A Columbine Survivor’s Perspective on Trauma, Loneliness and What The Vegas Shooting Should Teach Us All

October 17, 2017

As an injured survivor of the Columbine shooting, I woke up on Monday October 2nd, to the news of a gunman having open fired on a crowd of people at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, with a whole range of feelings. In addition to the normal feelings of fear and dread and regret we all felt, I also carried a bigger, broader sense of the ripple effect that will be felt by victims and families of this tragedy for years and decades to come.



To add to my vested interest in this incident, the work I do today, nearly twenty years after my experience at Columbine, is all directed at trauma, addiction and recovery. I work everyday with those who have been sidelined by their own traumatic experiences and subsequent addictions. I watch as they fight to heal their brains and bodies to create a more stable world for themselves and their families. It’s inspiring, and also a stark reminder that trauma is not experienced in a vacuum, and it does not just go away.


The thing I found most disturbing about the gunman from this most recent shooting was that he fit none of the traditional criteria we thought we had “nailed down” when it comes to mass shootings. He had no prior criminal conduct, no major mental health diagnosis, wasn’t motivated by his religion or sexuality or race, and there wasn’t a previously declared hatred for the demographic he targeted. His victims were mostly caucasian, American citizens. This, to me, reinforces what Malcom Gladwell stated in this CBS News article which is, “this is what happens when you have 20 years of steadily building examples of this kind of behavior.” In other words, what we don’t have is an influx of psychopaths in our world but a lowered threshold for how “crazy” you need to be to commit a crime like this. 


This should terrify us. Think about what it means that the common denominator for each of the perpetrators of these horrific crimes is not a radical worldview of hatred and violence, but rather a sense of exclusion and loneliness. Think of how common this is. Think of the many ways disconnection is woven into the fabric of our society, and how easily this pattern will continue and worsen without a clear and direct attention to reversing it.


I’ve spent hours in dark message boards reading as anonymous individuals touted the Columbine shooters as “heroes” for what they “accomplished” that day. They’ve typed things like, “if only I had the courage these guys did…” or “I would be remembered forever…”, a sick and surreal spin of events, yes. But these words were not typed by off-the-rails criminals. They were typed by average everyday lonely teenagers who you’d pass on the street and likely not know the difference.


The man who open fired that night on a crowd of innocent people wasn’t an off-the-rails psychopath either. He was a guy who spent his nights in casinos playing video poker. He was isolated and lonely. This means that the problem is not only more widespread than we ever believed, it’s also only going to get worse until we do something about it. This toxicity is spreading. Sick people are drawn to it.


You might be thinking to yourself that there are tons of lonely people out there who aren’t leaning out a hotel window shooting people, or barging into nightclubs, or into the hallways of their own high school school, inflicting the worst kind of human suffering. That would be true. But this doesn’t discount the fact that this is the only common thread we can reasonably draw between all of these crimes. For us to deny that thread—especially when there is something we can so easily do to offset it—would be both ignorant and, ultimately, irresponsible.


I think taking common sense, legislative approaches to gun control and also therapeutic approaches to mental health issues are both necessary moves. But addressing these problems alone aren’t going to move the needle fast enough. The reality is there are actually simpler, more accessible things we can be focusing on right now that can help offset the ripple effect of this tragedy. We can focus on our own healing, for example. We can work to cultivate a sense of community and connection with our families, our friends, in our schools, our communities. We can look up from our cell phones. We can make effort to connect with people who look different than us. We can educate our children in a way that normalizes difficult conversations.


Instead our children are growing up in a world where disconnected is the norm. We’re more likely to sit on our phones at the dinner table than we are to actually look one another in the eye. We teach kids math and science, but we don’t teach them (especially young boys) how to cultivate empathy, friendship and connection in their lives. 


Imagine how the tides could have turned for any of these shooters if they'd been given the opportunity to talk about their worst childhood experience and how they had been affected by those mentally, emotionally and practically. What if they knew at age 13 how adverse childhood experiences were going to manipulate their world view and their ability to connect with others?


This work is not easy, but we can no longer afford to look at these tragedies as “isolated” incidents and these criminals as deranged, psychopathic outliers. Instead we must begin to recognize that without doing our part to foster a growing sense of empathy, compassion and connection in our culture, the rising trend of mass shootings will not stop. In fact, we can only expect to see this worsen. And the ripple effect is so massive, it will continue to touch all of us in ways we can’t even yet imagine.

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Austin Eubanks is an expert in the addiction treatment industry and a nationally recognized speaker and media contributor on topics surrounding behavioral health and addiction recovery.

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