I have no words for the tragic events in Las Vegas. I know I’m not alone in feeling helpless about what happened or how to stop it from happening again.
I can only speak about what I know - and that’s a story of an almost-mass-shooting I witnessed a little more than 10 years ago and how it changed me in ways I never expected.
In 2007, my wife and I were celebrating our one-year wedding anniversary in Vegas. We spent our first night walking the strip, and around midnight we wandered into the New York, New York Hotel and Casino. We were walking toward the front of the casino’s main entrance when my wife decided to turn off at the bathroom.
Waiting for her outside the restroom, I heard a rapid succession of crackling noises that sounded like fireworks. It was around the Fourth of July, so I didn’t react. Until a massive crowd of people started running toward me. Someone was shooting at the front of the casino… the exact spot we would have been if my wife hadn’t trusted her bladder.
I don’t remember much about the next few seconds. My wife screamed at me to come into the bathroom, and we pushed ourselves inside a stall where another woman was hiding. We stood in silence and listened for more crackling or screaming. We waited forever.
We heard enough “normal” commotion outside to finally inch out of the bathroom. We went out some nearby side door and saw a mass of people and police cars. We waved down a cab and headed back to our hotel.
We were incredibly lucky. We learned the details from a news report the next morning. The shooter hit four people, including a kid, but no life-threatening injuries. He shot from an atrium above the casino floor, but he wasn’t an experienced shooter. As he was reloading, a heroic bystander tackled and subdued him. Some other brave souls helped to restrain him. The shooter was just some guy who tried to incite a “suicide by cop” but apparently got bored looking for the right police officer to pick a fight.
The details are hazy now, and, because shootings like this have happened so often, it isn’t even easy to track down news reports of the incident. Really, I never cared much about the details of what I didn’t see. We were lucky. That’s all that mattered.
Ten years ago, nothing bad happened. It was a near-miss. It cannot ever compare to people who have been shot or injured by a madman, or have lost loved ones to random acts of violence.
But it had an unexpected long-term effect.
I knew something was off with me when my wife and I tried to continue our vacation after that night. We visited the wax museum on the strip, and there was a “live” segment of the attraction based on classic horror films. You could hear pops and bangs and various loud noises just outside the attraction, and as we approached it I nearly collapsed. I had a physical reaction to noise I had never experienced before. I couldn’t breathe, my vision blurred, and my heart wouldn’t stop racing.
I understood the reaction in the moment, knowing I wasn’t responding to some lame horror exhibit. I never labelled it, but looking back I now know I was experiencing some form of post traumatic stress. But I told myself I was okay. I told myself it couldn’t be PTSD because nothing bad actually happened to me. It was a “near miss,” nothing more.
I was fine for months. No panic-like reactions like the one at the wax museum. Then, without any warning or explicit stress reaction, I started having panic attacks all the time. I couldn’t breathe. My hands shook, my eyes lost focus, my chest pierced with stabbing pain, and I nearly tumbled over from extreme dizziness.
With some medical help, I’ve been able to deal with it. But the truth is, I’ve spent the last 10 years looking over my shoulder. I’m uncomfortable in public spaces, untrusting of people I don’t know, and always, always visualizing something terrible that could happen.
I don’t share my story as a means of comparison to more tragic events.
I share it because if what I feel is only 5 percent of what real trauma feels like, then we all need to do more to help, to understand, and to do whatever we possibly can to stop it from happening again.
Tyler Wilson can be reached at email@example.com.