Independence Day fireworks, once joyous celebrations, are now nightmares for these gun violence survivors

Independence Day fireworks, once joyous celebrations, are now nightmares for these gun violence survivors

Maggie Montoya used to love Independence Day fireworks. Now, the loud explosions and bangs that come with the American ritual agonize her.

The 26-year-old’s views on fireworks changed after she had to hide under a desk while a gunman fired rounds in the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, more than three months ago. Ten people were killed in that shooting.

“Any fireworks or similar noises I’ve heard in the past months have been especially triggering,” Montoya told CNN in an email. “I hate that that is how I feel.”

There have been more than 300 mass shootings across the US in 2021 so far, according to the Gun Violence Archive. CNN defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot, not including the shooter.

For the survivors and witnesses of mass shootings and other forms of gun violence, longtime comforts and celebrations, like fireworks, have become nightmarish triggers. Those who spoke to CNN all described how movies, crowded areas or even the sound of an ambulance can cause them to shut down or become extremely anxious.

Gun violence can lead to life-long trauma that can even develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a psychiatric disorder that occurs in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event like a shooting, natural disaster or abuse, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

“Those triggers are really idiosyncratic, for some people it’ll be a sound, for some it’ll be a smell, for some it’ll be like a voice,” said Sonya B. Norman, director of the PTSD Consultation Program with the National Center for PTSD.

There are about 8 million people in the US diagnosed with PTSD, said Leah Blain, clinic director for the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. Though there are groups who are disproportionately affected, the condition does not discriminate and includes symptoms like trouble sleeping, avoiding areas that can be a reminder of trauma and being in a constant state of alertness.

“Most people that are exposed to a trauma — including gun violence — they’ll experience PTSD symptoms in the immediate aftermath,” said Lily Brown, director at the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “For some people they stick around for a while, but goes away, but others it can last for decades.”

CNN spoke with Montoya and other survivors and witnesses of mass shootings, including some who have been diagnosed with PTSD, in an effort to understand how July 4 fireworks celebrations might affect them.

Here’s what they had to say:

A runner who misses the familiarity of July 4

Growing up, July 4 meant buying fireworks with the family, Montoya said.

She also remembered neighbors buying “thousands of dollars-worth” of fireworks, and she along with other kids would set them off and clean up the next morning.

“It was like a big neighborhood and family event that I really enjoyed as a kid,” Montoya said.

Now, she’s forced to retreat to the mountains where she “can just be in a quiet place” and camp with friends.

After the shooting in Boulder, Montoya spent a week and a half at home in Rogers, Arkansas. During that time, she said she remained in a state of shock, but loved being around her family. For a short period of time, she said she’d wake up hearing gunshots.

“I guess my mind was just playing tricks on me,” she said.

Women are more likely to meet criteria for PTSD than men, Brown said. Brown also added that people who experience traumas that involve another person — via a shooting or assault — are more likely to develop PTSD than someone who was in a natural disaster or car accident. Montoya has not been medically diagnosed with PTSD, but said she does get triggered.

Montoya, who is a professional runner, started training again two weeks after the shooting.

“I love running and it was something that took my mind off things for the moment,” she said.

Her first big race since the shooting took place in May when she placed 6th in the Women’s 5000m with a personal best time at the 2021 USA Track & Field Golden Games and Distance Open at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California.

She had been training for the US Olympic trials — what she described as “her light at the end of the tunnel” — but was unfortunately not able to run due to an injury.

Outside of running, Montoya has coped by speaking with friends and family about what she is experiencing. She’s also gone to the King Soopers resource center and has met up with coworkers who were at the shooting as well.

“After the shooting, I was just afraid all the time,” Montoya said, adding there were hundreds of shootings before and after Boulder. “It’s just the feeling that it can just happen again and anywhere.”

A reverend is nervous another shooting will occur

The Rev. Michael Keene said the 4th of July worries him.

“This 4th of July, I am really nervous. I’m nervous in the sense of how are people going to react? How are people going to conduct themselves? Are we going to have a 4th of July party where we have fireworks and nothing happens?” Keene told CNN. “Or, will somebody — because we can get guns almost anywhere — bring a gun and something happen and then you start shooting up. That, I’m really nervous about. That has me worried.”

Keene’s Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church sits less than a minute and a half walk from the house where a 90s-themed party delved into chaos on May 22. Gunfire left two dead and 12 injured.

The night of the shooting, Keene said he was preparing a Sunday school lesson when he thought he heard fireworks. The party had been going on for a while and he thought it was about to end.

“Then it hit me, that’s not fireworks, those are gunshots,” Keene said. “The music had stopped, and you could actually hear screaming. That’s how close I am.”

He remembered hearing police and ambulance sirens throughout the night. Keene — who is a therapist with a specialization in trauma — also remembered trying to console a young woman who had been inside the party.

“She is just crying and then she said, ‘I was walking over dead bodies,'” he said.

The distrust of psychologists in the Black community is what led Keene to become a therapist, he told CNN. People of color, specifically Blacks, Hispanics/Latinos and Native Americans, are disproportionately affected by PTSD, according to the APA and the National Institutes of Health.

Keene barely spoke to CNN about what he, himself, was going through. Instead, he talked about how his church provided free counseling to the community, how he and other members went to the house the next day to help clean up and how his church plans to partner with another church to throw a talent show to honor one of the victims.

But the sound of police and ambulance sirens from that night still sticks with him.

“There are times when I hear an ambulance and I have to make sure I’m in a safe spot,” he said, adding that he used to pray first when he heard an ambulance. Now he has to reassure he’s safe, and then he prays.

Keene said he has his own support systems to help him cope with that night. He has a lot of friends who are psychologists and therapists who allow him to “dump, flesh out stuff.” He said he wants to make sure his anxiety around sirens does not become the norm.

A massage therapist struggling to find comfort in familiar places

Ryan Borowski is not looking forward to the fireworks this upcoming holiday.

“I hope they get rained out,” he told CNN. “I’ll probably put in some headphones and try to drown it out if it bothers me.”

Borowski was also at the King Soopers in Boulder during the mass shooting. Before that day, Borowski described himself as a laid-back and relaxed guy.

A massage therapist who owns his business, Borowski looked to ease the stress in others.

But a trip to the grocery store in March for a soda and a bag of chips fundamentally changed his life.

“After the shooting, I feel more anxious, more paranoid, more pessimistic, less hopeful,” he told CNN. “It’s kind of shaken my psyche in a way that I feel like hope feels diluted. That hope feels like the illusion and that I was woken up that day.”

Borowski said the first 10 days after the shooting, he could not stop crying. He felt his heart rate increase and tension all through his body.

“I know during the first week, I heard gunshots in my dreams,” he said, adding that his wife also tells him he screams in his sleep.

“Loud noises, any loud bangs can be pretty jarring. It takes me a second to recompose myself.”

Now the simple pleasures in life — his job, movies and music — no longer comfort him, he said. Movies tug on his emotions and music is “so emotionally evocative.” Borowski plays the wooden flute and was trying to learn the violin prior to the shooting.

“Since the shooting, I haven’t been into practicing the violin,” he said. “My flute playing is kind of empty and uninspired.”

Massages don’t even release the stress and enjoyment they used to.

“For the past three months, I don’t think I’ve ever received a massage that released that enjoyment. I’m just receiving it out of necessity, it’s kind of like food without taste,” he said.

Borowski recently connected with a new counselor. He also speaks to his wife about his symptoms and understands he needs to get his trauma treated because he does not want to experience symptoms later down the road.

When he spoke to CNN, he had just returned from a five-day retreat that included three full days of silence.

A personal trainer refuses to let PTSD take control

Stephanie Lueras was the victim of a gun-related violent crime 11 years ago, an event that led to a medical PTSD diagnosis, she said. To this day, she said she still gets triggered by fireworks and unexpected loud noises.

In June, Lueras and her husband stopped by a grocery store in Phoenix after a Father’s Day outing.

“We were in a check-out line when all of a sudden we just hear the pop-pop-pop sound through the store sounding like gunshots. Just mass chaos breaks loose,” she told CNN. “People are dropping to the ground, they’re running out of the store.”

Turns out the pops were just fireworks that were set off by kids, who Lueras saw running out of the store. The incident left the patrons at the store — including Lueras — shaken. She tweeted about the ordeal shortly after.

“My anxiety was triggered, I didn’t sleep very well. Just that general agitation that I don’t normally experience in everyday life was heightened.”

Despite all the news about mass shootings in previous years, compounded with her own trauma, Lueras said she does not let that stop her from living a regular life.

“We can’t live our lives in fear because that fear paralyzes,” she said.

When it comes to July 4, she usually just stays home and — as she said — hibernates. Neither she nor her dog enjoys the fireworks, so this year they plan to do what they always do: “Just chill out at home and just kind of stay away from it.”

There is, however, a difference between a big, scheduled fireworks display and the random pops that happen within neighborhoods. Lueras believes the random pops are more jarring and taxing, especially since July 4 is not purely about fireworks.

“If for some reason, you do not feel comfortable around fireworks or fireworks displays, you’re not obligated to be there. Go somewhere you feel comfortable and you feel safe,” Lueras said. “Enjoy 4th of July in a way that does make you comfortable and safe.”