lot of time to process what was going on. But after about a month or so, my symptoms actually became worse. I wasn't sleeping. I was experiencing nightmares, panic attacks almost daily, especially when returning back to work. And after probably the third month of experiencing this, I realized that I was not OK and that I needed some help.

So I did seek out a doctor and was officially diagnosed with PTSD, major depressive disorder and severe anxiety. And I was actually dealing with some suicidal thoughts myself at the time because I felt like this was going to be my life forever. I didn't see it getting better, and I just - I didn't want to live like that if that's the way it was going to be.

SIMON: And may I ask - what happens when you hear about events like we've heard about this past week?

LAWSON: They bring back the pain that you feel right after the experience that you've had, and they can be also very triggering. So I've gotten a lot better because I have been in therapy consistently since the Navy Yard shooting, so for over five years. But when I do hear about recent shootings and tragedies, a lot of times I will begin to have nightmares again. My anxiety ramps up.

One of my my big triggers, actually, that I realized about a month after the Navy Yard shooting was that going into grocery stores was really difficult for me because I couldn't see over the rows of food. And in building 197, which is where the shooting took place at Navy Yard, it was a cube farm. It was just rows and rows of cubes, and it was a maze. And that environment, if I see anything similar outside - so, like, in a big-box store like Target, they can be extremely hard. So after hearing about tragedies, if I do have to go to a grocery store or something, I'll usually ask someone to go with me because it can be triggering. I've had panic attacks in the middle of a grocery store.

SIMON: Based on your experience and talking to others, do people ever get over something like this? Or do they just go on with as much strength as they can muster?

LAWSON: I don't believe that people ever, quote, unquote, "get over it." It's always going to be a part of you, a part of your story and your experience. And you learn to, you know, manage. And it gets - it does get better. I've gotten so much better, but I have been through a lot. The toll that depression and anxiety and PTSD have taken even on my physical health - but I can say five years out I am in a much better place through lots of different types of therapies and just really focusing on my health. I've had to make it a priority and let a lot of the other things in my life kind of go to the side until I could get in a better place. I know that we all can improve, and we all do improve in our own different ways. But I don't think that you ever, quote-unquote, "get over it."

SIMON: I'm so grateful that you spoke with us. Thank you so much.

LAWSON: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Sherrie Lawson, a survivor of the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard.


SIMON: And we want to pause here to note that suicide is preventable. If you are in crisis or know someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or text HOME to 741741. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.