After The Shooting…

By Vanessa Stapleton – President Armor Up West Virginia

Almost daily, I was made aware of an officer being injured or shot somewhere in the US. I am in many groups across the country where I would see the news of yet another officer critically injured. Being a wife and mother, I used to pray that these officer’s would survive. I imagined the spouse and children were an average family like us and prayed these officers would make it home to them. I was naive then. It wasn’t until our own shooting that I was awakened to the nightmare known as “after the shooting.”

There is now a very clear distinction in our lives……before the shooting and after the shooting. Before the shooting, there was no way we could have comprehended that everything afterwards would be catastrophically different. Nothing would ever remain the same. For our children, nothing would ever look the same. I thought our children were very well aware of the evil in the world. Their dad is a cop so the ugly of the world was evident to them. They knew about meth labs, child abuse, murder, drugs, and all the ugliness that existed in the world. Unfortunately, there was no way to prepare them for when the evil made its way to our own home.

It has been seven years for us. The before and after is more evident today than ever. Our family was firm in God, faith, and country. We were the all American family. Yet, somehow we were ripped apart by the evil that exists in our own hometown. The very evil that he fought daily eventually made its way to destroy our family and everything we thought we knew. One thing I have learned is that we are not alone in this ugly fight. Running a nonprofit for first responders, I hear stories over and over of similar circumstances.

Seven years ago, I sat in the hospital waiting area wondering what I would tell my children the next time I laid eyes on them. The standoff was over. The shooter was dead. Their dad was in surgery after being flown to the hospital. My mind bounced from what I would have to tell our children to what the family of the shooter must be feeling. I know, most people don’t go down that road. I couldn’t help it. I wondered if that family was ok. The shooter was suffering with mental illness. I felt sorry for them. My mind would go from them to our own children with alligator tears streaming down their faces before I left with officers to get to the hospital.

The next few months were the hardest months of our lives. Once we left the hospital, there were many sleepless nights. The kids had nightmares. He had nightmares. The kids would cry. He would wake up screaming. Our daughter would absolutely lose it if either of us were out of her sight. She would vomit several times a day from anxiety. Our son was drawing pictures of his dad with black legs (his legs were shot). Our son would draw him as if the legs had turned black, and no longer worked. We made attempts to do normal things. We would take a walk, but he would hurt so much we had to stop. We would go places, but he would get too tired. The kids didn’t understand why daddy couldn’t carry them. They would get upset and cry which would make him angry at the entire situation.

During that, we had a sea of people helping us with dinners, getting to appointments because our daughter was riddled with anxiety. We had nonstop visits and phone calls. Eventually, things went back to what most people consider normal. He went back to work. I went back to work. The kids were in school. People moved on with their lives assuming we were moving on with ours.

A year after the shooting, our lives unraveled. I naively thought we had survived the worst thing that could happen to a family. The truth is the shooting was the easy part. I had no way of knowing that PTSD is the worst part of all of it. It wasn’t this horrible shooting that destroyed us. It was what came after the shooting.

His nightmares became unbearable so he stopped sleeping altogether to avoid them. His moods became unpredictable, eventually volatile. He no longer wanted to leave the house. Eventually, we were doing all family activities without him. His temper became this rage. One minute we wondered if he would kill us all, the next minute he was the nicest person ever. I was doing everything I could think of to help him overcome it all. I was making the kids stay away from him when he was angry. I was making calls to try to find help for him. We ended up in the emergency room for panic attacks and ulcers. I had no idea those were both symptoms of PTSD.

I was calling friends begging them to help him. They brushed it off like it wasn’t a big deal. I begged the church for help. They told me to be supportive and focus on being the wife that he needed. No one came to offer help. No one brought dinner. No one supported us through the worst part of our lives. PTSD was far worse than the shooting, yet there was absolutely no help or support. Most people didn’t understand. The ones who did understand, didn’t realize the severity of the problem. We eventually sailed past PTSD into drug addiction and alcoholism. It wasn’t until he went to rehab that anyone bothered to show up. Even then, the support didn’t come from those I thought it would.

Once the kids and I decided to continue our healing without him, any and all support for us ended. We didn’t abandon him. He chose not to heal. He didn’t want to do what he needed to heal. We chose not to continue living in dysfunction and toxicity. People didn’t understand. They simply stopped speaking to me and the kids. They talked about how terrible I was for leaving him. They had no idea what the kids and I endured. There was no support. There was only silence and whispers behind our backs.

Now when I see the news about these horrible shootings of our officers, my heart sinks. I feel horrible for what will come later. I feel sorry for the spouses and children that have no idea the battle they will face. Don’t misunderstand me, I am happy they survived! But I am horrified for what they will go through. A year later, we thought we would be past it all. A year later, our battle was just beginning. Five years later, were on suicide attempt number two along with drug addiction and alcoholism. Six years later the kids and I began our path to healing alone.

PTSD without proper treatment just continues to become more problematic. I wish we had been more prepared. I wish someone had told us about Safe Call Now or Serve and Protect. We had no idea that one phone call could have changed everything. Eventually, we found Safe Call Now, but by then the damage was done. PTSD doesn’t have to progress to the point of devastation. With PTSD, the earlier the intervention, the less damage is done to the entire family. Don’t wait to reach out. Make the call today. If there is anything I know today, it is that you do not want to wait to get the help that is out there.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

Safe Call Now:  24 Hour Confidential Hotline:  206-459-3020

For more information on the First Responders program:  Click here

Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008