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I saw gun violence as a child. I carry it with me still

The author as a girl in Medellín, Colombia circa 1984. (Courtesy Lorena Hernández Leonard)
The author as a girl in Medellín, Colombia circa 1984. (Courtesy Lorena Hernández Leonard)

When I was a child I lived in fear of imminent danger. The possibility of being injured or even getting killed by gun fire was a constant threat.

I grew up during the Colombian drug war of the 1980s. Medellín, the city where we lived, had the highest number of firearm homicides in the entire country. Back then, Time Magazine named Medellín the most dangerous city in the world. By the time I was 10, I had run from multiple shootings, wrapped my skinny arms around my little sister to protect her from a gunman on the run, and witnessed a murder — the victim’s blood, pooling at my feet.

When I was 12, in 1989 (4,141 people were murdered in Medellín alone that year) my family fled Colombia for the United States, where we found a safe haven. But I carried the trauma of gun violence from my childhood to my new life in Boston.

Despite how safe I felt in the streets of the suburb where we settled, I had a difficult time integrating, making friends, trusting people. Like a shadow, nightmares followed me by night and paranoia kept me looking over my shoulder by day. Sudden, loud noises put me in a catatonic state –– the roar of a motorcycle, a dish breaking in the kitchen, someone sneaking up on me and yelling BOO! –– accelerated my heart rate, rendering me immobile.

But anxiety and panic weren’t the only symptoms I experienced. Depression clouded my mind, left me listless (all I wanted to do was sleep), and eventually lead to suicidal ideation and two attempts at ending the void I carried inside.

What will become of the children in Uvalde?

I’ve been thinking about my past because of the recent mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York and at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. Is this how the surviving children in Sandy Hook and Parkland have lived their lives since their traumatic encounter? I’ve often wondered. What will become of the children in Uvalde?

Undoubtedly, these violent and gruesome experiences have changed their lives forever. I know that a child who has been robbed of their innocence will never be a child again. But we consider them the lucky ones … they survived a mass shooting.

As a teen, I didn’t understand what I was going through, nor did I have the language to express what I felt. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My mother didn’t know how to help me either. I made my first suicide attempt at 16. The therapist I saw prescribed drugs I never took and a follow-up was never scheduled. This was the early 1990s — neither the state-appointed therapist, nor my high school counselors — were prepared to deal with a child in my condition.

A woman looks down at a memorial for the 19 children and two adults killed on May 24th during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 30, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
A woman looks down at a memorial for the 19 children and two adults killed on May 24th during a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 30, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

In my 20s, I learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, but I wasn’t able to address my own experience until I was in my early-30s. By that time, I had suffered in silence for more than two decades. My life, stifled by trauma, had been in a downward spiral. When I finally got the help I needed, I started to change –– the nightmares dissipated, I gained more confidence, and began to trust –– but it felt like a lifetime had gone by, wasted in the fog of PTSD.

After giving birth to my first child, and wanting desperately to be a mentally fit mother, I found a trauma informed psychologist who offered insights into my condition and gave me tools for coping — I was practicing mindfulness before mindfulness had become a part of the everyday lexicon. What’s more, in my husband I found love, understanding and patience. These were the ingredients that helped me build resilience and manage the fear and anxiety I lived with. But PTSD doesn’t go away. Not really.

But after Uvalde, I can feel the fear clawing its way back into my bones.

Now, I’m in my mid-40s, and the mother of two girls. Despite the occasional panic attack, life in our upper-middle-class Boston suburb is calm, even happy. Worrying about my children’s safety — something as traumatic as dodging bullets on our neighborhood streets — has felt unfathomable to me. I’m so grateful for that. 

But after Uvalde, I can feel the fear clawing its way back into my bones. Like so many parents this week, I’ve been afraid to drop my kids off at school. My oldest daughter is 10 years old, a fourth grader. She is a beautiful Latina with olive skin, dark hair and dark eyes. It’s impossible not to think that she looks like the children murdered in Uvalde. Have I been delusional all along for thinking that a school shooting could never happen in my town?

Social media is full of outrage. Outrage at Republican politicians for doing nothing, for choosing the NRA over our children. And I, too, am outraged. But where there is outrage there is also impotence. Yes, I vote, but that doesn’t feel like it’s enough. There is absolutely nothing I, alone, can do to make it safer for my children.

When violence from the drug war brought Colombia to its knees, my parents fled the country to keep us safe. But we were escaping a war then. Fleeing the U.S. isn't an option for my family now.

We didn’t want to tell her that 19 children, her age, were killed. We didn’t want to tell her that we feel impotent and disillusioned with this inactive government.

The U.S. isn’t at war, and yet thus far in 2022, there have been 213 mass shootings. Our government is incapable or unwilling to keep our children safe from gun violence. The racist attack in Buffalo and the rampage in Uvalde have left me in shock. I know I’m not alone in feeling helpless and hopeless.

Experts recommend we talk to our children about what happened in Uvalde –– to help them process, to assure them we are doing everything we can to keep them safe.

“This happened in Texas, not here,” we told our 10-year-old.

“Did people die?” she asked. “How many?”

It’s impossible to answer such questions. Shouldn't she be asking about what we have for dessert instead? We didn’t want to tell her that 19 children, her age, were killed. We didn’t want to tell her that we feel impotent and disillusioned with this inactive government.

I know this news, like all the other mass shootings, will eventually exit our news cycle. I wonder, how are we to mend the trauma our children will surely carry for the rest of their lives? Our children (regardless of exposure to traumatic events) need a team of mental health professionals and caring adults to support them and teach them mechanisms for building resilience. They don’t have to live with nightmares and suffer in silence, as I once did. They can start building resilience skills now with our love and support, and with professional guidance.

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Related:

Lorena Hernández Leonard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Lorena Hernández Leonard is a Colombian native living in the Boston area. She's a storyteller, writer and filmmaker whose award-winning animated short film, "Demi's Panic," was longlisted for the 94th Oscars.

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