Surviving a gunshot, one man's story

I hurt for black men and boys who’ve survived getting shot and never sought help to deal with the emotional trauma. As a black man who's been shot before I know personally of the devastation that the victim must endure.

Even though I was shot 26 years ago, on Oct. 13, 1992, it still haunts me every time I look at the scar on my chest. I can close my eyes and still see the pulling of the trigger and hear the deafening boom from the gun. I can still see the sparks coming from the gun, because I was shot at point blank range; the bullet hit me an inch above the heart. I can still smell the sulfur and my burnt flesh. I can still see the gaping hole in my chest. I can still feel the cracked sternum, three broken ribs and the biggest bullet fragment lodged under my right armpit and three smaller pieces lodged in the upper part of my chest. I can still feel myself choking on my own blood, but refusing to spit it out because I didn't want my mother to see her only son suffering like that.

Through all of that excruciating pain the absolute worst part was seeing my mother watch her only son — a college student who had done nothing wrong — almost die in front of her eyes.

Gunshot stories are usually about the victims who died. Rarely do we hear about those of us who survived, about the physical and psychological damage we endured.

As a young black boy growing up in the projects of East Baltimore, I was taught at a very early age that crying and showing emotion was a sign of weakness. So, after I had just been shot at point blank range by one of two assailants, that ideology of “manning up” inherently kicked in and stayed with me. It would be a long time before I realized that way of thinking caused me more damage than the bullet.

My “good guy” demeanor left me, and I became someone I didn’t know. I was overcome with fear, rage and a complete sense of powerlessness all at the same time. I no longer dreamed dreams — just the constant nightmare of reliving that night over and over again. It destroyed friendships and relationships, and I suffered in silence for years.

I became of shell of who I was because I was “manning up” and not seeking help. It wasn’t until I came to the point where I wanted the take my own life that I decided to talk to someone. My road to recovery began at a church service on Dec. 31, 1996, after hearing one passage from Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

I still struggled mightily, but that reminder gave me the foundation and will to continue to live because I was no longer afraid to speak about my pain to a licensed mental health provider.

I learned that seeking help for my mental and emotional well-being wasn’t a sign of weakness, it was sign of strength. It allowed me to take control of my life, and, in turn, it has allowed me to help so many others who deal with all sorts of trauma because I lived it and live with the remnants of it inside of me.

Although I could never measure the pain that a family has to endure with the loss of a loved one to gun violence, I can definitely measure the pain and aftermath as a survivor because I was slowly dying a very painful mental, emotional and spiritual death. There are so many others out there who are experiencing that pain every single day. They may not close their eyes like me and see their mother rocking back and forth on the bed in fright like I do, but I am sure that their memories and nightmares — the ones only they and God can see — are just as intense.

But they should know that they are not alone — and it’s OK to hurt. And to ask for help.

Damion J. Cooper is founder and executive director of Project Pneuma in Baltimore. He can be reached at damion.cooper@projectpneuma.org.

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