Dear students of Virginia Tech,
My heart goes out to all of you. The shocking nightmare of the ordeal that you have experienced is truly tragic and I can only imagine how scared you all must be. Your collective strength, dignity and maturity in the wake of this tragedy has been truly inspiring. And despite your relative youth, your humanity humbles all of us.
As both a parent and as a Korean-American man, this tragedy hits close to my heart. And although those two roles are very important to me, they certainly don't mean anything to you. And it's all of YOU that I keep thinking about.
I'm not old enough to be your dad nor young enough to be your peer. Nor do I have any professional background in therapy or grief counseling. But I think maybe sometimes it's helpful to hear the advice of a random stranger to give you some perspective on the horror that you've all just experienced.
Maybe I can help.
See, back on September 27, 1990, I too was a young college student. I was far away from home attending college at UC-Berkeley. College was a blast. Life was good. I was a happy young man.
Or at least I was until that night.
On that night back in 1990, I'd been studying at the library for a few hours. Afterwards, I joined some buddies at a bar to celebrate a friend's birthday. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a deranged madman burst into the bar and started spraying dozens of shots from a Mac-10 machine gun. Mayhem ensued. Both the friends standing immediately to my left and to my right were shot. Twelve inches in either direction and I would have been shot in the back of the head.
In the initial rampage, one student was killed. Seven others were wounded. For almost 8 hours, the gunman held 33 of us hostage. The killer was clearly psychotic and, at more than one point, all of us inside were unsure whether we'd ever make it out of there alive. Thankfully, the entire ordeal finally ended when the SWAT team raided the bar and fatally killed the gunman.
Aside from living in NYC during 9/11, nothing in my life has ever come close to the sheer terror of that experience. Hopefully, nothing else in your lives will ever come close to what you have just experienced.
And although our experiences are different, maybe they're not so far apart. So, with a grain of salt, I want to offer you my advice and tell you what you may expect in the near future. I hope that this, in some small way, helps you.
- The nightmares will be terrifying. You'll have a hard time sleeping for a long time. Every time you close your eyes, you're going to be reliving those horrific moments. I needed to drown myself in Jack Daniels before I could even think about falling asleep every night. I wish I could tell you a better way to avoid the nightmares but I can't.
- For a long time, the everyday sounds of life will have a much greater effect on you. Whenever you hear a car backfire, you'll hit the floor in sheer panic. The sound of breaking glass will make your heart jump out of your body. This will all be so instinctive that you are sure that it will never end. It will. It took me over a year. It took some of my friends even longer.
- You will find solace only with those with whom you shared the same experience as you. It's natural to develop a sort of "band of brothers" surivivor mentality. And trust me, it's going to be extremely therapeutic for you to discuss your feelings with those who shared your experience and can appreciate the tragedy on a personal level. But don't shun friends or family because you think they just don't "get it." They love you and are trying to be empathetic. Allow them in.
- You may use alcohol and drugs to numb the pain and dull the memories. Be careful. I consumed more alcohol in the weeks following my experience than I had my entire life. I thought it helped but the healing really didn't begin until I stopped drinking and confronted the pain.
- See a counselor. Join support groups. Get professional help. Although I'd been through therapy before and was aware of its benefits, I had several friends who, prior to our ordeal, were not big believers. Trust me. Speaking to a trained professional can be immensely cathartic.
- Stay away from all members of the press. They often lend a sympathetic ear at a time when you could gratefully use one. Don't trust them. They do not have the slightest regard for your best intentions. In incidents like this, they will live up to their reputations as bottom-feeding scumbags.
- Turn off the TV. Forget about the newspapers. Don't surf the internet for stories related to the tragedy. You need some distance to process everything. The media coverage is only going to make you angry. People are going to use this incident to push their political agendas, voice their individual opinions, and attack their personal enemies. Ignore the vitriol. Those people don't care about you and you've got to take care of yourselves.
- Get away from it all. Grab some close friends and go camping. Take a vacation. Having friends with you will help you deal with what happened but putting some physical distance between you and the university will help also.
Your feelings of fear and anxiety are going to last for awhile. This is completely normal. Try and be proactive and address your feelings now while you're in the moment. Otherwise, you'll find yourself spiralling in depression months later. Trust me. I've seen it.
Ultimately the incident can serve as a learning experience. You're lucky to be alive. Be grateful for that. Maybe it will give you more insight into how precious life is. Maybe it will spur you to live your life in a different manner. It will affect all of you in different ways. Just try not to let the experience be a destructive one for you.
My thoughts and prayers are with all of you. Stay strong, Hokies.