The Last Addictions Memoir (Hopefully): An Evidence-Based Recovery Story Pt. 11

By Anne Giles 06/06/17

I am one of a likely cohort of 300 who developed addiction after the Virginia Tech shootings.

mail from students

At the school where I taught, students were forbidden to have cell phones. When the order came over the intercom to enter lockdown mode, the girls opened their purses, took out their cell phones, and called their mothers.

Eight months earlier, we had been in lockdown when William Morva, a fellow graduate of my high school, escaped custody at a hospital six miles away. We learned later he had headed the other way and killed a security guard, then a police officer. The girls knew what lockdown meant.

On April 16, 2007, I spent eight hours in lockdown with about 20 eighth graders. In quick, whispered conversations with colleagues in the halls, and from the mothers on the phones, we learned that a shooting had occurred on the Virginia Tech campus 10 miles away. Only when students, teachers and staff were released in the late afternoon did I learn that a fellow Hokie had shot and killed 32 fellow Hokies and their teachers, then himself.

I wasn't on the Virginia Tech campus on April 16, 2007. I'm not one of the survivors. In the rural school district that includes Blacksburg, Virginia, hundreds of teachers were in lockdown with thousands of students that day. If these teachers wrote their memoirs, it's possible the Virginia Tech shootings wouldn't even be mentioned. Why are the shootings part of my story when I wasn't even there?

According to research on the relationship between community violence, trauma, and addiction, of the 40,000+ people living in Blacksburg, Virginia in 2007, 15% of them would be predicted to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. That would be 6,000. Of that 6,000, research predicts 5% would develop addiction. That’s 300.

I am one of a likely cohort of 300 who developed addiction in Blacksburg, Virginia after the Virginia Tech shootings.

I think it's possible that the Virginia Tech shootings could have stayed for me what they were for the world: horrific. The shootings made the cover of Time Magazine in December 2007, as among the 100 most significant events of the year. I was with students at schools when the Challenger exploded in 1986, and during the attacks on September 11 in 2001. I supported the students, grieved with the students, and did what the head of our school asked us to do in 2001: "Carry on."

Why was I undone by being with students during a crisis this time?

As I anticipate the next few sentences, my face feels seared by my cheekbones. My jawbones tighten and ice cracks along them. My stomach turns to leather, hard and empty.

I want to write in and around this! I don't want to write it! I want to spare myself!

Let's try this way.

According to Phil Leask, humiliation is "a demonstrative exercise of power against one or more persons, which consistently involves a number of elements: stripping of status; rejection or exclusion; unpredictability or arbitrariness; and a personal sense of injustice matched by the lack of any remedy for the injustice suffered."

When, two months before the shootings, a student pushed me off balance, I was not physically harmed. I am strong and fit and quickly regained my standing. But there were witnesses. The witnesses did not rise to my defense.

Intellectually, I certainly understand that eighth grade students cannot be expected to take action against injustice, especially in the "us vs. them" environment of mandated attendance, especially in my rural culture where motionless silence is how we handle conflict. In the moment, however, I experienced myself as a human, violated by another human, with other humans present who did nothing about it.

As a teacher, I championed autonomy, the right and power of the individual to self-discover, self-govern and self-choose, always mindful of tempering individual choice with the higher good of the group. To the best of my ability to do so, I had lived those ideals. With that one push to the shoulder, what I trusted most deeply - the inviolate state of my selfhood, and the greater good of the group - shattered. I am not safe within myself. I am not safe within the group.

Would the student have pushed me if we were having a one-on-one conference in the hall? I doubt it. He was younger and stronger and could easily have beaten me to a pulp. I can't know another's mind, but I believe the point wasn't to hurt or overpower me physically. I believe the intent - as with many who use aggression to discharge distress - was to hurt and overpower me publicly, with witnesses.

On April 16, 2007, by chance, I was in lockdown with the same classroom full of students who had witnessed, in motionless silence, my humiliation.

I knew my one woman's body could not protect my students should the shooter escape custody and head our way this time. And I knew, from experience, that the students would not protect me from whatever might happen. I was on my own, defenseless.

The shooter exercised power over me, stripped me of my status as teacher and protector, excluded me and all others through his unilateral actions, came down on me and my world suddenly and unjustly without warning and permission, and imprisoned me in his truth, not mine.

The problem with humiliation is that, as Leask puts it, it cannot be made to not have happened. A person's powerful response to humiliation is not hysteria over irrational thoughts, but horror over objective reality. A little piece of the self is executed. The past is tainted by what happened. Trust in the future is compromised. The person knows, with complete rationality, what's impossible is now possible.

I do not remember having a glass of wine on April 16, 2007. At the time, I lived alone and drank occasionally and socially. So I don't know on which day a glass of wine poured soothing oil in and around the shattered glass of who I had been. Given that neuroscience corroborates my soul's howl, I do not fault myself for having another glass of wine.

The day after the shootings, April 17, 2007, the power went out in neighborhoods near campus. My father drove my mother to my house on the outskirts of town so she could bathe with hot water. I hurried out to my white-haired father, a Virginia Tech Professor Emeritus, who was helping my frail, white-haired mother, a retired systems analyst at Virginia Tech, out of the car. My parents moved slowly, heavily. Even in his gentleman's overcoat, my father was bent.

My mother insisted on bathing alone. She called out a few minutes later. She had fallen and ripped open a leg wound in her medication-thinned skin.

I exalt the young women who defied the rules and carried their cell phones and their connections to their mothers with them in their purses. A girl needs a mother sometimes. People need each other all the time.

The Last Addictions Memoir below:

Part 1 here  Part 2 here  Part 3 here Part 4 here  Part 5 here Part 6 here Part 7 here Part 8 here Part 9 here Part 10 here

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. She writes about addictions treatment, recovery and policy at As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder.
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Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder. You can find Anne on Linkedin and Twitter.