School shooting survivors get symbolic matching tattoo: 'We aren't alone'

On December 1, 1997, three people died and five were injured during a shooting at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, after a 14-year-old student opened fire on a group of students praying on campus. Now, 22 years after the tragic event, one survivor, Nikki Orazine, is hoping to bond with other school shooting survivors both locally and across the nation with a special symbol.

Orazine, now a physical therapist in Cookeville, Tenn., says that the past two decades have not been easy for her or her fellow survivors. 

While school shootings have had a long and sordid past in the United States, mass shootings did not occur until toward the end of the 20th century. 

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"Our shooting was one of the first [mass] shootings and staff didn't know how to handle it, counselors had never addressed those issues, and there was no help book to tell us how to get through it," Orazine tells Yahoo Lifestyle. "We literally went to school the very next day, stood in the same lobby that three of our classmates were murdered and prayed — just as we were doing when we were faced with bullets just 24 hours before."

According to Orazine, she and her classmates remained silent for 20 years and tried to figure out on their own how to handle their trauma, as well as the resulting panic attacks, depression, anxiety and lapses in memory that came with it. 

"Even though we were all silent, we were secretly learning about ourselves and how to deal with our PTSD and inconsistent emotions," Orazine says.

"Every year, around the same time, usually when the time changes, I started to notice a pattern. I would fall into a deep. dark hole and not really want to come out," Orazine shares. "Even if my mind wasn't consciously thinking about the shooting, it was like my body remembered and revisited those horrific emotions I went through during the shooting."

It wasn't until her class's 20th reunion that she and her peers started to put the puzzle pieces together.

"At our 20th anniversary, one of our classmates, who lost her sister in the shooting, organized restoration of the memorial that we had at our high school. There was a memorial service that most classmates attended," Orazine says. "There was something magical and healing in that service. Since then, for the past two years, our classmates have finally started actually talking about the shooting."

Following the reunion, Orazine was inspired to create a symbol that would help bond those affected by school violence. Inspired by the symbol used to raise suicide awareness, the semicolon, Orazine was moved by the idea that a symbol for school shooting survivors would help them realize they were not alone. 

"I pictured being on vacation somewhere far from home and seeing somebody with my matching tattoo, and immediately knowing why they have it and immediately understanding everything they have gone through, even though I don't know them," Orazine tells Yahoo Lifestyle. 

Soon, she found herself drafting ideas on paper and reaching out to survivors on Facebook pages, asking for insight. Many suggested a phoenix — a mythological creature that rises from its ashes to become even stronger — but wanting to ensure that the symbol was unique, Orazine added a few more details. 

The end product is a re-imagined phoenix with a triangle, the "strongest geometric shape that exists," and a body of a diamond, which is "made stronger under pressure." The tail is an infinity symbol, which is meant to symbolize the continuance of survivors. 

To help spread the symbol, she turned to tattoo artist Andrew Huckleberry, who has worked at Sacred Ink in Paducah, Tenn., for four years. 

"It’s always important to me make sure every tattoo is as perfect as can be, but something with heavy subject matter like this can make me a little nervous," Huckleberry tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

He has already tattooed 10 people with the symbol and has two more scheduled soon. "I felt very honored that so many have trusted me to do this tattoo for them. And because so many of the survivors came in together to get the tattoo, I could really see that going through what they have been through has brought them together to be stronger as a group."

A group of former Heath High School students also bonded with a mother who lost a daughter in the Marshall County High School shooting, Huckleberry says.

"It was humbling to see people that had been through such horribly traumatic events laughing and smiling with each other."

Daniel J. Mosley — a psychologist in Colorado and Washington, who has volunteered with the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health services for over 20 years, and has responded to a number of disasters, including Columbine, the Aurora movie theater and Las Vegas shootings — tells Yahoo Lifestyle that connecting to other survivors can be a good thing, but not the only thing to help in recovery.

"A significant event, like being a witness to a school shooting or other similar traumatic events, shakes the very foundation of our sense of wellbeing, our sense of security, or sense of stability,” Mosley says. “A recovery from that psychological trauma, that disruption of our sense of wellbeing, is a very individual experience and takes many different forms for many individuals."

Mosley adds that an individual involved in such an event may remain more vigilant in their surroundings for the rest of their life, but hopefully, will eventually return to a level of stability and normalcy.

"All of us have to go through some recovery, even if we only heard about these [events] or read about these [events] at some distance,” Mosley says. “All of us have some recovery to do. To ignore that is a detriment to us. To pretend another school shooting doesn’t still jolt us is not real.”

He adds: "People really need to give themselves permission to be upset, to be angry, to be distressed and scared when these things happen and recognize that it is destabilizing. Certainly, for someone who has been exposed immediately to that, it is going to intensify their reactions. It’s going to be more significant or severe, and their recovery will probably take longer. They need to understand that recovery does happen; we do have some internal resiliency that we rely on to get us back to some resemblance of stability and normalcy."

Orazine is hopeful that other survivors will embrace the symbol. To her knowledge, around 100 people have received the tattoo or plan to get it in the future, and more have purchased shirts and hoodies featuring the symbol.

"This symbol is meant to bond survivors in a way that lets us know that we aren't alone," Orazine says. "This is a very lonely road. Most people we are in contact with in our daily lives are not aware of the things that we deal with on a daily basis... I want [the symbol] to be a reminder of the love and support that is offered by other survivors around the country."

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