Editor's Note: This is one in a series of conversations with those who have survived high-profile shootings or lost loved ones to them. The other interviews, as well as background about the series, can be found here.
Lisa Hamp was in a computer class at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. She survived the shooting that left 33 people dead, including the perpetrator. But emotionally, she wasn’t unscathed. She had a long journey ahead of her, which included struggles with an eating disorder and high anxiety about her safety when she went to public places. We spoke about the complexities of recovery and the different forms her trauma has taken over the past 11 years. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Isabel Fattal: How has your day-to-day life changed since the Virginia Tech shooting?
Lisa Hamp: One thing I think about a lot is safety. Before the shooting, I didn't think about my personal safety at all. I kind of was naive about it, I took it for granted. After the shooting, that changed, and it flipped completely to where I was hyper-vigilant about my safety. I thought about it 24/7. I was obsessive about it.
Now I’m in a really good place with safety—I’m in the middle of that spectrum. I have a plan for the places that I am most often, but I’m not naive and I’m not hyper-vigilant. I have a good awareness. The more time that goes on, the farther away the event is in your mind, and the more you’re able to regain that sense of safety and trust people and strangers when you’re out in public.
Fattal: Are there any other changes in your life that you’ve noticed?
Hamp: One difference was my eating habits. I had just turned 21 when the shooting happened. I hadn't developed a toolkit for what to do when life hits you with a challenge. This was the first big challenge in my life. I didn't want people to know that I was struggling with those feelings and with that issue of safety, so I turned to food and exercise to cope. You go to it with good intentions. I started exercising because I knew that was good for my body. But too much obsession over a good thing ends up being unhealthy.
When one of the counselors I went to the summer after the shooting asked me if my eating habits had changed, I would lie and say no. You feel that in your gut, where you’re not telling the truth. My eating habits were changed, but I didn't understand the relationship at that time between my eating habits and the shooting. It was a slow development of an eating disorder. Virginia Tech didn’t cause the eating disorder, but it was triggered by it. There were lots of seeds already planted, and Virginia Tech just started to grow them.
Fattal: Is is something you're still dealing with today?
Hamp: I got help two years ago. It was actually infertility struggles that made me decide to be honest with myself about my eating habits. I threw myself into counseling.
Fattal: Did you go to counseling after the shooting as well?
Hamp: I did go the week after the shooting. I also went again later that summer before I returned into the classroom. And I went for a handful of sessions back home. And then I kind of called it quits on counseling, because I didn’t understand how counseling worked. I thought—because you think of them as doctors—that it was similar to when you go to the dentist and need to get a cavity filled. You really don’t have to show up mentally to get that cavity filled. That person’s just going to take care of it for you. You don’t have to click with that dentist. But with a counselor you have to feel comfortable telling them your most vulnerable feelings, so you really have to trust them. You have to mentally show up and give of yourself. I did not understand that at 21 when I tried it.
Fattal: Was when you returned to counseling around the same time you started sharing your story publicly?
Hamp: Somewhere in there. I went to counseling and had low self confidence, although on the outside you probably wouldn’t have noticed that. As I went to counseling I regained my actual, internal confidence. That was when, as I started to regain it, that I got to the point where I thought, this is probably more common than people realize. By sharing this, it not only could help me in my continued recovery, but it could also help other people.
Fattal: What are some things that you think are important to note about the experience of survivors?
Hamp: One of the things that I hear so often [from people who've experienced this] is, you have to put your self-care first. You can’t take care of other people without taking care of yourself.
Fattal: As you watch this post-Parkland movement, are there questions that remain for you?
Hamp: I think the current movement has a lot of focus on preventing an active shooter. I think that's great, but we don’t want to forget about the response and the recovery. As much as I'd like to hope and pray that Parkland is going to be the last mass school shooting, there’s a piece of me that realistically is unsure about that. We don’t want to forget about the law-enforcement response. Talking to our school resource officers, making sure that they are in our standard response plan. Crisis is going to happen. It doesn’t have to be a mass shooting. It can be a death toll of one at a school that can be a crisis situation.
Fattal: What do you feel now when you hear about mass shootings?
Hamp: Lots of different emotions, now that I embrace them. First is sadness. I just think back to my experience immediately after and how I was in such a sad and lonely place. I feel that for those impacted. Then there’s a piece of me that feels anger: Why have we not been able to reverse this trend? Why is it getting worse? Why can’t we do something about it? Then there’s fear. What if we don’t figure it out? In four years my daughter goes to kindergarten, and she's gong to be in school. What if I don’t have confidence that she’s safe? But then, as I work through those uncomfortable feelings, I like to get to a place where I have hope, hope that these students are going to be the change, and positivity that this time the conversation is different.
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