"To expect someone to be over it in a certain amount of time is inaccurate and it's unfair."

Sherrie Lawson, 43, Denver. Washington Navy Yard, Sept. 16, 2013.

Sherrie Lawson was in a meeting with colleagues when she heard gunshots ring out. At first she assumed they were the sounds of dropped tables and chairs, but soon she realized there was a gunman in the building, and ran outdoors with her colleagues. She had just returned to work after a surgery, and as she scaled a brick wall, she remembers hoping her stitches would hold.  

I just remember having nightmares every night after the shooting that were really really dark. I was constantly terrified, and constantly running in my sleep ― when I was sleeping. I was having a lot of problems sleeping. I was crying every day on my way to work. I would wake up in the morning and have this sense of dread over me. I had to get myself together enough to get the train and get the bus. I just remember wearing shades all the time because I would cry on the way to work on the train. It was pretty brutal.

At work, there was this sense of, we’re strong, we’re Navy, we’re fine, everyone’s good. I didn’t feel like I could really not be OK or show that I was struggling. And then after the three-month mark, the new therapist that I was working with told me that she could no longer help me and that I should go see a psychiatrist. She thought that I was clinically depressed and may have PTSD. She wasn’t a doctor so she couldn’t diagnose me. She had consulted with the head of the practice, who recommended that I find a psychiatrist.

Even though I was experiencing all of that, it was hard for me to hear that.

At the time it made me feel like I was weak and that I hadn’t been able to push forward or move through this. Here I was, a wreck, emotionally, still having nightmares, still anxious, still having panic attacks almost daily from seeing a Pumpkin Spice Latte. I couldn’t go into a Starbucks. I couldn’t eat Greek yogurt. But to actually hear somebody else tell me that I needed to see a doctor made me feel like I wasn’t strong enough to be able to handle it on my own.

I did go see a psychiatrist and was officially diagnosed with PTSD, severe anxiety and major depressive disorder. That happened January 2014, just a few months after the shooting.

[After the shooting] I was going at least weekly to therapy, and at the time I was using my insurance. But by the time I was actually diagnosed with PTSD, I had maxed out my behavioral health benefits with my insurance company, so I was beginning to pay out of pocket. I just remember sessions were anywhere from $90 to $150 a pop. That was beginning to drain me.

I had a friend of mine who was an attorney who recommended I file a worker’s comp claim. They were like, “You’re spending a lot of money on this, and it’s just in the beginning stages. This has the potential to be financially devastating for you. You did get hurt on the job. You have the right to file worker’s compensation.”

So that’s what I did. That was a battle in and of itself, and also very stressful because my company fought me, and I had to go to court on three different occasions. They appealed every time until they couldn’t appeal anymore.

And in the meantime I had to shell out my own money. So I’ll be honest, I wiped out my savings and I had to take money out of my 401(k) to pay for a lot of medical stuff. What’s even worse is that after, it was March, my psychiatrist recommended I come out of work for at least a few months and take a break because work was so triggering.  

I had like $20,000 that, in the matter of a year and a half, was gone. I came out of work and was placed into a PTSD intensive trauma program at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington on the recommendation of my doctor. I went every day. It was from 9 to 3, so it was like a full-time job. And I just remember that being super expensive too. That was at least $14,000 and I was in it for about six months.

The recovery is still going, but one of the messages I really want out there is that everybody’s recovery time is going to be different.

I just joined The Rebels Project, which was started by Columbine survivors, and realized that here we are, years later ― Columbine happened in ’99 ― and people were still recovering, still healing. That kind of gave me a sense that I wasn’t this weak person that I thought I was in my mind. That if Columbine survivors are still struggling in different ways, it’s only been a year or two years for me.

I wish that there were more interviews like what you’re doing. So that more people who have experienced this know that they aren’t alone in whatever it is that they’re experiencing it. There’s no right or wrong way to heal. To expect someone to be over it in a certain amount of time is inaccurate and it’s unfair. It causes a lot of shame and it can make your symptoms worse. I know that from personal experience and from the other survivors I’ve connected with.

As told to Anna Almendrala. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.