A trauma specialist and founder of Westlake Village Counseling Center, Debra Warner ’09, MS ’11, works with a handful of survivors of the deadly mass shootings in Las Vegas and Thousand Oaks. These patients did not come to her the day after the events, but weeks and months later, after acknowledging a continuing inability to concentrate at work or symptoms such as nightmares, panic attacks and hypervigilance.
Warner was also shaken by the Nov. 7 shooting. Her grown daughter was then an employee at the Borderline Bar and Grill and also frequented its College Country Nights as a patron.
“She was ‘supposed’ to be there that night – just as many people have experienced,” said Warner, in a phrase tinged with survivors’ guilt. “She’s usually always there on Wednesday nights, but she chose not to go. My feeling is that I survived, that we survived that. It’s intensely emotional.”
On the following night of Nov. 8, Warner had to evacuate from the Woolsey Fire. She took a critical week off from work then to tend to her own needs in order “to be present” during trauma care, she said.
Upon her return, the psychotherapist observed that her Las Vegas shooting survivors had been “highly triggered,” one year later, by Borderline. On a diagnostic scale for trauma, “it was almost as if we were back to Day One,” she said. As members of intersecting social circles, these patients and the Borderline regulars had spent time together sharing stories.
Borderline survivors began to show up at Warner’s office in January to recount virtually the same tales she had heard about the Route 91 Harvest music festival and to pursue the same lines of self-questioning. Was there a reason for them to be in that place and live through it? If so, what were they doing about this? Should they make changes in their lives?
Repercussions of the Nov. 7 killings will be with Cal Lutheran for a long time, too. “You know, something has been violated very deeply,” said the Rev. Melissa Maxwell-Doherty ’77, MDiv ’81, vice president for mission and identity. “The fires are something that happens naturally. Violence does not just happen.”
Now closed, Borderline is four miles from campus and “not some restaurant,” said Jill Logan, MS ’08, who is an adjunct faculty member in graduate psychology and a colleague of Warner’s at the same counseling center. The dance hall and music venue was a safe, fun place that meant something to decades of alumni, reaching back to the 1970s when it was Charley Brown’s steakhouse.
College Country Night brought in patrons under 21, making Wednesdays at Borderline one of the few local nightlife options for all university students. About 30 Kingsmen and Regals were in the crowd on Nov. 7 along with the 12 victims, and many others had been there at some point. Nearly any CLU student might have experienced a form of survivor’s guilt, on top of the shock and their worries that night about friends or absent roommates.
Logan volunteered the day after the shooting to do crisis counseling for students and began on Friday, Nov. 9. She has often supplemented the Cal Lutheran staff at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) on a per diem basis. This time, she left her private practice for two weeks without a day off to assess the needs of students who walked into the CAPS office on Luther Street. Samuelson Chapel had opened its doors about three hours after the shooting and stayed open continuously, staffed by other CAPS, Campus Ministry and Religion Department counselors. Meanwhile, a 24-hour crisis telephone hotline was made available through a third party.
During this period at Cal Lutheran, particularly the nonstop first two weeks, students and others threw themselves into the work of collective emotional recovery. The Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson, who was hired as campus minister in August and formally ordained five days before Borderline, talked about the nature of that work during a Nov. 15 chapel service:
Some of us aren’t able to continue with regular life, and some of us, although we struggle, can and do. This is normal. Some of us can give and some of us can receive, and this is community.
Is it easy? No-o-o! Giving and receiving is a holy act.
Students were performing this work when, unbidden, they organized events to make sandwiches for a food bank and to fill bags with supplies for first responders to wildfires. They were still doing the work when they got in line to pick up the first of the 574 handmade quilts, blankets, prayer shawls, scarves and purses that were donated by congregations and individuals around the country. Hundreds of quilts were distributed in 20 minutes outside of Starbucks.
There were students who telephoned the counseling office after Borderline to cancel scheduled appointments because someone else needed the time more, according to CAPS director Ginny Maril.
When Logan arrived at the former residence where CAPS is housed, it was already serving as one refuge from seeming chaos. The Hill Fire was burning, and the larger Woolsey Fire would not be fully contained until the day before Thanksgiving. Six golden retrievers from Lutheran Church Comfort Dog Ministry in Chicago that had been flown in and brought to Samuelson Chapel the previous night were now lying around on the floor of CAPS with students.
Logan talked with the walk-ins, both one at a time and in groups, about when they’d last eaten and slept, who they had available to connect with and whether they’d reached out. She referred some for follow-up with staff clinicians.
“How to get you through today” was a worthwhile subject in November, she said. “Tomorrow we’ll deal with tomorrow.” —Kevin Matthews