Content warning: This is a personal essay by Alexandra Sullivan, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. There will be mentions of gun violence, PTSD, traumatic events and mental health in the following piece.
Photo provided by the author.
I don’t like Valentine's Day. No, not because I’m bitter and single. I don’t like Valentine’s Day because it’s the tragic anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. I was one of the students at school that day and every year, this holiday is a reminder of the trauma I’ve endured.
For the past three years, pink and red balloons, heart-shaped candy boxes, cards and flowers were no longer a symbol of love to me — they were a reminder of the hate that took 17 innocent lives. But now, I’m working on bringing love back into the day that brought me and so many others so much pain.
To be quite honest, symbols of Valentine’s Day make me sick to my stomach. The physical symptoms of PTSD are things that are often overlooked by those who have never dealt with them — it’s a problem that often goes unsaid. It’s normal to feel physically sick as a result of traumatic events. Valentine's Day is a trigger for me and that’s something I’ve had to learn to deal with — and it’s gotten much better with therapy. The only reason I’m able to share this is because of how much therapy has helped me.
Something I’ve been working on changing — something that’s in my control and that makes me feel better about this holiday — is how I can bring the feeling of love back into this day in my own way. Despite the physical and mental hardships my PTSD has caused me, I’m able to create traditions and make choices that bring light and joy into this hard time and use those things to make this situation a bit more bearable.
Before I explain, let me preface this by saying what I’m doing might not be for everyone. Everyone's story is different and everyone can choose how to deal with their trauma, this is just what works for me.
As I said, I’m trying to bring love back into this holiday and do what I can for Valentine’s Day to make it easier and happier. I felt so much anger and sadness for so long, and I want to finally find peace with this horrible situation.
I’m going to start sending flowers to the memorial at my high school for those who lost their lives that day. Honoring the victims of this tragic event with love is something that I’ve been doing for a while, but something I never want to stop doing. Seeing Valentine’s Day flower displays at stores usually makes me sick to my stomach, but by looking at them I can associate them with something good — which is keeping the memories of those we lost alive, and honoring their memories with love.
I’ve also started creating my own traditions to look forward to around this time of year. Valentine’s day has its own traditions, but by creating my own for this time of year, I can look forward to them on my own terms, and participate in my own traditions that aren’t triggering. One of them is painting and creating art. This is something that I do on a regular basis, but it’s such a nice outlet and it never fails to make me feel better.
Another is going to Disney World. Disney World has been my safe space for a long time and it fills me with a lot of joy. It’s called the happiest place on Earth for a reason! Going here gives me something to look forward to every year and makes me feel safe since it’s something stable.
Photo provided by the author.
Finally, I want to begin writing cards to people who have been victims of gun violence. Spreading love to others who need it is one of my favorite things to do. Bringing joy to other people is such a simple task that can really impact someone's life for the better. No one deserves to endure trauma, and by reminding these people that they’re not alone, it can make them feel just a bit better. These acts of kindness are such a great way to put love out there into the universe and to put my own spin on a typical Valentine’s Day tradition in a way that I’m comfortable doing.
My trauma has made a lot of decisions for me in the past. It put restraints on my life that I never expected and kept me from living my truest life for so long. Even now, people say things like “It happened so long ago, shouldn’t you be over it?” or “Just forget about it and move on.” There is no time span for how long trauma lasts or how long it’s allowed to hurt. Everyone deals with PTSD at their own pace and that’s something I’ve been recently accepting and coming to terms with.
Overall, there's no right or wrong way to approach traumatic events in your life. Every person's trauma is valid, and everyone's free to live with it in the way they choose, so be sure to be kind to everyone, and be supportive of what they might be going through. I hope my story has inspired you to bring some love into other people's lives this weekend and to be more aware of the hardships people are dealing with.