I wasn’t touched by an angel, I wasn’t “blessed” – I had a good head on my shoulders and I used it.

The following is a recounting of Carli R.'s story. Carli, 22, is a Secular Woman who was one of the surviving victims of the July 20, 2012 mass shooting that occurred in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Secular Woman would like to thank Carli for allowing us to reprint this here. Also, please see Secular Woman's interview with Carli.

Carli's Story:

I hope that between this and the one that my boyfriend wrote, a lot of things are cleared up and people can maybe understand a little what happened to us. Either way, it is very therapeutic for me and helps me deal with it all:

I was saved by natural selection, and tear gas. That’s right- tear gas.

I guess I’ll start my story by boring you with what I did that day. First we drove to Boulder because I had a photoshoot. The photos will be used for Suicide Girls or Zivity, whichever the photographer decides on, and I looked absolutely smashing. Little did I know that my favorite bra, shorts, and underwear (which I wore in some of the photos) would later be cut off of me, stuffed in an evidence bag, and never seen again. I also remember telling the photographer that my zombie unicorn hip tattoos were the worst pain I have ever felt and that I was scared to get my ribs done. Oh, the irony. I had no idea I was about to have a whole new understanding of the word “pain” later. The day continued and was nice, but not very eventful. After my photo shoot, we got some delicious calzones at D.P. Dough in Boulder and went home for a little nap and TV time. Later, we went on a walk with our precious little dog, where I declared that I absolutely hate running and will probably walk most of the 5k run for political prisoners that we are attending on the 2nd of September. “I only run if I’m being chased,” I said. Little did I know that I would eat my words late that night. We got home, relaxed a bit, and then got ready to go see the awesome new Batman movie. I was excited to be wearing my batman plugs and the Joker t-shirt that my dad wore in the 80’s. Needless to say, it had a great deal of sentimental value, and I felt ultra-hip to own a t-shirt with the original Joker on it. On the way out the door, I remember having to yell at my dog for something and feeling bad, thinking “this could be the last interaction I have with her”, and then quickly brushing it off because Chris is a good, experienced driver, and of course I would see her when we got home from the movie. If my day had been a movie, I imagine this would have all been a great deal of foreshadowing, but of course I was oblivious.

We got into the car, and I promptly turned on some music. We went to the gas station to get some candy and drinks (sure as hell beats the movie theater prices!) and pressed on. I remember one of the last things I heard in the car was Chuck Berry’s “Rock n Roll Music”, the only Chuck Berry that Chris had on his ipod. I was in a great mood.

That’s all pretty irrelevant, however, and I think I just mentioned it because I am still really scatterbrained and not sure how to properly word some of this stuff. Anyhow, we got our tickets, used the restrooms, and headed into the theater. It was packed. There were four theaters showing the film and this one was still totally packed. Upon surveying the scene, I saw that there were two seats at the bottom, next to a little kid, but we didn’t want to strain our necks to see the screen so we moved upward. I was about to go for two seats at the end of an aisle, about halfway up the stairs, but since Chris really wanted to sit close to the center, he lead us to two seats in the middle of a group, who told us that the two seats were taken. We then moved to the two end seats that I had previously intended to sit in. Chris was on the outside and I was seated next to a fairly large woman who took up part of my seat and then complained to her spouse that even though nobody was sitting there, we should have asked first. I was pretty thoroughly annoyed at this point but I thought “maybe I’m just being paranoid,” and “I shouldn’t get all hostile with her because what if we get kicked out of the movie theater?”… Now I kind of wish I would have told that person what was on my mind.

To briefly explain where we were sitting: We were facing the screen, and from our point of view, we were at the far left side of the theatre, maybe ten stairs up from the bottom. There were two emergency exits and two regular entrances/exits. Since we entered from the one on the left, we sat on the left. I am not good at being effectively descriptive, but I hope that was good enough.

Anyhow, the movie started and we were all very excited. I saw Baine (msp?) and his creepy mask. I saw Christian Bale and catwoman and the movie had barely gotten moving but I was already pretty into it despite having anxiety and a tic disorder, which usually prevent me from being able to really focus on much of anything. Now, I’m about to tell you what happened, maybe a good 5-10 minutes into the movie, and I’m going to use a great deal of words- however, this all happened in a matter of about 5-10 *seconds*. I’m amazed at how fast the human mind works, and how, in the event of an adrenaline rush, your body can work just as fast. This is all also a little bit foggy, because when I’m experiencing a traumatic event, my mind usually blocks out a good deal of it- even when I’m having flashbacks. But here goes.

So I’m watching the movie and the emergency exit to our right, by the big screen, comes open. It doesn’t violently swing open, and it also doesn’t very quietly creep open. The door opened as anyone would normally, nonchalantly open a door. A man enters, wearing what appears to be a gas mask, and for some reason it looks just like the one worn by the villain in the movie (or at least, that is my messed up recollection of it). It also appears that he is wearing some sort of combat gear, with a helmet and everything. I was immediately a little freaked out, but I assumed that it was a promotional stunt from the theater and was meant to do so. I think I heard a weird popping noise and then a can or something came flying towards us. The girl next to me and I both swatted at it and it almost hit me in the face, it seemed. At this point, I still think it’s a promotional thing. Perhaps it was a t-shirt gun, or some idiot was throwing us cans of some up-and-coming energy drink. Maybe it’s a prank, who knows.

Well, the can landed and our feet, and as Chris is saying something like “what the fuck is that?”, I am smelling it to see what it is. In a split second, I recognized that it was tear gas, meaning that this was either a bad joke or it wasn’t a joke at all and either way, it is time to run. The next second is a blur but according to Chris, I jumped over him to get out of the aisle and we both ran for our lives. I dropped my purse on the way out with all of my cards- insurance, ID, bank card- as well as my cell phone and car keys in it. But the instinct to keep running overpowered any other thought in my mind. “Fight or flight” is an extremely basic human survival instinct to me, but apparently it wasn’t to some of the others in the theater that night because there were only a couple of other people running with us, I believe. I wasn’t even thinking about this at the time, though, so this is all just in retrospect. The thought did cross my mind that there might be another guy at the exit/entrance, but I knew that regardless, we needed to keep moving. It’s hard to hit a moving target anyway, and I wasn’t sure if it was gunshots or fireworks that I heard behind me. Two of the other runners almost stopped at the entrance. I yelled frantically for them to keep moving and I ran out. We kept running until we were within maybe ten or fifteen feet of the car, at which point we slowed down a little bit and I noticed that my right blazer sleeve was soaked. I was still convinced that this was all a bad joke, and that it was probably fake blood or some kind of liquid from a badly done beverage toss. Chris unlocked the car. I got in and took off my jacket. I was covered in blood, but my initial reaction to it was “it’s either fake or it’s someone else’s blood”. Suddenly, the pain began to sink in. I think my brain had blocked it out so that I could make the run out of the theatre (seriously, our basic survival mechanisms amaze me so much), but now that I was safe in the car, it all hit me at once. My legs were in pain too. But my arm was in so much pain, it hurt too bad to even cry. I grabbed his phone and turned it on, after we established that we needed to go ask the cop around the corner for directions to a hospital. I was going to call 911 about what happened, but after we saw a police car come barreling around a corner, towards the theater, we knew that wasn’t necessary- which was fine because, at this point, I was in total agony. There’s no way I could have even dialed those three numbers. I had never, ever felt pain like that before in my entire life. No matter how I positioned my arm, I couldn’t seem to find any comfort whatsoever. I had even tried biting down on my jacket to dull the pain. Nothing helped and all I could do was yell and hyperventilate. I don’t think I have ever felt so helpless.

The police officer said that he would flag down a firetruck or ambulance so that a paramedic could take a look at me. The only thing I could say or think was that I wanted the pain to go away. He flagged down an ambulance and the paramedics came to look at me. They asked me all kinds of questions about my age, name, etc, to make sure that I was coherent or whatever. I couldn’t do much but beg them to make the pain go away. I have never felt so helpless or pathetic in my entire life. I was entirely at their mercy and begging and pleading for them to make the pain stop. They tried to get me to walk to see if I was “ok enough” to just have Chris drive me to the hospital, and that was a very bad call, because I almost passed out. I could feel the head rush and my legs were in excruciating pain and they felt like jelly, as if I couldn’t stand on them. Thankfully they made the right call and got me into an ambulance, after a little bit of debate. There was some waiting before we could go anywhere, and I was in so much pain that I asked the paramedic to hold my hand and started babbling to her about how my mom is a nurse and this is definitely the time when I want my mommy the most. Looking back on it, I am quite amused by this, but at the time, I really needed someone to hold my hand. She was a rookie, so she probably wasn’t appreciated much by her coworkers at the time, but I hope she knows that simply holding my hand when I was in so much pain meant the world to me.

They told Chris which hospital I would be taken to and that he could follow us. We had to go back to the theater to grab a few more people, which obviously confused my boyfriend and caused the ambulance to hit his car- or maybe it was the other way around, I am really not sure. There wasn’t any damage done, though, and no matter what we just had to keep moving.

The paramedics started an IV and oxygen for me, and got two more guys in the cabin. I was moved to a seat. It was made of that plastic, leather sort of material, and my back wound stuck to it. Every time we hit a bump, it would un-stick itself and I would wince. I tried to meditate and go to my “happy place” but I wasn’t going anywhere, except for a totally different hospital than the one we had told Chris I was going to. Apparently the original one was very full. I cannot imagine working in health care at that time, in this town. The paramedics did gymnastics to get around the cabin, taking all of our vitals and getting everything situated. They cut off part of my shirt to get to my arm, and maybe 15 minutes of a bumpy ride later, they administered my pain meds. Sweet relief! Some of the agony was gone, but I was still in a state of total panic. Before we got to the hospital, they had to cut the rest of my Joker shirt off of me. I was actually pretty upset about it, and I held onto it until I got out of the ambulance- at which point I dropped it, and was too incoherent to do or say much about it but get on the damn gurney. I needed them to fix me up now and now that I think about it, it was probably all covered in tear gas.

They wheeled me into a room where they cut or pulled the rest of my clothes off, and felt around as doctors do, saying “does it hurt when we touch here”? They even stuck something up my bottom (“EEK WHAT IS THAT?!”…”checking to make sure your nerves are all working ok”) and gave me a catheter. What a terrible night. I lost my clothes, had things stuck up my butt, and nobody paid me for it. I’m just as amazed as you are that I can make such morbid jokes about it all. They gave me some more pain meds, asked me a metric ton of questions, and then took me in for a cat scan.

The CAT scan was not fun. It was the first moment I got to be alone, in a quiet room, since the shooting. I was shaking from what appeared to be a combination of being cold and still being in utter shock. I can’t even tell you how hard it was to calm myself down with only breathing exercises and hold still for the procedure. I also received X-rays later, which were also very painful because of the ways I had to move my arm. I think that’s when I finally cried. The nurse who was wheeling me around asked me questions about my band and other things to keep me fairly calm. I felt bad for crying and yelling so much but the nurses and everyone assured me that I was doing fine. I think I’m a bit overly critical of myself sometimes and that night just proved it.

I got back to my little ER room and was told that I had gotten hit in my right arm, both of my legs, my chest, my back, and my butt. I asked them what the hell hit me, because I thought it sounded like fireworks or a bomb or something going off behind me, and they told me it was a bunch of “buckshot”. “What the hell is buckshot?” I asked, in my stupor. They said that shotguns either take slugs, which are just big-ass bullets, like the ones we used in Navy boot camp, or buckshot- basically, a plastic casing holds a bunch of pellets, and when the shot is fired, these pellets disburse all over the place. All this meant to me was that this asshole really wanted to hurt and scare a lot of people. If his main mission was to kill, he would have gotten out the automatic weapon right away. The rumor is that he had a shotgun, automatic rifle, and two pistols with him that night. Thankfully he just used the shotgun and did not use slugs, because otherwise, the back and chest wounds might have been fatal.

I am told that surgery will not be necessary, but that my skin will have to push out some of the fragments because it will do more harm than good to pull them out. I’m ok with that, but what’s next? I did a great deal of waiting and being monitored, as well as talking to the police while they bagged up my smelly clothes as evidence. This whole time, I had been worried sick that something might have happened to Chris. I didn’t have my cell phone to retrieve his number because it was in the purse when I dropped it, so I had very low hopes of getting to see him. I also know that even if he had been hurt, he would have told them to take me to the hospital and not worry about him, so it was very possible that he was hurt. But four or five hours later, there he was, standing at the door! I was so overwhelmed when I saw him. He had gone to about 4 different hospitals and gotten a lot of hassle to find me. He even had to call our friend/room mate to come help him find the hospital, because he was probably really panicking at this point. I’m amazed at how collected he was through all of this. He stayed strong for me, because being strong was the only choice we had at the time. It was such a relief to see him. After much waiting and talking to various people (such as the chaplain and social worker, who were also very kind), I was able to get my wounds properly irrigated and go home with a prescription for Vicodin and Tylenol. I absolutely hate vicodin because it makes me nauseas and barely dulls the pain (must be the Tylenol, man I hate Tylenol), but Chris took me and my bloody scrubs to the pharmacy to get my medication. This was about 8 in the morning, so I just couldn’t wait to get home and get some sleep. I could barely walk and I probably looked pretty pathetic. I think I cried that day but honestly, the worst part was when I finally took a shower later. That’s when I got to not only see how many wounds I really had, but I go to clean them all. Every time I felt a sting or an ache during the shower, I’d hear a gunshot in my head. Flashbacks are no joke. People ask me how many I have and I say that I still haven’t counted yet. If you include the giant bruise/welt on my arm and the one on my underarm, there are 9 on my arm alone. There’s more on my back, butt, chest, and both legs. It hurts like Hell to walk on my right leg but I did today because we needed to get out of the house for a minute and go to the store.

I honestly don’t know how to answer broad questions like “how do you feel?” or “what were you thinking at the time?” I honestly wasn’t thinking about anything but running. My parents always taught me, as an itty-bitty child, that when your body senses danger, you go into “fight or flight” mode. It’s this basic part of your system called “adrenaline”. In a split second, I was able to see that there was no fighting a dude in what appeared to be full combat gear, so I ran. I hope to not offend anybody by saying this, but I wasn’t touched by an angel, I wasn’t “blessed”- I had a good head on my shoulders and I used it. It actually worries and saddens me that most people do not possess such basic animalistic survival instincts, that so many of them curled up on the floor and kissed their own butts goodbye. I don’t want or need to think about all of that, though, because all it does it bring on a barrage of emotions, where I feel angry with them and then guilty and then sad and then run-on sentences. It’s just not a good idea. And no matter how they reacted to it, the event itself was nobody’s fault but that of the criminal who did this. People can believe in whatever they want to, and perhaps the universe or a higher power or something else said “hey, it’s not her time”, and that is definitely possible (I mean, it’s possible to get shot when going out to the movies, so I am no longer ruling stuff out), but I’d like to give credit where credit is most certainly due, and thank the ones who need to be thanked the most because I don’t think they get enough credit sometimes;

If my partner and I had not taken responsibility for ourselves at some point in our lives and joined the US Navy, we would not have immediately recognized the smell of tear gas. If we had not been so sharp, or just born with common sense and basic survival instincts, we would not have ran. If we were lazy and slow, we would not have ran as fast as we did (glad we go on those nightly dog walks). If we were not brave, we would not have kept moving even though someone very well could have been blocking the exit, with another gun (though I seriously didn’t even process that it was gun shots behind us- we both really thought that it was fireworks or something ridiculous but still potentially dangerous). If Chris wasn’t a smart, level-headed guy, he would not have stayed calm enough to drive me where I needed to go and handle the situation. If the medical personnel had not been absolutely amazing, I would not be in the shape I am now. I am not trying to talk down to anyone who thanks their higher power for this miracle (and I will agree that that’s a very appropriate word for this) at all, so please do not take it as such because that’s not what this is about. This is about me wanting you all to realize the immense feeling of gratitude that I have for Chris and the medical staff who took such amazing care of me. From the paramedics and the one who held my hand in the ambulance, to the nurses, radiologists, doctors, chaplain, social workers, and even the pharmacy tech at Safeway, I want you to know that you all are the reason I am ok and in so much less pain right now. You made the pain “go away”, as I had kept begging and pleading for somebody to earlier that night. And if I didn’t have Chris here, if I had lost him in the incident or something, I don’t know what I would have done. I thank our instincts, Navy training, and the universe itself that he is here, alive and unscathed. However, the physical stuff is all just one part of the pain we have endured, and most likely will endure. I had already been shopping around for a therapist due to PTSD from other times in my life. The flashbacks and things were getting too hard to deal with. After that night, I now pretty much have a novel to give the next therapist I talk to. I hope they’re ready for this.

I hope I’m ready for this. <3

~Carli R.

Photo courtesy of Mark Brunce

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