If you’re afraid that the American landscape is no longer safe, believe me, I understand.

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The day after the mass shooting in Odessa, Texas, in August, my husband and I planned to take our 6-year-old to the Renaissance Faire in Maryland. Then he pulled me aside. “This is going to sound stupid,” he told me. “But should we go today? What with Odessa?”

I frowned. “Are you worried about my feelings?” I’m a gun violence survivor, and you can read my story in The Washington Post. My husband always wants to protect me, to keep me from reliving that trauma. “Or are you actually worried we might get shot at the Ren Faire?”

“Both.” He talked about how he didn’t feel safe taking our kid out in public. Wasn’t this the type of place a mass shooting happens? Public. Well-known. Like the massacre earlier in July at the Gilroy Garlic Festival?

I felt momentary panic. My husband and I talked it out logically. It wasn’t stupid to worry about the risk.

We’re experiencing an epidemic of gun violence in the United States, and Amnesty International recently issued an unprecedented travel warning for visitors to our country. However, we couldn’t find a reason for the Ren Faire to be more dangerous than any other public place.

Decades ago, I decided to not live in fear or worry for my safety every second. I wasn’t going to start being afraid of the world now.

“We have to go,” I told my husband. “What are we going to do next, not go to the store? Not let him go to school?”

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of people voicing this same anxiety, especially on social media. If you’re afraid that the American landscape is no longer safe, believe me, I understand.

It happened in broad daylight on a busy street in New Orleans, in front of the public library we patronized every Saturday. A stranger approached. He was dirty all over. Unkempt. Stumbling. Slurring his words. I remember thinking that he needed a bath, and wondering why he hadn’t had one.

The man struck up a conversation with my mother, then abruptly changed his demeanor, straightening up, speaking clearly. He declared that he was going to kill us, then pulled out a gun and began shooting. My mother managed to turn around and throw her body on top of mine, shielding me.

Spring 1985. New Orleans. About six months after the shooting. I am on the right. The other girl is my best friend Heather from my childhood.

We were both shot. I had a collapsed lung and surface wounds, but recovered fully. My mother wasn’t so lucky. She was paralyzed from the neck down and lived as a quadriplegic for 20 years, before finally succumbing to her injuries.

As an adolescent, I started thinking about why the shooting happened. Could my mother have prevented it? How could I keep myself safe? Some guy with a gun could be anywhere! My mom and I weren’t doing anything wrong. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My options, as I saw them:

  • I could never leave the house. Ever.
  • I could leave the house, but walk around in a heightened state of anxiety, always on alert, like a soldier in some invisible war.
  • I could take a giant leap of faith and choose to believe that today will be OK.

Because most days are. And the truth is, I can’t predict the future. There’s always a small possibility of danger, just like when you get in a car, or on the subway, or in a plane, or basically any moving vehicle.

Danger is just part of the world.

Whenever I’m afraid, I take it again. It sounds simplistic. But it works.

If you’re feeling afraid to go out in public or take your kids to school, I get it. I really do. As someone who’s been dealing with this for 35 years, this has been my lived reality.

My advice is to take all reasonable precautions to seize what you actually can control. Common sense stuff, like not walking alone at night or going out drinking by yourself.

You might also feel empowered by getting involved in your kid’s school, your neighborhood, or your community to advocate for gun safety, or getting involved in advocacy on a larger scale.

(One thing that doesn’t make you safer, though, is buying a gun: Studies show that owning a gun actually makes you less safe.)

And then, when you’ve done everything you can, you take that leap of faith. You live your life.

Go about your normal routine. Take your kids to school. Go to Walmart and movie theaters and clubs. Go to the Ren Faire, if that’s your thing. Don’t give into the darkness. Don’t give into the fear. Definitely don’t play out scenarios in your head.

If you’re still afraid, go out anyway if you can, for as long as you’re able. If you make it all day, terrific. Do it again tomorrow. If you make it 10 minutes, try for 15 tomorrow.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be afraid, or that you should push feelings down. It’s OK (and understandable!) to be afraid.

You should let yourself feel everything you’re feeling. And if you need help, don’t be afraid to see a therapist or join a support group. Therapy has definitely worked for me.

Take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself. Reach out to supportive friends and family members. Make time to nurture your mind and body.

But it’s nearly impossible to find a sense of safety when you’ve handed your life over to fear.

Once I came home from my weeklong stay in the hospital, my dad and grandmother could have kept me home for a while.

But they put me back in school immediately. My dad returned to work, and we all returned to our regular routines. We didn’t avoid public places. My grandmother often took me on outings to the French Quarter after school.

Fall/Winter 1985. New Orleans. About a year after the shooting. My father, Skip Vawter, and me. I’m 5 here.

This was exactly what I needed — playing with my friends, swinging so high I thought I’d touch the sky, eating beignets at Cafe du Monde, watching street musicians play old New Orleans jazz, and feeling this sense of awe.

I was living in a beautiful, big, exciting world, and I was OK. Eventually, we started visiting public libraries again. They encouraged me to express my feelings and tell them when I didn’t feel OK.

But they also encouraged me to do all these normal things, and acting like the world was safe made it begin to feel safe to me again.

I don’t want to make it seem like I emerged from this unscathed. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder soon after the shooting, and I continue to be haunted by the shooting, my mother’s quadriplegia, and my really complicated childhood. I have good days and bad days. Sometimes I feel so screwed up, so not normal.

But my dad and grandmother’s pragmatic approach to recovery gave me an inherent sense of safety, despite the fact that I’d been shot. And that sense of safety has never left me. It’s kept me warm at night.

And it’s why I went to the Ren Faire with my husband and son.

I was so busy taking in the chaotic, quirky beauty all around me. Only once did I flash to that fear. Then I looked around. Everything seemed fine.

With a practiced, familiar mental effort, I told myself that I was OK. That I could get back to the fun.

My kid was tugging on my hand, pointing at a man dressed up as a satyr (I think) with horns and a tail, asking if the guy was human. I forced a laugh. And then I really did laugh, because it was really funny. I kissed my son. I kissed my husband and suggested that we go buy ice cream.


Norah Vawter is a freelance writer, editor, and fiction writer. Based in the D.C. area, she’s an editor with web magazine DCTRENDING.com. Unwilling to run from the reality of growing up a gun violence survivor, she deals with it head on in her writing. She’s published in The Washington Post, Memoir Magazine, OtherWords, Agave Magazine, and The Nassau Review, among others. Find her on Twitter.