Liz: Courage after Columbine

As I pulled up to Liz’s cute home, I had an overwhelming feeling that I was about to hear a story inspiring enough to touch many women all around the world. Sure enough, as Liz began to speak in answer to my questions, not only was I touched by her genuine heart and raw honesty, but her words softened me, as I know they will you. This was an interview I’ll never forget. Here are my questions and my recollection of Liz’s interview.

Tell me about what happened the morning of April 20, 1999.

I was a 15 year-old sophomore at Columbine High School. My family had lived in Littleton, Colorado since I was 8 years old, and it was home to me.  I remember waking up that Tuesday morning and feeling sick to my stomach. Something didn’t feel quite right. I had the thought, I don’t want to go to school today. But, I had a math test and so I knew I had to go. My mom and I had gone shopping the day before for new spring school clothes, and I wanted to wear my new outfit to school. Fighting the feelings of not being prepared for my test, and my stomach feeling sick with anxiety, I continued to get ready for school and made it there on time.

At around 11:10 I was in between class periods. It was the first lunch hour and all my friends were either going to class, or headed to the cafeteria. My next class was math. I stood at the top of the stairs contemplating where I should go, and all the options raced through my mind:  I could go to class, I could eat with my friends in the cafeteria, I could head to the library and skip class so I could better study, or I could walk to release-time Seminary with my other friend. As one of my best friends headed to the cafeteria and the other to release-time Seminary, I thought to myself, I’ll just head to the library. I could use some extra study time. I can just tell my teacher something happened and I can make up my test at the end of the day.   

 I made my way down the hall but was stopped in my tracks. I heard a voice tell me very distinctly, Do not go to the library. Go to class.  At the time I was a strong willed, stubborn girl and I wanted to get out of my math test.  Not quite being able to recognize the prompting I was having, I kept walking and ignored my impression. I got to the library doors and once again felt an overwhelming feeling and voice distinctly telling me to go to class and to not enter the library.  After the second warning I decided to go to class. I thought to myself, If I do bad on my test, I do bad. Reluctantly, I turned around and walked to math, pulling a pencil out of my backpack and watching anxiously as the teacher began handing out the test.

Moments later, the fire alarm sounded. I initially thought it was just a safety drill or an explosion in the chemistry lab as I had heard some loud popping noises. It was not long however, when a male teacher from another class swung abruptly into the doorway and frantically yelled with a startled expression, “Get the hell out of here!” Confused, we all gathered out into the hall, and my eyes scanned my surroundings. The narrow halls were packed with kids shuffling quickly out the side doors of the school. As soon as I got outside, we all moved down a cement staircase that led to the front road. I saw students running and flooding the streets. Cars were stopped and backed up, and there were high-pitched screams coming from the masses. What happened? Was there a fire in the school? Had someone been hurt!? All these questions started coming to my head. It was total chaos.

 We crossed the street and headed to the park where most students had gathered. I overheard some people I knew, who had gone to lunch in the cafeteria, holding their heads in their hands repeating, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I can’t believe that just happened.” I replied, “What just happened!?” They blurted out there were two guys dressed in black trench coats, holding guns, shooting everybody.  My heart was racing and a feeling of helplessness tore at my heart. What about my friends? Had they been hurt? Were the shooters still in there?  In that moment, the unknown was what scared me the most.

Pagers were a popular form of technology at the time, and so I got my pager out and immediately began paging my friends and leaving messages. With no responses coming back, pure fear filled my entire body. There were kids huddled in close groups, some crying, some talking, and some praying. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. All of a sudden, someone in the park yelled, “RUN! Just run! There are two people on top of the school shooting at us!” Even though we found out in retrospect that this information was false, pure panic broke loose. Kids started screaming and running in every direction.  I ran with some girls I knew to one of their houses close by. We instantly turned on the TV and saw our school on every news station. Images of horror flooded the screen. The news was there immediately, and it was being broadcasted everywhere. My school, my safe haven was being ripped out from under me like a bad movie. I immediately called my mom and there was no answer.  I left a message on the answering machine, hoping she’d call me back. Crying, I also called my Dad at work and let him know I was okay after shocking him with the news.  We all sat and watched the television screen in silence. When I finally got to talk to my mom, I felt such relief, and she felt peace hearing my voice and knowing I was okay; that her daughter was okay.

 When my mom finally came to get me and took me home, I flipped on our television and sat in front of the screen for hours. Phone calls flooded our phone lines and visitors stopped by our house but I didn’t want anyone to sit by me or to talk to me.  I was on edge and I just wanted to watch in silence with tears at a constant flow. I was stunned and broken.

Were any of your friends hurt?

I knew victims who were shot and sadly died, but they weren’t in my close circle of friends. Most victims were people who I had grown up with and had classes with and would interact with on a daily basis. My close friend who was in the cafeteria that day ended up running into the dry storage of the cafeteria and barricading the door. She remained stuck in the cafeteria for hours, locked in a tiny room, listening to gunshots and the yelling of the gunmen, and wondering if she was going to come out alive. There was actually a propane bomb the boys had made, that was placed in the cafeteria and it was in really close proximity to where my friend had barricaded herself. The shooters made several attempts to set it off, but to no avail, it failed.  For whatever reason, I like to think divine intervention, the bomb never went off. In retrospect, I think there must’ve been angels there that day; because if those explosives had gone off, the entire room would’ve been leveled and everyone in surrounding areas would’ve been killed.

 I’m glad you decided to listen to your impression, and go to math class. You would’ve been in the library then, right?

 Yes. And that’s where there was the most carnage. I don’t know if I quite realized it at the time, but I believe those feelings I felt that day turning me to go to class rather than the library, were promptings of the Holy Spirit. After all these years, as I’ve come to recognize those feelings of warning and guidance, I now realize it was the Holy Spirit protecting me and guiding me. I believe it is so important to listen to those feelings and impressions.

What was the school like after this event? Were you scared to go back?

 The faculty gave us about a week off, and then we resumed class with another high school for the remainder of the academic year. The student body came together in unity, we went to every funeral together and every candlelight vigil, to all the churches together, and we supported each other. Nobody wanted to leave each other’s side. I was a fifteen year-old girl, and I needed the unity of my friends. There was a different type of feeling and strength in the community. But, it was hard. We went back to class where there were empty seats from those who were killed or hurt:  fresh memories and constant pain of the raw and real tragedy I had just gone through.  Some days, I felt like the teachers couldn’t teach, and couldn’t talk, and we just had to press forward together. I think my parents were scared to have me go back, but they left it up to me to decide what I wanted to do. The tragedy of that day and events to follow affected me deeply. I couldn’t sleep at night. I slept in my parent’s room on a makeshift bed for a really long time. I was having nightmares, and that day played in my mind over and over for years.

Do you or others you know, suffer from PTSD from this experience?

Yes. I have struggled with PTSD. The counselors and advisors told us as a student body that no matter where you were in the school that day, whether it was close or far from the area, you would be affected and traumatized by it. We had counselors on hand at all times offering counseling and they would talk to all of us in assemblies about PTSD and that we would all need help or therapy in some way, whether it was now or later in life.  They assured us it would eventually be okay and that we could become stronger from our experience.

How does this experience still affect you today?

One of my biggest challenges to this day is sending my kids to school. I remember enrolling my oldest in preschool and stepping back into that environment of young and innocent kids. Stepping back into that realm brought back all the memories and anxiety took over my emotions.  I remember going to the preschool office, telling them my experiences and saying to them, “I need to know that you will protect my child and that you will be aware of the type of people coming into the preschool.  I need to know that you are protective of the children. I cannot have this happening to my child and this is a fear of mine.”

 This experience has definitely affected the way I mother my children. I try to teach them that you can’t control what other people do, but you can control what you choose to do and how you treat others.  You can always choose to be kind and to be nonjudgmental. You never know what people are going through, and you could be a light in their life.  I’ve felt like its important for them to realize there will be pain and sorrow, trials and hardships, but it is the way you choose to handle it that will make all the difference.  I also have hope they realize the Lord will never leave their side and to pray always with a sincere heart.

How long did it take you to speak out about this? How did you get to that point?

It took a lot of years to feel comfortable talking and opening up about my experience. I didn’t do counseling at first. I pushed it all away. It wasn’t until I went to college in Idaho when I started to ask myself, Who am I? I struggled feeling like I didn’t even really know who I was anymore or who I was becoming. I was numb and didn’t recognize God’s love for me. I was in an apartment with roommates I didn’t know, and I felt different, almost like an outcast. Most of the time I was alone and insecure. It was not until one day feeling the lowest of lows and when everyone was gone and out of the apartment, that I knelt down by the couch to pray to God and ask for help. God, I don’t know who I am. I don’t feel loved. I want to know that I am okay with who I am. I don’t know who I am anymore. I can’t remember anything before Columbine. And I don’t remember what happiness is anymore and I want me back. I just want to feel loved and know that I am a daughter of God.

 Just then, the Spirit poured over me like a blanket.  It felt warm and comforting, like God was by my side whispering to me, “It’s okay. I love you. And you are good. And you will overcome this. You are my daughter, and that’s all that matters… is that I love you, and I accept you. You will overcome this and be stronger.” After that night, it didn’t mean that I wouldn’t go through trials, because I did. But after that night, I actually felt from God himself, that I was His daughter. No matter what I had been through, He loved me as me and would be by my side.

This is a part of me and it will always be part of me. It’s made me who I am, but I’ve also come to recognize it doesn’t define me. It isn’t me. I am not Columbine.

Do you feel like being able to share this and speak out has made you a healthier and happier person? 

When you go through a trial or tragedy, speaking out about it is a healing element, and helps with our mental and emotional health. I suppressed my trial for many years, keeping it just to myself, and it led to many other problems. I had an eating disorder that came with it when I was in college. I felt the pressure of the world to be perfect. There’s a lot to live up to, and it pressured me into feeling like I needed to be a certain way. It was a nightmare, not only to me but my whole family. It was almost as bad as Columbine. I felt so trapped and alone and unhappy with myself that I forgot who I was. It got to a point where I knew I needed to go to an eating disorder center for help, and I also knew I needed counseling.  I pleaded with my mom to get me help.  She is a determined woman of God and after much prayer and pleading with insurance companies, she got me the best of the best therapists and eating disorder center.  My mom saved my life, and to her I will always be indebted for her unconditional love and faith in me.

 What did you learn from being in that center?

In the center, I most importantly learned to be open with myself, and others.  I physically and verbally had to get my thoughts and feelings out. There were no secrets anymore. Especially dealing with an eating disorder, the secret thoughts and feelings inside me is what fed the disorder.  I truly believe secrecy will always feed an addiction with negativity and insecurities. I’d say talking about what one has gone through will help heal. I partly feel like I was placed in that eating disorder center for a reason other than just my eating disorder. I feel like I was in there to help me heal from Columbine as well, to verbally let all my feelings and emotions out, and to find myself again. The more people I can speak out to about my eating disorder and about the tragedy of Columbine, the more people I can help, and the more people I can sympathize with and love.

And the more people will love YOU. When people are vulnerable, there is suddenly a connection. We all struggle with our own things every single day, and we need to remember we don’t always know what is going on in people’s lives.

If you had to give advice to younger women, what would you say?

There is pressure out there, to look a certain way and to be a certain type of woman. Social media brings this strongly upon us. I stepped back from some social media because it was bringing back many insecurities and anxiety from the tragedy I went through, and also the days of my eating disorder. It was too much for me, and to me it was a no-brainer to get rid of something that could be so detrimental to my overall health. I feel like too many people play a “perfect” life, and it doesn’t reflect reality. Social media is so time consuming and can suck you in as a woman and as a mother. At one point I felt like I was consumed in social media. I was letting myself and my family down, and was spending more time focusing on other’s lives and trying to live up to the ideal image, than the beautiful simple moments in my precious day. I noticed changes in myself, I felt my temper was short and I kept forgetting to be in the moment.  To me nothing means more than to give all my time and attention to being the best mother I know how to be and at the end of the day knowing that I focused all my time and energy teaching and raising my children with love and patience.

Fear and the unknowing is a challenge. I still go through the daily fears of being somewhere… driving down the road or being in the store and someone pulling out a gun and shooting. I have that fear daily, and it may never go away. But knowing that I’m in good hands with God and that I can overcome anything through Jesus Christ, makes my struggles easier. You will always have personal struggles and trials, whatever they may be, and it is part of the plan living here on Earth. But staying close to Christ, and being willing to give Him your trials and burdens will strengthen you in an unimaginable way. My advice to anyone reading this, is that if you don’t know who you are, find out that truth by asking God yourself. Get on your knees and talk to Him. He is always listening. Come to Christ and feel of his individual love for YOU. Whether you live a frugal life or have been blessed financially, whether you have addictions, burdens, heartache, or struggle with who you are, it does not matter to him… you are a daughter of God. And nothing else matters. 

Interviewed March 17, 2016. Reviewed and approved by Liz Lancaster prior to release.