Saturday morning I woke up and knew two things for sure: I felt angry, and I felt powerless. On Valentine’s Day, three days prior, a young man who had experienced tremendous loss communicated that loss to the world in a spray of bullets. When he was done, 16 teenagers and a teacher were dead — and there was nothing I could do about it.
As far back as I can remember, the first thing I felt every morning when I woke up — even before I opened my eyes — was a fire deep in my belly. That fire was fear. Growing up, I learned to stay close to that fire, because it’s what kept me alive in the face of the other two things that I felt every day: powerlessness and hopelessness. Because every day when I woke up, I knew that I, my three siblings and my mother were all going to be abused again, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I didn’t feel safe. And that made me angry. And that anger had to go somewhere.
Nikolas Cruz didn’t feel safe
I don’t know everything that happened to Nikolas Cruz, the latest school shooter, but I know some of the things. I know that he and his brother, Zachary, were adopted and raised by their mother. I know that Nikolas’ adoptive father died suddenly when Nik was 7. I know that, according to Broward County Mayor Beam Furr, Nikolas had received treatment at a mental health clinic but hadn’t been back for over a year. I know that his mother died of pneumonia about four months ago. His neighbor, Paul Gold, told the New York Times, “His mother was his entire life and when he lost her, I believe that was it for the boy’s peace of mind.” I know that, on Thursday, his lawyer, Melisa McNeil, called him a broken human being. “When you don’t have the support system, that affects who you are, and that affects the people around you,” she said. “And when your brain is not fully developed you don’t know how to deal with these things.”
Nikolas Cruz didn’t feel safe. And that made him angry. And that anger had to go somewhere.
What if we all felt safe?
If you were to play a reel of my life from about age 16 to age 45, you would see jump cuts of me drinking stupid amounts of alcohol, engaging in meaningless sex, breaking beer bottles and cutting myself with the shards, punching myself in the face, trying on one unhealthy relationship after another, and then two-and-a-half years ago dropping my kids off at school with vodka on my breath, driving home, emailing my sister the names of my insurance lady and accountant, telling her what to do with my body, what to do with my house, and what to tell my kids, then grabbing the keys and lying down on the floor to think about which overpass would be best to drive into.
If you were to play a reel of Nikolas’ life for the past few years, you would see jump cuts of him cutting himself, bringing knives to school, threatening other students, joining a white nationalist group, posting disturbing photos to his social media accounts, amassing a collection of weapons that included an AR-15-style assault rifle, losing his mother — someone who made him feel safe — and then, last Wednesday, donning school colors, packing up his weapon, ammo and a few other items he thought he needed, calling an Uber, texting one of his friends on the way to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, then walking in, killing 17 people, injuring 12 others and traumatizing countless more.
When I heard the news, my chest folded in on itself. My lungs quit working. As I was writing this, I have finally exhaled, and all of my breath has distilled into one thought:
What if we all felt safe?
A journey powered by love
What if there were someone there, in the midst of the anger and hurt we all feel, to look at us through a lens that sees past the terrible things we do and have done and into the pain that caused them? Someone who would love us unconditionally, encourage us to get the help we need, and provide a safe place where we finally don’t have to be afraid anymore, where we can be ourselves without shame, where we can begin to heal and rise up and live and put good things into the world, because we’re not exhausted from just trying to survive the shit hole this world can sometimes be?
In under two and a-half years, I have journeyed from that place on the floor where I had lain with two black eyes and a suicide letter, to a beautiful life creating art that helps others find catharsis from suffering. This journey happened because someone loved me.
Make compassion our first response
At a time like this, of course we plead with lawmakers to pass sensible regulations to keep guns out of the hands of hurting, angry people who struggle with mental health issues. These regulations are necessary. The fact is, however, that you and I don’t have the power to accomplish sensible regulations by ourselves, but we do have the power to make compassion our first response to an angry, hurting person.
Call me naïve, but I believe that the majority of the ills in this country could be solved at the family and interpersonal level. That is, they could be solved by love — when and where it is needed. I don’t know how to fight something as powerful as the NRA. I don’t know how to change the mind of a man who is paid thousands of dollars in exchange for his vote against gun regulations, but I do know how to love. This morning when I woke up and thought about that, I knew one thing for sure: I felt powerful.