DDH_ICONS Mass Violence

Finding my Phoenix Feathers: Rising From the Ashes of Mass Violence

I realized there that I wasn't alone in this. 

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“I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” – Maya Angelou

Hello readers, my name is Deac, and I am a survivor of the Fort Lauderdale Airport Shooting of 2017.  Like many individuals impacted by mass violence, I prefer to be called a survivor over a victim. The term “survivor” conveys that healing is possible after trauma; that I was victimized, but I am not a victim. I kept quiet about the shooting for years. It wasn’t easy to process what I witnessed. That said, like the Phoenix, we are all capable of fortitude.

The story of the Phoenix draws parallels for many survivors of mass violence. As the myth goes, the 700-year-old Phoenix, a beautiful immortal bird, dies after setting itself ablaze.  Even so, the Phoenix is reborn, resurrected from the ashes of its own flame.  Like the Phoenix, the person I was before the shooting died, who I would become was still undetermined. For me, it took time to face the flames of adversity. I had to learn to fly with new feathers.

For years, I was afraid to leave my home. I endured constant night terrors, ruminating thoughts, flashbacks, and hypervigilance.  I knew I wasn’t the same person, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I was terrified of opening up; in my mind, it was too risky. Questions would swim in my head like, “What if my emotional gates break at the hinges and I emotionally drown?” “Would talking about the shooting make my symptoms worse?” “How can I possibly relay to anybody what’s going on inside me?” “Would I be seen as too sensitive?”  So, I stayed silent, coping in the shadows with some really harmful habits. I was angry, why had this happened? I didn’t ask for this trauma. I never requested to be part of the “Mass Shooting Survivors Club”.  Yet here I was, stuck and stewing.

Living in a state of disassociation became my new norm. Detachment was my new doctrine. If I didn’t talk about the shooting, the memories couldn’t hurt me. I was in denial; the impact of flashbacks and ruminating thoughts haunted me daily. After two years of silent suffering, I finally mustered up the courage to see a therapist.  In 2019, after countless hours of counseling, I was diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). The shooting was one of many traumas in my history.  That’s why I got the special “C” at the beginning of my PTSD diagnosis.  Getting that diagnosis was unexpectedly helpful. It legitimatized that everything I was thinking and feeling was valid.

That said, being able to intellectualize the perseverating thoughts in my head, was a double-edged sword.  I was relieved that I could identify the source of my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but now what? I knew I had to confront those unhealthy habits I started after the shooting. How was I going to cope without them?  It felt as if I had tried everything.  Meditation? Couldn’t sit still. Journaling? Frozen after the first sentence. Yoga? Panic attack at the studio left me more embarrassed than peaceful. More Therapy? After two years of intensive therapy twice a week, I was ready for a break. That’s when the power of peer support changed my life.

Peer support is a model of recovery that includes talking to someone with a similar lived experience. The role of the peer supporter is to provide validation, vetted resources, and non-judgmental listening to others impacted by a similar trauma or struggle. The first time I ever spoke openly about my memories of the shooting, outside of therapy, was in a peer-led group for survivors of trauma. During the first meeting, I realized that I was surrounded by people just like me, other Phoenixes fumbling to find their footing.  It was the first time, in two years I felt authentically seen and heard.  I realized there that I wasn’t alone in this.  That healing was possible, even if being “healed” wasn’t.  My experience, in this peer-led group of survivors gave me something that nothing else had, hope.

Survivor communities are tight-knit with reason; many of us experience invalidation, gaslighting, and judgment from those whom we trust most. Some of us have loved ones who are impatient with our emotions; they are ready for us to “move on” from the trauma. Common statements heard by survivors include, “Get over it” and “At least you didn’t die”.  This type of judgment is the reason why many survivors stay silent; not wanting to fan the flames of their own pain. Nobody wants to get kicked when they’re down.

Knowing what other survivors faced, and what they were able to overcome, helped me write my own survival guide. I learned better coping strategies, got out of my house, fostered new friendships, and focused on how I could help others. I was more confident and less reactive than I had been for years.  I was growing into my feathers. The healing wasn’t linear.  I had setbacks along the way, but the length of time it took me to recover from those setbacks continued to shrink. I had to trust the process.

It’s now been seven years since the Fort Lauderdale Airport shooting. Today, I’m no longer living in a state of disassociation I once was. Instead, I choose to be part of the movement that changes the status quo of mass violence in our country. Living in service to others helps to provide a special kind of reciprocity, I never could have imagined.  Each time I help someone else, I’m helping my younger self.  I can authentically say, that I am stronger, healthier, and happier than I have ever been.

My final words of advice for survivors of violence are these, please know that there are survivor communities ready to help you write your own roadmap to recovery. Your lived experience is indeed faceable and you don’t have to do it alone.  If you feel misunderstood, judged, or afraid, it’s okay to not be okay right now, but keep your hope.  Never lose your hope.

– Deac Michelsohn