What is Life Like After a Mass Shooting? Parkland’s Lizzie Eaton Shares Her Mental Health Story

Lizzie Eaton

As time passed, I kept squeezing more and more into my hiding spot thinking that I could be next. Despite the news and confirmation of what was happening, I could not wrap my mind around the reality.

As the story kept updating, the number of casualties went up and up. I couldn’t fathom that my friends were getting shot, that there were videos of bodies on the floor flooding social media. I just kept thinking this could not be real. While I waited in my classroom, I sat not knowing if I would be the next victim, if my friends were hurt, or if I would ever see my family again.

You never think it will happen at your school, in your community, to you and your friends. And then it does.

Valentine’s Day

It started as a normal school day. I woke up early, got ready, and drove to school. I was not so excited for the day because I was anticipating a last-period math test I had to take. But, it was February 14th, Valentine’s day — the school was filled with so many balloons, candy, teddy bears. Love. I was looking forward to seeing all of my friends and the touching gifts they received.

It was second period when we had a routine fire drill.

We all walked slowly to the grass, patiently waiting to go back inside away from the blistering heat. We thought nothing of this drill, made our way back to class. Two periods later, sitting in math class, a second fire alarm went off with only 10 minutes left in the school day — this was less routine, something a little out of the ordinary.

Stoneman Douglas High SchoolI was focused on finishing my math test, but I made my way out of my seat and walked outside to our designated spot, next to the 1200 building. As we were walking out I heard several loud pops but passed it off as kids making a joke or some type of firecracker. Seconds later I started to hear screams, more pops, and kids running to the nearest open door.

The closer we got to the building, the more screams and gunshots I heard. I thought: there is no way this could be real, in our town of Parkland…no way.

We started to cautiously walk back to our classroom but still had no clue what was occurring in the building next to us, the 1200 building. We’d soon learn, it’s where the shooting took place. We filed into the classroom just barely fitting into the corner and the closet. We sat in the corner of the room, still not taking any of this seriously. We were more mad at the fact that the administration made this “drill” sound and feel so real.

But those “pops,” those screams, those doubts were all confirmed: we had an active shooter at our school.

During the three hours I remained hiding in my classroom, there were so many rumors, and then so many devastating news stories. No one knew what was happening.

What I did know was that no child or adult should ever feel so unsafe in their school.

Living in the aftermath of Parkland

As you might imagine, the past 20 months have not been easy.

The day following the shooting, it still didn’t feel real. It’s hard to articulate, or know what you’re feeling, when it’s simply indescribable. Our community was now known to the whole world. Not because of the greatness of our school, filled with exceptional clubs and school spirit, but for a mass shooting that took the lives of 17 Eagles. Seventeen daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, coaches, and friends had died. Seventeen is too many…1 is too many. Seventeen people were ripped away from their lives, families, and futures — that was Parkland’s new reality.

During these months I have been discovering who I am after February 14th. I am a new person. I’m a new person with new feelings, new reactions, and new habits. I can no longer walk into a room without looking for the quickest exit. I can no longer ignore loud noises. I no longer have the innocence I had 20 months ago.

I no longer remember a life without gun violence.

My Mental Health After Surviving a Mass Shooting

If I said each day gets better, I would be lying. That each day it gets easier to move on. In reality, each day is harder.

Some nights my head floods with flashbacks of that day, making it hard to sleep. I hear the alarms, gunshots, and screams. I see people running, videos of bloody bodies in the now unfamiliar classrooms, families and friends crying while wondering if they will ever see their loved ones ever again.

After the shooting, it was hard for me to concentrate in school — worrying about fire alarms going off, textbooks dropping, or red code drills. It was hard for me to take math tests because it brought me back to the day when my math test was disrupted by the sound of alarms and gunshots. It is still hard for me to fathom that 17 people died in my school, while we were just trying to learn and be kids.

In public spaces, I am always second guessing the actions of everyone around me. Why do they have that big duffle? Why is that person walking so suspiciously? Why is there no security here? Where am I even safe?

Many nights, when I cannot fall asleep, I sit and wonder: why me? Why am I still here, while so many people lose their lives. It doesn’t seem fair.

Stoneman Douglas High SchoolThose we lost are not able to live the lives they were promised. Each had a bright future, which was cut short due to gun violence. It’s something that should never have happened.

Of course, I am fortunate that I am still here today, but this is not a country that I want to live in. A country where our politicians value guns more than the lives of their constituents. My head is constantly filled with questions as to why we have to live in a world where we are afraid of getting shot on every corner. These questions continue to rattle my brain each day as I try to live a “normal” life. How can I have a normal life in a country plagued by gun violence?

I should control my life, not fear for it — and no one should be able to change that.

My Support System

Although dealing with the aftermath of the shooting has been the hardest experience I’ve faced, I have had so many people in my life who have been there for me each step of the way. My family has been there for me in ways that I cannot even put into words. There are not enough things to say that can account for the unconditional love they have provided for me, not just this past year and a half, but for my whole life. I am beyond fortunate to be surrounded by such extraordinary people.

Seeking help from a therapist

While at home I have also seen a therapist who has helped me deal with stress that, after the shooting, has gone through the roof. I have always been a stressed person, but the shooting has made my stress extreme. Thanks to therapy, however, I have been learning how to manage that stress and find ways to bring more light and positivity into my life.

Lizzie EatonI had seen a therapist in the past for other reasons, but this was uncharted territory. Therapy used to have such a stigma behind it and people, including myself, were afraid to talk about their experience. I was always ashamed of having to go to therapy because I felt like there was something wrong with me. I now realize how important therapy is and it has been such a helpful and influential part of my life.

Everyone at home, in Parkland, talks openly about going to therapy. We talk about our feelings and helping each other through these hard times. It is easier to talk about and ask for help because we have a shared tragedy that, unfortunately, connects us.

Now that I am in college, however, a lot has changed. For me and for my healing process. I am no longer surrounded by my classmates, the people who understand what I went through and who relate to me and our shared experience. On top of moving away to college, being away from those who innately understand my feelings was a really big and difficult change.

It was also hard, being so far from home, to find a therapist that I really could connect with.

I started using Talkspace, which has really, truly helped with my transition from home to college life. Being able to connect with someone whenever I want, or need, is very helpful to me — especially because I don’t have my parents around 24/7 like I did at home.

It has been a wild ride so far, but I definitely could not have survived without all of my amazing family, friends, and the support systems that are a part of my life.

What Comes Next? Change

Days after the shooting I could not speak a word. How could I describe an event that was so shocking and horrific? But I felt one of the most important ways to honor those we have lost to gun violence is to honor them with change — much needed change.

I was eventually able to write a poem that helped me express my emotions and feelings about that day. About a week after the shooting, I was able to travel to Tallahassee, speak to our representatives, and read my poem in front of 10,000 people.

I now have the opportunity to travel the country, speak with fellow students, our elected representatives, and other adults about the impact of gun violence and how we can make our country a safer place — now and for future generations.

But it was that day, in front of all those people in Tallahassee, that I discovered who I would be after February 14th. I would dedicate my life to making sure no one has to face the grief of losing a loved one to gun violence, or live with the challenges a gun violence survivor faces each and every day.

That was the day I found my new voice.


Image Credit: Jeff Vespa via People Magazine