By Lindiwe Vilakazi
While city residents adamantly argue tougher sentencing on the perpetrators of gun-involved crimes, local surviving victims once stricken with bullets bear the heaviest burden of them all: the struggle to heal their minds and spirits after suffering at the hands of gun violence.
“Gun violence is an epidemic that is tearing life from our city. What’s left behind are the countless friends and family members whose lives have been forever changed,” said Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Police Chief Robert Contee, addressing the city gun violence issue on New Year’s Day.
Victims’ trauma can create a domino effect of mental distress for their loved ones, while consequently leaving community members scrambling for a sense of security in the neighborhoods they call home.
Gun-related crimes contributed to the 203 homicides reported in the District in 2022. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, young Black males, ages 15-34, account for roughly 32% of all firearm homicide victims while representing only 2% of the U.S. population. The staggering numbers have left the city unsettled with concern for their public safety.
Joshua, 36, who has requested his last name be redacted for privacy, experienced the menacing cycle of gun violence firsthand the day he felt an explosion of bullets pierce through his shoulder and riddle his hands while driving away from a violent run-in with residents. Today, Joshua reflects on the horrid chain of events that changed his life forever– having evolved from a hopeless teenager surrounded by violence, to an adult who sees the youth’s desperate need for a sense of direction and a listening ear.
“At first I didn’t know I had gotten shot, I just heard a loud explosion in my ear. Instinct told me to look back and I saw my back window was busted. I thought someone threw a brick through my window, initially, [but] when I turned my head back around I saw my hands were disfigured and there was blood everywhere,” said Joshua, a native D.C.’s Michigan Park community.
Rushing himself to the hospital, Joshua had no idea of the changes he was in for beyond his emergency surgery to repair the severe damage to his hands.
“At the time, they weren’t talking to me about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I didn’t know anything about it. Everything [in my mind] was revenge and getting healthy. I was thinking my hand was going to go back to normal once it was done healing. Young and dumb,” Joshua said, chuckling as he reflected on that moment. “But when I, unfortunately, ended up going to prison a year after that [incident], that was when I started having cold sweats. I pretty much knew what it came from, but I didn’t know what triggered it. So when I was released, I went through a mental evaluation and told them about it so I could get a better understanding of what was going on. I was [later] diagnosed with PTSD, heightened paranoia and depression.”
Joshua came to find his bouts of cold sweats periodically triggered by thoughts of, or being present in, aggressive, violent, intense or unsafe environments. The symptoms went from harsh to worse when he later discovered a glitch in his memory, speculatively due to his reconstructive (hand) surgeries requiring general anesthesia, in conjunction with a mental safety defense of blocking out painful and traumatic losses in his life. The now 36-year-old’s protective method eventually displaced more of his memory than he ever intended.
Similar to the holistic approach to treating cancers, where physicians are focused on the physical tumor, the emotional and mental state of trauma victims require the same attention to remedy their mental health after a chilling encounter.
Dr. Masica Jordan-Alston, CEO of Jordan Peer Recovery and assistant professor at Bowie State University, emphasized the necessary attention that must be given to trauma victims in not only treating medical conditions, but also what physicians call, “lifestyle diseases,” caused by unaddressed stress, grief, and various elements later manifesting as illness within the body.
“Trauma-informed care is something that people toss around, but when you are a person who has survived a gunshot wound, or any victim of a crime, there is a level of fight or flight that happens. It was never designed for people to live in a constant state of fight or flight, but what you’ll find is when people experience trauma, not just the person that was shot but the persons that are connected with that victim, being a spouse, children, [whoever] that is, [they] are experiencing something called vicarious trauma. Even the neighborhood that person is in shows a level of vicarious trauma. What you’ll see is that people can experience all kinds of things,” Jordan-Alston explained.
Joshua still struggles with the mental, social, and physical ramifications of his gun wounds. Both hands having been struck with bullets, his right hand lacks full function, with both still experiencing periodic cramping and complicating simple tasks like opening doors or grabbing certain items with ease. He also jumps at the sound of any type of loud explosion, including fireworks, and remains extremely uncomfortable in crowds of people. Further, the current trend of young men sporting ski masks around the city leaves him particularly unnerved, but he manages as best as he can.
The gunshot survivor continues to find solace while pouring into his work, hobbies, and the youth, as he sets focus on the grave importance of inspiring the younger generations to reframe their value for life, and lack of conflict resolution outside of deadly force.
“Honestly, I believe a lot of the issue is due to the elders not giving back and sharing their stories and experiences with the youth. The older dudes are not looking out for the younger ones. They aren’t even trying. [I notice] every time I bring it up they say, ‘oh those youngins’ don’t listen.’ Yeah, but, we all didn’t listen,” Joshua said. “You have to continuously stay on them, stay involved, and stay the course. It is not something that you can just address one time.”
The youth mentor said it’s important to demonstrate true interest and care in the lives of young people.
“It’s always good to have someone cheering you on. I think these youth just need someone to relate to, and there aren’t many, but for the ones that are still here, there is work that needs to be done.”