Surviving Sutherland Springs: Turning PTSD Into Post-Traumatic Growth
Every survivor of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs is also a survivor of the intense emotional trauma caused by experiencing such an attack.
But post-traumatic stress can lead to post-traumatic growth, and David Colbath said the Nov. 5, 2017, massacre that killed 26 led to the best year of his life.
On the day of the shooting, Colbath was sitting in the back of the tiny, nearly 100-year-old church building when the shower of bullets began.
"I crawled on my elbows under the pews and got stopped with some other people in the way, and the shooter stayed on the outside of the building, and he shot magazine after magazine inside of the building, so there were just bullets flying around," Colbath said.
Colbath crawled to a corner, whispering three names like a prayer.
" 'I love you Jesus. I love you Morgan. I love you Olivia. I love you Jesus. I love you Morgan. I love you Olivia.' I don't know how many times I repeated it. My son's name is Morgan, my God is Jesus and my daughter is Olivia."
Then, Colbath said, Devin Kelley, armed with a Ruger AR-556, came inside.
"He was literally putting people out. He was killing people individually instead of spraying bullets,” Colbath said. “He was shooting individuals, and he came over to my side of the church and he shot me in the back, right under my neck, and I'm sure he thought he'd killed me."
Colbath took eight bullets that day but survived. He was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where they know physical wounds aren't the only ones that need immediate attention.
"I was afforded, immediately after I woke up, counseling. That's real important. I want you to understand that, because I attribute that to my attitude today,” Colbath said. “I attribute it God to being with me and Christ leading me, but good PTSD help, good counseling from total professionals that have helped our warriors. I got the same help."
Some people are ashamed to seek help for trauma, and they’re ashamed of their symptoms, said Mary Beth Fisk, the executive director of The Ecumentical Center, a counseling center that has worked with the survivors of this attack. But trauma is normal.
"Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. Could be an accident. Could be rape, a natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical,” Fisk said. "Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and certainly physical symptoms like headaches and nausea and bring about more long-term chronic diseases as well if someone doesn't work through that trauma."
Colbath has experienced most of those symptoms, including what's called an exaggerated startle response.
"I was at a Spurs game, and someone took two two-by-fours and slammed them together, and I nearly fell on the floor,” Colbath said. “I thought it was a rifle going off. It nearly scared me to death.”
But Colbath said while the initial therapy he was offered in the hospital helped him, he's still going back for more. He currently sees his therapist once a month.
There are several types of therapy available that are designed to help trauma survivors move through and beyond these traumatic experiences. Among them are cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. These approaches can significantly cut down the length of time it takes to process trauma.
Fisk says, if you get help, many trauma survivors can emerge into a phase called post-traumatic growth.
“It really does involve life-changing shifts in thinking and relating to the world that contributes to a personal process of change that is deeply meaningful,” Fisk said.
Colbath said that process began for him when the bullets were still flying and he was whispering to the three loves of his life. Everything shifted for him at that moment, he says.
When he arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center, a family friend met him there. Colbath entrusted her with a message. Relating the memory brings him to tears.
" Tell Morgan I love him. Tell Olivia I love her.' I said, 'Tell her. Don't forget. Tell her. Tell her.' 'I'll tell them, David. Don't worry — I'll tell them.’ "
Colbath said what was truly important in his life had crystallized at that moment, and since that day his life has focused around his relationship with his God, his church and his children.
Fisk said having faith and a religious family can help people heal. It can give you a way to make sense of your trauma and provide a built-in support system to help you get through it.
For the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, that's certainly been true.
"It's a little slower for some than others, but God is good all the time ... and we all mourn at a different level and a different pace, and I hope eventually all of us will be better people when it's said and done," Colbath said.
Colbath added, “Take the shooting away. Take the trauma away, and it’s been the best year of my life.”
As Nov. 5 approaches Fisk said there is a very real risk that survivors and those in the larger community could fall back into their grief and trauma, especially with news of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.
She urges everyone to limit the amount of news they watch, and be gentle with themselves and with each other.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie