WEST VALLEY CITY — The nightmares seemed ridiculous at first.
They started in the months after Yvette Rodier survived a vicious, random shooting attack as a 17-year-old in 1996. The boy who was with her at the time, teaching her to take pictures of the night sky, didn’t survive.
Some details in the nightmares changed. Others remained constant.
In the dreams, Rodier would be out with a friend, oftentimes it was the boy who died, Zach Snarr, enjoying something ordinary — dinner, a movie, nature.
“We could be at a restaurant,” Rodier said. “We could be at a park. We could be at somebody’s house. And then, someone comes in and just opens fire and kills them. And sometimes I die, or I think I’m dead in the nightmare. But it’s always for sure the other person.”
And after a long pause, she adds, “Those are really hard to wake up from.”
When the nightmares began, Rodier could sometimes convince herself that her fears were irrational.
But today, her private nightmare is now our national reality.
“The unfortunate part is that now we all have these places that are not safe,” she said softly. “So you know, 20 years ago, me thinking I wasn’t safe at the grocery store, people would probably laugh at me.”
Her fear has always been understandable — a man shot her and her friend without provocation, even reloading and firing again as she pretended to be dead on the ground — even if she and those closest to her found the nightmares unrealistic. But as mass shootings, like the one at California’s Saugus High School on Thursday in which a 16-year-old student shot and killed two classmates, wounded two others and then shot himself in the head, have become more of a regular occurrence, the nightmares elicit fear that is more difficult to contain.
From 1966 to 2018, 1,102 Americans died in mass shootings, according to an analysis published in the Washington Post. The number of those injured or impacted in those shootings is unknown.
It’s the survivors that Rodier thinks about when she hears reports of yet another mass shooting. She understands the thousands of small and significant ways their lives have been permanently altered.
“I just feel bad for other people; I’m kind of used to it now, which is horrible,” she said of the nightmares and random bouts with fear. “But it’s my life. But for all of these people (victims of mass shootings) that everyday ... it just changes for them; I just ache. It’s a different world they’re entering into.”
Rodier, now a prosecutor in West Valley City, understands the never-ending emotional cost of random violence, especially that inflicted with a gun, in ways most people cannot. She is frustrated by the lack of understanding and inaction, and she points out the number of victims isn’t confined to those injured or killed in these random attacks.
“Because there is a certain number of people injured or killed, or somehow part of it, the numbers are so much bigger than that,” she said. “So many lives are changed. When someone does these horrible, random acts of violence, that’s what I think about. The ripple that goes out is so big, but we’re not really addressing that.
“We’re not even addressing any of it.”
Rodier’s fear is more rational than it feels, especially as the number of mass shootings increases. Even though mass shootings account for a fraction of gun deaths (more people died in Chicago this year than all mass shootings combined, according to a comparison of statistics from the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post), it’s the terror associated with them that makes them uniquely difficult to overcome.
“Simply by definition, mass shootings are more likely to trigger difficulties with beliefs that most of us have, including that we live in a just world and that if we make good decisions, we’ll be safe,” said Laura Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, in a 2018 Washington Post story,
The long, relentless tentacles of trauma associated with a random shooting is something University of Utah assistant professor and licensed clinical social worker Rich Landward is intimately familiar with. He worked at the Veterans Medical Center in Salt Lake City for 12 years, helping homeless veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and associated addictions.
He also survived a random shooting attack when he was camping near the Payette River in Wyoming alone at age 23.
“It was one of my favorite places,” he recalled. “I see this Chevy Blazer pull up. I can remember every detail — hand-painted camo with cracked white. I just got this ... this just does not feel right. They were blocking the road. I was a young kid, like, ‘I’ll offer them a beer.’”
But he never got the chance.
They kept their distance, drank their own beer, and then started throwing beers at him. They flipped him off and started “yelling all manner of scary, horrible stuff, to where I was paralyzed.”
It felt like a dream, one in which he was unable to move or say anything.
“Then one of the men fired a rifle shot just above his head,” he said, noting that his father had insisted he take a .22-caliber rifle with him, even though he didn’t know how to shoot it. “I thought he was nuts.”
As the men shot at and around him, he crawled to his vehicle and retrieved the rifle. He fired a shot into the air, and the quiet that followed made Landward believe the worst might be over.
“Then they started sling shots at me, and they were ricocheting around me,” he said. “And then they took off. ... I don’t know why I didn’t get in my truck and just drive off. I just sat there. I went deeper and deeper across the river, way back in there.”
The men came back with a spotlight and fired more shots at the campground. He sat, shivering in the night until they left a second time. As the dawn approached, he returned to his truck, drove to the local police station and learned the men had shot at several campers that week.
He thought he’d left that terror in the past until he took the job at the Veterans Medical Center.
“It reared its head really bad when I started working at the VA,” he said. “I was working with combat vets ... and I was doing exposure therapy, under a model ... where we go back through every detail.”
It didn’t take long for the nightmares to start.
“I found myself having horrific nightmares,” he said, adding that many have moved away from that type of therapy because it doesn’t desensitize as once believed. “At that point in my career, I didn’t understand (my own PTSD). My wife started to see it — putting on weight, not exercising, not riding my bike or paddleboarding, not interested in hiking or skiing. I isolated myself in the basement on the weekends watching TV.”
Eventually, the despair convinced him the only way out was suicide. After his wife left for work, he sat on the edge of his bed and contemplated using his father’s gun to end his pain.
“I said, ‘I’m tired. I just want to go to sleep,’” he recalled. “I (thought), ‘I don’t want to leave a mess.’ So somewhere between the bedroom and the shower (where he planned to shoot himself), I called my dad.”
His father came to his house and got him to the hospital.
“I got to work with a really good psychiatrist, and I told my closest support network where I was, and I started rebuilding my life,” he said.
That was 13 years ago, and he’s worked hard to keep himself off that hopeless, destructive path, and part of that is the work he does at the University of Utah School of Social Work.
He teaches students that suffering a traumatic event creates a change in the brain.
“When you go through a traumatic event, what happens is that it causes your amygdala, your fear brain, the fight, flight or freeze part, to become hyperactive,” Landward said. “Then you start to generalize that if this happened, now it’s going to always happen, and you stay in a constant state of hyperarousal, agitation, irritability, because you’re constantly on guard.”
He likens living with PTSD to driving on a race track without braking, which makes every turn of the road, every change in life, much more difficult and dangerous. The random or “unexpectedness” of being a victim chosen in a crime of opportunity upends the belief that we can control our environment and make ourselves safe.
“There is a hopelessness, a helplessness ... that just compounds any wounds,” Landward said.
The issue for people like Landward and Rodier is that now the people they used to seek comfort and reassurance from are often equally distrusting because mass shootings have become more common a constant fear almost seems like a logical response. Landward said those who struggle with PTSD have to learn to “use their body as a compass” when they try to address issues.
“First thing, take a deep breath,” he said, noting that as he begins to feel fear reactions he can listen to them, especially when sharing details of his experience. “As I move into my sympathetic nervous system telling the story, and I feel the dissociation start to come back, I’m aware of that, and it doesn’t scare me anymore.”
And having a plan for worst-case scenarios can build confidence.
“I really like to focus on training,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but I’ve been trained to handle situations such as a mass shooting on campus.”
He’s made escape and defense plans with his family for issues at home or when they’re out in public. It may seem extreme and unnecessary, but it allows him to assert control and feel prepared.
“They humor me,” he said. “Because they love me and they know where I’ve been and they’re very supportive and they love me.”
Rodier admits she likely lets her fear of the world impact how she parents her teenage daughter.
“I know I’m strict,” she said. “And I’m extremely protective. ... She’s about to drive, and I want her to grow up. I want her to be amazing, because she is. But I also just don’t trust the world out there. So it’s a hard balance.”
Landward also suggest working to find legislative answers to deal with aspects of the issue that require a societal response. The one thing victims and those who love them have to avoid is “resignation.”
“I don’t want to be a shooting victim everyday for the rest of my life,” he said, adding that he gets to choose how it impacts his life. “I don’t want to cower in fear because someone shot at me. ... I’m going to turn that miserable, awful event into an opportunity. And look where it’s taken me in my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that event.”
Rodier has reached a similar place in her life.
“I figured out where (the shooting) belongs in my life, that it is part of my life,” she said. “It’s part of my story. And why would you move on or get rid of part of your story? It’s what made me who I am today.
“And I’m finally at a place where I like who I am. ... I’ve got a little compartment for it. ... And I’m OK with when it chooses to manifest itself. It doesn’t scare me anymore.”