Alexithymia (The Day My Sisters Died – Part 2)
CC image courtesy of Google Images.
Content warning: gun violence, mass shooting
Laurie Works is a homeschool alum, community organizer, and spoken word poet. She is also a mass shooting survivor. In December 2007, two of her sisters, Rachel and Stephanie Works, died during the New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs. The shooter, Matthew Murray, was also homeschooled.
I know several people are reading who have also been through a similar experience to mine. In light of this, please know that some of this post may be disturbing to you. Please monitor yourself if you wish to keep reading and don’t read more than will unnecessarily disturb you. I am going to try to write this in a clear way, on a line between giving details without being overly graphic. However I know that each person’s triggers are different, so I just ask that you are very gentle with yourself as you read.
Alexithymia, the name of my sister Rachel’s favorite Anberlin song, has a strange meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the inability to express one’s feelings.” Psychologically, it can mean “deficiency or complete inability in assessing and describing one’s own emotional state.”
How can one describe their emotional state during a trauma? It’s impossible. Even after, looking back, I have no words that can fully express what I felt. I can only shape my words to form somewhat of a container for the feelings that occurred.
This is the hardest part to write for me because of so many things. As I write, in my head I hear so much noise. That is what is most present for me as I remember December 9. The noise was unbearable. Noise is still my biggest trigger. I hear it all in my head when I write and it’s excruciatingly painful.
I think maybe the silence I’ve had, though, is even more painful.
“It’s alarming how loud the silence screams
No warn, no warn, no warning…”
There was no warning. There was silence, and then there was chaos.
My mom was in the driver’s seat, my dad in the passenger. My twin was behind my mom, and behind her was my youngest sister Grace. Behind my dad, the seat was down and the door was open as we waited for my sister Rachel to get in. Behind that open seat, was me.
After the sound like a balloon popping, there was another pop, and another. And then the window next to my twin sister shattered.
My dad yelled, “Get down! Somebody is shooting at us!” My little sister screamed. My twin sister, just behind my mom, moved to get down. As I slid down in my seat in the very back of the van, everything suddenly became very still and slow. My thoughts came in slow motion. My dad yelled for someone to call 911, so I automatically grabbed the phone that was in my purse and dialed.
Though my mind was slow, my words weren’t. As soon as the dispatcher answered, I was spitting words at her in absolute panic. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like, “Someone’s shooting at us, someone’s shooting at my family!” I felt like I was suspended in time. Thoughts floated through my head almost slowly enough so that I could see words appearing.
“I’m going to need counseling after this.”
“I forgive this guy, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“This is the same person who shot up YWAM last night.”
“We’re going to be home by tonight, we have to… God said we’re going to go around the world, that we’re going to get this money, so we have to survive.”
Short, staccato noises kept coming without fail. They echoed, bouncing off the buildings, loud as all hell. Two dots appeared in the windshield as my parents cowered in the front seat, trying to stay out of sight. Glass was shattering everywhere.
I could feel the hate this person was directing at us; not really at us though, at some inner demon that tortured him. I felt as if, though I couldn’t see him, I was looking into the eyes of pure evil.
“I’ve been hit,” said my sister Rachel, outside the car. The screaming escalated. “Oh my god!” my dad yelled, jumping out of the car without thought to get to my sister. He was shot and fell on his stomach about 10 feet from the car (if I recollect correctly and that’s a big if).
My little sister had rushed past me at the same time, somehow miraculously escaping the gunman’s notice. I remember her as a blur, going past me. I clutched the phone in my hand.
“My sister’s been shot!” I screamed at the dispatcher.
My dad was yelling “oh my god, oh my god.”
Screaming and loud popping alternately traded off, echoing, echoing, echoing.
I was babbling to the dispatcher. My mind wanted to fly into the stratosphere, and I was hysterical. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I said. But she had asked me where I was, so I pulled myself into the moment and described clear directions to our location.
The sounds started moving away, blessedly away. A silence that was not silent drifted down on us. Screaming was still coming from all directions, but everything felt chillingly, disturbingly still.
In the silence I heard my dad saying to Rachel, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you honey, I’m so sorry.”
It was then I saw my twin sister, Stephanie, in front of me. She wasn’t moving. She was face down on the carpet in front of the seat.
“Both of my sisters have been shot!” I screamed at the dispatcher.
Suddenly my mom was in front of me, sitting with my twin, cradling her head.
“Can you find an exit wound?” the dispatcher asked. “You need to stop the bleeding.”
There wasn’t any blood, though, except on her face. She’d hit her nose when she fell to the floor. That image is seared into my brain – my twin’s face, as if she were asleep, peaceful. But blood ran down from her nose. I wished to God she was just sleeping.
There was a small hole in the back of her yellow coat but that was all we could find. The dispatcher kept telling me, “You need to find an exit wound.”
My mom was saying, “I can’t find an exit wound, I can’t find an exit wound.” She was crying, hysterical as I was. We looked and looked, not finding anything. My mom carefully turned my sister over. Still nothing. My twin’s brown hair flopped around her face, limp.
I got frustrated. “Here,” I shoved my scarf at her. “Put this on the wound!” I yelled at her. There was no wound to put it on but I had to do something for God’s sake. I felt helpless, standing by on the phone with hands full.
“I think she’s gone, I think she’s gone,” my mom said, half weeping. I blocked it away. I couldn’t deal with that yet. She asked me to get her keys and anointing oil from the front seat, so I got out and leaned in the passenger door to get it from her purse. I cut my left palm on the glass that lay on the passenger seat from the shattered windshield.
The dispatcher told me “Emergency crews are on the way. You need to look for them, let me know when they arrive.” I saw a white truck from the fire department driving towards us and as I went to wave him down, I passed Rachel laying on the pavement.
I can’t describe to you anything worse than what her face looked like at that moment. I felt like all the breath had been ripped out of my body. She was mumbling something as I walked by. She wore a shirt that had a sunset on it; I didn’t remember this until 4 years later. It’s oddly ironic to me now. Her face was gray and blue as twilight, horrific death was there. Everything inside of me was sinking like an iron ball in the ocean. There are not enough metaphors in the world to describe to you the depth of agony and despair that I felt.
My arms waved slowly at the rescue truck. “Over here! Over here!” I called. My voice sounded reedy and thin, even to me… hopeless, because hope was draining out of my body. “Emergency crews are here now,” I told the dispatcher. “Okay,” she said, and we disconnected. The man pulled his truck over with a screech and ran toward us. He ran past me, not realizing how intimately I was connected to the situation, focused on getting to the van where my sisters were.
At that moment other people showed up and someone grabbed me. “The shooter is coming back!” he yelled, and my sister Grace and I were dragged to a nearby black pickup truck, where we cowered in the front seat. Two boys sat in the back seat, staring at us. One said something to me, I don’t remember what. “Those are my sisters,” I babbled at him. I had lost myself by this point. I dialed my boyfriend’s number on the cell phone still in my hand. Voicemail. Unintelligible words spilled out onto the blank message. I disconnected the call. “Breathe,” I told myself, out loud. “Just breathe.” I tried. I rocked back and forth, trying to calm myself. My teeth were chattering. My little sister Grace sat across from me, dazed and in a similar condition to mine.
I dialed again, this time my boyfriend’s dad’s number. His mom answered. Words rushed out of my mouth. “My sisters have been shot!” I screamed into the phone. “Oh my god. Are you okay? What hospital are they taking them to?” I had no idea. There was an ambulance there now but I was disconnected from them, hiding in this truck. “I don’t know. I’ll call you when I know.” She agreed. I disconnected the call.
We realized the shooter wasn’t coming back and got out of the truck. I started wandering back towards the van, feeling detached, out of my body. An ambulance was there, and EMTs were everywhere. With my dad. With Rachel. They loaded her up into the ambulance. The siren blasted loud and eerie through the parking lot.
A police officer grabbed me and said, “Go into the Tent.” (This was the nearest building to our location, a tent-like structure used by the church for smaller events) My then-best friend had called me to see if I was okay. I told her what was going on. The police officer, frustrated, grabbed me by the collar and dragged me toward the building, intent on getting me out of harm’s way. My mom was next to me again, crying hysterically. My sister Grace was a shadow beside me.
My call with my best friend was interrupted when my boyfriend called. I told her goodbye and spoke to my boyfriend. We were in the lobby, near a collection of standing tables. Someone threw a pile of coats underneath and I crawled up on the coats and curled into a fetal position. I didn’t want to move. My mom was saying, “I think she’s gone, I think she’s gone…” and crying. “Ugh,” I thought. “SHUT UP.”
On the phone with my boyfriend, I was pleading, pleading, pleading. “Please come now. I need you,” I said.
“I don’t know if anyone is going down yet,” he said. I could feel his hesitation. A part of me thought, “What? This isn’t supposed to be how it works. He’s supposed to say I love you. I’ll be there right away.” But he didn’t. He kept stalling. I kept begging. “Please J—-, I need you. Please come now.”
Finally the words came through the phone. “Okay. I’m coming. R– is going to drive me down to meet my dad.”
Somehow, we moved into the tiny auditorium in the building. People still thought the shooter would return and police tried to shuffle everyone into the auditorium to be safe. (I don’t know how they thought this was safe) My mom, my sister Grace and I all sat down at a table. I was on the phone. My mom, a coat draped around her shoulders, was talking to a woman who had appeared. Grace was crying and talking to another woman who had come to the table and knelt down next to her. I crouched, bent in half, on the phone with my boyfriend. My mom was explaining to the woman what had happened. “I think she’s dead, I think she’s dead,” my mom babbled. I turned away and plugged my ears so I couldn’t hear those awful words.
“My mom keeps saying my sister is dead and I can’t deal with that right now,” I told my boyfriend. “You need a Bible,” he said to me. “Get someone to give you a Bible.” I lifted my head and asked for a Bible. Someone brought me one, and I turned to Psalm 91, the only thing I could think of to read. I read it out loud, twice, because I couldn’t concentrate on it if I read it silently. After I finished the last verse, I suddenly began singing.
“Jesus loves me, this I know…”
I was terrified and hysterical. It was the only truth I could think of to hold onto.
Just after I’d stopped singing, I got another phone call, from the man who’d led my DTS team the year before. I answered and he asked if I was okay, if my family was ok. I could barely force out the words, “No, it’s us.”
“Oh my god. I’m coming right now,” he said.
Right around then, someone found us and realized who we were. The pastor came up. Another friend I’d known since the summer, J—, saw me at just the moment when the pastor pulled everyone in to pray. He came up to me and wrapped me in a big hug, and I didn’t want to move. I’ll never forget his face; the sadness, the pain. The pastor prayed. And when he finished, finally someone went to find out which hospital my sisters had gone to. My boyfriend still waited on the phone.
Someone told us that the shooter had committed suicide. I felt an extreme relief. All I had wanted was for someone to STOP HIM. My body relaxed just a little in overwhelming gratitude.
A policeman came over and I explained that a friend was coming to find me and they NEEDED to let him through. A few minutes later, G– appeared. “G– is here, hang on a minute,” I told my boyfriend, and G– wrapped me up in a huge hug and didn’t let go. I was wishing he wouldn’t, all I wanted to do was be held at that moment, because I was shattered into pieces inside.
I told my boyfriend I was going to get off the phone now because G– had arrived. So I disconnected. We sat for a few minutes waiting while they got a van to take us to the hospital. They told us where Rachel had been taken, but not where my twin, Stephanie, was. No one seemed to know, or they were keeping it to themselves. Finally, we all piled into a church van. G– came along in the van, and I was grateful, I needed someone there. I sat in the back next to my mom as we drove.
We were at the light at the Fillmore and I-25 exit, just before arriving at the hospital. I was looking at the sky, and it was in that golden hour just before sunset. And I saw Stephanie – my beloved twin sister – and she was with God. She was smiling.
I knew she was gone.