Sandy Hook & Zoloft: Processing a Tragedy

Five years ago today, the unthinkable happened. Evil incarnate entered an elementary school and took the lives of innocent, unsuspecting, and defenseless children. Upon seeing the reports on TV and online, everyone around me broke down. Sandy Hook is a faraway place we’d never heard of, but you don’t need to be personally connected to a tragedy like this to be devastated by it.

And I wanted to be devastated by it, but somehow, I didn’t feel any wild emotions. I didn’t cry, I didn’t shake with anger. I felt like I should. But I just didn’t.

Earlier that same bloody year, evil visited upon a midnight showing of the new Batman movie. When I heard about the Aurora shooting, I was at work. And I was shaken to my core. The men around me were visibly upset as well. Their faces were white, their voices strained as they asked if I’d seen the news. I couldn’t think of anything else all day. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. The people there didn’t stand a chance. And what did they have in common? No religious creed, no race to be hated. They were just there at the same time as someone looking to kill. And they died for that.

Sandy Hook was the same in every way – fish in a barrel, no uniting identified to make them targets. But worse, ten thousand times worse, because this time, it was children. Little children. But this time, the emotions didn’t take me over. Though I watched everyone around me lose control. And I could not fathom why I simply thought it was sad, but my emotions remained cold and still.

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The year 2012 was when I lost any innocence or sense that I was ever truly safe. Those two shootings changed my perception of the world. There was no inherent benevolence to life. In the same way that I was raised to keep my keys between my fingers and never walk alone at night, I had now learned that not only was I prey because I’m a woman, I am prey because I am a human, and humans prey on humans everywhere. Shootings happen all the time, and the dialogue has changed since Sandy Hook. Before, people begged for stricter gun laws. “We must make sure this never happens again.” But after Sandy Hook? “If children can get shot to death at school and legislators did nothing, then they never will.” That was the worst possible scenario. And the laws did not change. And they won’t. I was not the only one who lost hope then.

The year 2012 was also when I was seeing a gastroenterologist because my stomach hurt all the time and I slipped dangerously underweight. And when test after test showed nothing wrong, the doctor suggested I try Zoloft, because I seemed to have anxiety problems. That was true, but I wouldn’t be formally diagnosed by a psychiatrist until years later. He simply wrote me a prescription and I went off into the world without professional supervision. And I wondered if Zoloft was the reason I “couldn’t” feel anything about Sandy Hook.

Part of the reason I’d never seen a psychiatrist about my anxiety problems was the fear of exactly this. I worried that medication would simply be “happy pills,” and would block my ability to feel negative emotions. And without feeling negative, was I even human? Was it damning to be unable to have an existential crisis? I considered my panic attacks a part of my soul, an integral part of who I was. Without them, happiness would be fake and undeserved.

And I still struggle with this thought process. I am once again on zoloft, this time under the watchful eye of a psychiatrist. And recently, I started having more and more “bad days.” More and more nights where I couldn’t sleep. More and more dips into depressive thought and existential dread. And it is thoughts like these “Sandy Hook thoughts” that make me think I should stop taking medicine. I would never act on these thoughts, as I have quit cold turkey before and became more mentally sick than I’d ever been in my life. But the thought remains nonetheless.

Just after Sandy Hook, I graduated from college. My graduation gift to myself was a trip to Disneyland. It was December, so Disney was in the throes of Christmas. We attended a special candlelight concert of hundreds of people in a giant choir singing Christmas carols with a huge live orchestra. And at one point, their guest star, Molly Ringwald, lead a prayer, and she asked us all to pray for Sandy Hook in a moment of silence. And as I watched the parents around me hold their kids a little tighter in the candlelight, the tears finally came.

Depression and anxiety are not romantic. Your emotions are not the fault of pills or yourself. There is no such thing as happiness or sadness that is not “real.” And I’m going to spend the rest of my life telling myself these things, and I won’t always believe them.

And there are some things that will be too big and too horrible to process right away. All we can do is work through it on our own time. We cannot compare our grief or empathy to others. Sometimes, medicine can make you numb, just like alcohol and drugs can. Sometimes, you make yourself numb as a defense mechanism. Get the help you need. Talk to loved ones. Tell your doctor if you’re worried about how medicine or an event has affected you, and see a doctor who actually specializes in what you need.

I pray that none of us need to process something so unthinkable ever again. But we probably will. And for that, I pray we are kind to ourselves, however we may react.

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