(photo: Kathy Boggio Mocnik with her two dogs)
"Support from people in my shoes, support from a professional, journaling, reading, and finding a way to do something beautiful as a result have been my coping mechanisms."
One day in early October, I was shocked to find out on my Facebook feed that my high school teacher, Kathy Boggio Mocnik, was a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting.
Like many other people who attended the Route 91 Harvest music festival, she went to Vegas for the weekend to dance, let loose, and enjoy the music. On the last day of the festival, the music came to a sudden halt when a gunman started firing at the crowds from above in the Mandalay Bay hotel. 58 people died, over 800 people were injured, and thousands witnessed a horrific act of violence that would change their lives forever.
I finally caught up with Kathy about a month ago over the phone, when I asked her how she could possibly heal from such a traumatic event. While many of us may never encounter an event similar to the one she did, we can all look to Kathy's resilience as a source of inspiration.
What kinds of things did you do to heal from this trauma?
Kathy Boggio Mocnick: As soon as I got home, I knew it was bigger than something I could handle on my own. So I immediately made a counseling appointment. That was step 1. Then with my counselor’s help, I got some trauma survivor books and some journals. And then I joined an online Facebook support group of just the survivors of Route 91. That was super helpful to see that they were going through the same guilt and the same fear that I go through, the same challenges.
As a result from that support group, they come up with a “pay it forward” that with every person who died, we have a little picture and a little story about them. We also do acts of kindness. So if I’m at Starbucks, I’ll get the coffee behind me and give them a card and say it’s in the memory [of someone who died in the shooting]. So I’m doing these kind acts in the memory of the lives that were lost. That to me has been the most healing part.
Support from people in my shoes, support from a professional, journaling, reading, and finding a way to do something beautiful as a result have been my coping mechanisms.
The thing I’m dealing with most still is the guilt. Eric Church wrote a song, “Why Not Me.” That song is so poignant with the question...People dying all around me, and why I didn’t die, I don’t know. Then, I try to take it as I didn’t, so now I want to go to the other side and live as much as I can live...Because I’m lucky I get to.
(Left: Kathy at the Route 91 Music Festival with friends, before the shooting began)
What was it like finding a connection between fellow survivors?
KBM: I met up with two of the people I was indirectly involved with. One of them being the gentleman who was in the car with the gunshot wound in his leg. The gentleman in the backseat with the shot to his stomach, I don’t think he survived. But I’ve seen all the pictures of the people that died, and one of the pictures I went ‘Oh that’s the guy that I had given my shirt to in the back of the truck.’
One of the closest connections Kathy made was a woman and her husband she found while hiding under a truck. The couple comforted Kathy letting her know she wasn’t alone. Kathy calls them her absolute guardian angels.
We all stay in contact, text each other, Facebook each other. We also went back to Las Vegas, a group of us who were there for the shooting, for the memorial.
When did you come back to school?
KBM: I only missed a day. I had scheduled Monday off already, and I just needed a day to sleep. The students were awesome, very supportive. They saw me cry a lot–and I think that’s good for them to see tears of something that’s not a negative outcome. I came back to school on Wednesday and sat down and said “Do you want to hear the story?" And everybody did. So I gave them the detailed story.
From what I learned from my counselor, the most ideal way of healing is that you just start talking about it like it's a movie you saw and it desensitizes you from the trauma, but also you don’t bury it. Burying is the worst thing–you gotta let it be real. You don’t bury it but you can still talk about it without devastating you. So I told every class.
How has the traumatic experience affected you on a psychological level? Do you experience flashbacks? Or any symptoms that many people experience after a traumatic event?
KBM: I don’t sleep well. For the first couple weeks I could not sleep at all because of nightmares. But I got that into check with exercise. And time. My nervous system was repairing itself.
Every time I hear a helicopter, I can feel the physiological response because there were so many helicopters after the shooting started. I can feel my body go into that adrenaline rush, the visceral response. Some kid popped a lunch bag and it sounded like a gunshot and that put me in a visceral response. But I catch it and I know where it’s coming from. And two weeks later, I took a hike back in Laguna Canyon and I had no idea there was a shooting range where cops practice. I definitely had a visceral response. I hit the ground, army crawled in the dirt, thinking I was getting shot at again until I saw what was going on back in the hills.
And whenever I hear “Any Ol’ Barstool” by Jason Aldean. That’s what he was singing when it started. But nothing I haven’t been able to manage unless I’m in denial. I feel like I’m managing the outcome of the trauma pretty well.
How you say that this experience has changed you? Have you found anything positive out of it?
KBM: Just the gratitude part...For some reason that I didn’t get my eyeball shot out or my leg shot, or my life taken. So I’m definitely very, very grateful for what I have. That’s coupled with the guilt; why did other people get shot? But I didn’t have control.
The other positive that came out of it was the surrendering to life’s path and where it takes me. I had zero control and it’s not my fault that I didn’t get shot. I don’t know why I didn’t and they did. So surrendering to a higher power that the other path is not mine. So those are probably the two positives… The gratitude that I still get to be here. Now I get to jog and I get to see my students.