Most of the time, I feel safe. Some days, it feels like the entire world is dangerous. I feel sad, scared and hopeless. Other days – or weeks or months – time flies by without a hitch, and I feel safe again.
Until a mass shooting occurs.
Then I remember that even a democratic country in a time of peace can be an unsafe place.
Seeing an unsafe world outside . . .
These days, I am generally a very even-keel person. I’ve struggled with anxiety, but it is mostly under control now.
2012 was a particularly anxious year for me – and then came the Sandy Hook shootings in December, a harrowing end to an already difficult year. I remember watching the news coverage on TV, seeing the innocent faces of people taken unfairly and in the cruelest way, and just sobbing. I was nannying at the time, to fund my life in Vancouver as I did my master’s degree. I remember telling myself, “Justine, you’ve got two little kids sitting here who need you very much, and you need to turn the news off and put on a happy face for them.”
But it felt like the world had shattered into something deeply unsafe. If that could happen there…it could happen anywhere. 2013 rolled around, and the Boston Marathon bombings and ensuing shootout shook the country in April.
. . . and feeling it inside
The anxiety kept building, mostly feeling like a looming shadow, or a weird feeling I just couldn’t shake.
I went about my daily routine (classes, nannying) feeling mostly fine but generally unsafe. This all culminated with a couple of debilitating panic attacks. With enough support, I got through that incredibly difficult time in my life and haven’t had a panic attack since. However, I still cannot shake the unsafe feeling that comes and goes like the seasons. Sometimes I go a few weeks or months without thinking about it, but every once in a while, life hands me a brutal reminder, and I feel fragile.
Lives can be taken – in a split second – in a grocery store, movie theater, place of worship, concert, bar, hospital or school. That is an absolutely terrifying thought. So terrifying that I can’t imagine I’m the only person who has ever looked around in a restaurant or grocery store to see where I could hide in the event that someone came in with a gun.
Gun violence is never far away
But really, none of this is about me. I don’t say any of this to take away from the unfathomable pain experienced by people whose lives have been directly affected by gun violence. My sorrow, anger, and fear are nothing compared to what those people experience daily.
But I’m still here, feeling this in my own way, and I know I’m not alone. Many of us are traumatized by what we see happening in this country.
My tipping point, the cusp at which I decided to get directly involved, was the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, TX. I traveled to Washington, DC for the March for Our Lives 2018 after the Parkland shooting and was always very outspoken about my position on gun control. I convinced myself that it was enough. The spree of mass shootings in Spring 2022, including the deadliest school shooting in almost a decade, became irrefutable evidence that my actions were not enough. I vowed to not let my anger and sadness subside and turn into complacency, and to instead turn these feelings into motivation and action.
You don’t have to experience it directly to feel unsafe. Gun violence affects all of us.
Justine Gersberg is a behavioral therapist working with children on the autism spectrum. Originally from San Diego, she ventured to Canada for a few years before returning.