Mass murder? That doesn’t happen here

“WARNING: An active shooter is located in Lewiston. Avoid the area and shelter in place immediately.”

I knew the jarring sound my phone made only three weeks ago, during an emergency test. I figured I would only hear it again in a few years at the next test. Unannounced and piercing, it confirmed what I already knew. This wasn’t a test. It was murder. For the last few minutes, I’d had the police scanner on and my daughter was relaying updates minutes ahead of local media. I don’t know who her sources are, but no TV station can call themselves “My Number One New Source” as long as my 24-year-old little girl is around. She was right. It was murder.

On Wednesday night, October 25, less than a mile from the house I grew up in, still my parents’ residence, a lone gunman entered a bowling alley and began taking lives. He got into his car, crossing town, to a pool hall less than a mile from where I live now, completing his rampage. In the end, he killed 18 and wounded 13. The statistics are baffling: Worst mass shooting in the US this year, worst in Maine’s history, 10th worst in US history. Friday afternoon, the “shelter in place” order had been lifted. I had a suspicion that wouldn’t happen until they found the guy. Two hours later it was official. The gunman’s body was found. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

The ‘right’ way to process

I’ve been fascinated with mental health ever since I recognized mine was not the same as my peers. That was some point during high school. Since then, I’ve been a reporter, a politician, a salesman and a coach. Clearly, I like to get inside people’s minds and find out what’s motivating them to do the things they do. Diagnosed bipolar, and actively treated for it since 2003 or 2004, I have thankfully not had to endure the mental health hell so many people who don’t have the resources or support that I am lucky enough to have, call their daily living. But I’ve worked with the public and know what certain kinds of people say and do in certain situations.

If there’s a funeral, I know which family members will weep, which will laugh, which will tell long stories and which will make it about them. Sometimes people get offended with one another because they’re not processing “the right way.” There is no right way. It may not be your way, but it doesn’t make it any more right, wrong, valuable or pointless.

I’m sure it’s a combination of a lot of things, but I’m able to will myself to a place of indifference, or at least used to do that. During my years as an alcoholic and pornography addict, I could turn the emotions, empathy, sympathy and all of that off. Maybe it’s not good form at a funeral, but it helps when, for a lot of your professional life, your job has been to not wince when people share deeply personal things. You could tell me anything and you would not shake me. Up until Wednesday, I still thought that was true.

Murder is a catastrophe I’ve never personally dealt with

It just occurred to me that a person born in my town who is now 33 years old likely remembers 9/11, COVID-19, and has now experienced a mass murder scene. Their world is a trauma shit-show. At least I had a good 25 years to start. And thankfully, in the 9.5 years I’ve been in recovery, I’ve had thousands of hours of therapy, kicked my addictions, researched and learned so much about mental health & the human condition, and have been working actively and consciously on being a better person. Without the last 9.5 years, I don’t know how I would have handled the last four days.

As it was happening, I didn’t know what to do. At first, I doubted what was happening. No, there isn’t a madman on the loose… hoaxes and close calls are rare, much less the real thing. When I worked at the newspaper here in Lewiston in the late 1990s, I can’t tell you how many times I went running from the building because a structure fire was reported over the emergency scanner. Most of the time, I didn’t make it to my car when it was called back as some kind of misunderstanding.

During a catastrophic ice storm, I was in the newsroom. During three or four presidential elections… newsroom. 9/11, Oklahoma City bombing, natural disasters, local calamities…newsroom. Part of my recovery has been to step away from following all news so closely. Yet when this started to go down, despite the fact I haven’t been in a daily newsroom in 20 years, that instinct to find out what was happening and tell others kicked in. Usually I just wrote the story, that was my closure, and I moved on. Not sure that’s going to happen here.

Moving forward from murder?

There are times I feel grateful I’m not directly connected to any of the 18 victims of murder. I assume I’d know now if I were directly connected to the injured. Thankfully, none of those phone calls came. And there are times I feel guilty about it. I wonder how a community actually does move forward or is this going to be baked into the hard-wiring of the town from this point forward?

We hold onto the dismal past of textile and shoe manufacturing, celebrating a history that has mostly been whitewashed into a tale of hardworking saints who should be revered. We hold onto a boxing match — Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston II — as the pinnacle of our celebrity. That took place in 1965. I was raised here in the 1980s and 90s to believe the best days were behind us. Look ahead positively? Only if you were planning on leaving. Today is hard enough. We’ll worry about tomorrow’s bad news when it gets here. With an inferiority complex in place, what’s this going to do to generate any the already needed healing from our past? I see the “Lewiston Strong” merch popping up and realize it’ll be gobbled up. It’s easier to look healthy than be healthy. That’s a big part of the problem.

One of my next journeys in life will be to learn what it’s like to be a person from one of these places. A “murder” place. When you say you’re from Sandy Point, I’m guessing people ask about the shooting. Even if you graduated from Columbine High School in 2023, 24 years after that school shooting and years before you were born, I bet all people want to ask you about is the second paragraph of the Columbine High School Wikipedia entry about murder.

My resolution

I have no idea what that is. I don’t need platitudes and cliches. I’ll take them because that’s how some cope, and frankly, what do you say in a time like this? “That sucks, dude.” This seems deeper. I worry more about my wife and kids. I’ve done enough damage to them that they don’t need a mass catastrophe murder to deal with.

I truly believe that I was put on this earth to educate the general public about pornography addiction and betrayal trauma and to help those suffering from it find a better path. My way of arriving at this spot was unconventional as my life seems to be an array of million-to-one happenings. But maybe everyone feels this way. The United States has 3.8 million square miles. This happened less than a mile from my house. For a stats geek like me, it’s unfathomable.

I am going to do what I’ve always done. I’m going to process. I am going to figure out how it can live in my head, but not rule my life. I’m going to pay attention to my mental health and the mental health of those I love. And I will silently move forward… once the helicopters stop flying overhead.

Joshua Shea is a certified betrayal trauma and pornography addiction coach who has written four books about the two conditions and given hundreds of interviews on the subjects. He can be found on Instagram and TikTok.

3 thoughts on “Mass murder? That doesn’t happen here

  1. I am relieved to know that you and your loved ones are ok.

    I happen to live in a similar town – one with a relatively recent tragedy that stayed on the national news for weeks and which is regularly mentioned every “anniversary.” None of my close friends or family were harmed but we had regular contact with two of the victims. It was, of course, terribly sad and senseless.

    I can honestly say that if you asked me then how it impacted my life I would probably have said “not much.” Perhaps that was true then. Today though, I am always noting exit doors and routes and the presence or lack of security. It doesn’t consume me, but it’s a deliberate thought.

    I was at an event recently with almost 200 kids and their friends and family in a house of worship and was dismayed that the organizer didn’t have even one off duty police officer or security guard present. I never would have given it a second thought in the “before” times. If I hear yelling or loud noises in a public place my brain’s first response is “RUN!” I will do just about anything to avoid sitting with my back to a door or anywhere I feel cornered.

    This is all probably PTSD or complex PTSD, and maybe it all stems from the incident here, or maybe it’s the cumulative impact of that incident plus all of those that have followed. I don’t know. I just know that I’m much more wary and alert about the possibility of encountering evil as I go about my otherwise boring life.

    I hope Lewiston can come together and heal and that the community supports those who have lost so much. I wish everyone there strength and peace. 🕊️

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I kind of have seen this like 9/11 or COVID or any of the major events in our lives where it’s like “guess I just move on now” but I can tell this one is going to be different. Driving around this community to see “Lewiston Strong” signs everywhere but I think they may as well say, “What now?” Guess that’s something we figure out collectively, and individually.

  3. Your post led me to discuss our local incident with my family. My husband senses a “before” and “after” in our community. Not better or worse, just that it was a moment where things seemed to pivot in a way that may still not be evident. My kids though see the incident very differently because afterwards the active shooter drills in their schools completely changed. They went from just going through the motions of locking doors and staying quiet to having simulated smoke and the noises of active gunfire during the drills. (Which is horrifying and an annual battle between parents and the PD.) So, an incident that they were really too young to remember well, they still equate with horror.

    All is not lost though. When I asked them what lesson they think they learned my son quoted Mr. Rogers and said he knew to “look for the helpers” and that when he’s older he would be brave and a helper. I hope so. ☀️

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