When Life Gets Hard, Build a Toolkit.

Heather Martin, a Columbine survivor, wrote in a Letter of Peace, “I believe that if we took the time to notice, we’d see we’re infinitely more connected by our similarities than divided by our differences.”  I believe this is particularly true for the pain we experience during life’s struggles. The emotions we experience during life’s hardships - whether it is schools shootings, cancer, losing a loved one, or a sexual assault - is more similar than we think. 

We don’t always know when someone is struggling, since most of the time, we can’t see the pain.  After the Virginia Tech shooting, I didn’t know how to deal with my pain.  Years later, when I decided I was ready to address the mess inside my mind, my counselor recommended that I build a therapeutic toolkit. The purpose of the toolkit is to have various tools, or options, that I can choose from when I’m experiencing uncomfortable feelings.  When we experience tragedy or loss, it seems like the uncomfortable feelings - sadness, loneliness, anxiety, anger - are unbearable.

I think that building a toolkit can better prepare us when life gets hard. Because let’s face it, life can be brutal sometimes. The toolkit can include whatever you want - it’s your toolkit to help YOU. Here are a few of the tools that I put in my toolkit.


Writing is very therapeutic for me and was a critical piece to my recovery. I have a tendency to blow things out of proportion in my mind. When I turn to my journal, I can break things down. I remind myself that time will pass, the feelings are temporary, and it helps me get through tough times.


Good Listeners

Find friends and family who you can talk to, and who listen. I half joke that dogs are the best listeners because they can’t talk back. Find people who listen without giving advice when you didn’t ask. Sometimes, we just want to get things off our chest and talk through them.

Walks and Exercise

I have to be careful here because I abused exercise before I had a toolkit. But now, walking and exercising is one of many options in my toolkit. So depending on how I’m feeling and what I think I need, I can go for a walk or choose one of the other tools. Walking, while listening to music or podcasts, helps me release stress and worry.

Books or magazines

Reading a book or magazine is another good option.  I like to read books that remind me that uncomfortable feelings are a part of being human.  I remind myself that right now I may feel pain and sadness, but it is only temporary, and eventually I will feel love and joy again. I remind myself that I can’t pick and choose the feelings I let in; I’ve got to let them all in.

When we find ourselves going through a difficult time, we may feel trapped and unsure of how to continue on with life.  We can't go around the pain, but we have to work through it.  For the longest time, I didn't know the difference between avoiding the pain versus dealing with the pain. I've learned the difference is that when you "work through" your feelings, you address them, not ignore them.  Addressing your feelings can be hard and uncomfortable, but that's where the toolkit comes in. The toolkit won't do the work for you, but it helps you get through the difficult times.

Q&A Survivors Helping Survivors

After I wrote this letter to Las Vegas survivors, many people contacted me with questions.  I’ve decided to share these questions and my responses so that others can benefit as well. I also want to point out that these are my responses based on my personal experience. I don't have a psychology degree or work experience. However, I can offer you the lessons that I learned throughout my recovery process, as well as what I wish I knew years ago.

I hope this helps! :)

Does there ever come a day you don't think about it?

Yes. Eventually. I can’t remember exactly how long after the VT shooting it was for me, but it was a while.  After the shooting, I struggled to be present. I either wanted to go back to life before or fast forward.  But I had to accept that life wasn’t going to return to the way it was before, and I couldn’t fast forward through the pain. You have to sit with it. It sucks and I don't have much advice to get through it. But I would advise: don’t try to go around the pain, or avoid it, or ignore it. 

I will add that there is yet to be a fireworks show in ten years that I’ve enjoyed. I don't think I ever will. That’s OK. There are plenty of other ways to celebrate life and our great nation.

I’ve been going to counseling for a couple months now, but I don’t feel like I’ve made any progress. How long did you felt like you started making progress?

I went to a couple counselors immediately after the shooting, but unfortunately, I wasn’t being honest with myself about things that were going on - particularly regarding my eating habits. Therefore, without even knowing it, I wasn’t being honest with my counselor.  For example, when she asked me if my eating habits had changed and I said no.  When I finally was ready to put in the hard work and get better, I remember showing up to the first counseling session and hoping it was going to be quick.  She reset my expectations to a more reasonable timeline. 

Recovery is usually not linear. There will be setbacks along the way. Eventually you’ll get to a point where it’s two steps forward, one step back, but in the beginning, it might feel like one step forward, two steps back. That’s OK. Stick with it, continue showing up, and try to stay in the present.

Do you still feel a strong desire to be surrounded by those who went through VT with you? I feel more comfortable sometimes around other survivors then my own family , did you feel this way?

Yes, yes, and yes! This was very bizarre for me. My classmates that I just met months prior to the shooting, my classmates who I barely spoke to, and my classmates who I had nothing in common with. But THESE CLASSMATES. These classmates saved my life. These classmates and I survived a school shooting together. These classmates and I got through that day together, and the days that followed together. We were instantly bonded because of what happened on April 16, 2007.  We often use longevity to describe our relationships. But in situations like this, longevity doesn’t matter. The bond you formed with your fellow survivors may be stronger than some of the longest relationships you have.

A friend told me tonight that she was surprised how hard I'm taking this because I'm generally so strong. Any suggestions on how I can respond to comments like this?

Responding to her comments will depend on a variety of things, such as what you are comfortable saying to her, as well as what you think she is going to listen to.  It’s hard to give concrete advice on what to say, but I can explain what I think is going on.

 Years later, after the Virginia Tech shooting, I drew this diagram to depict what was going on in my mind vs. what people were telling me.


The words outside my head - strong, proud, poised, etc. - were the things that my friends and family were telling me after the shooting.  The words inside my head - anxious, self-doubt, scared, etc. - were the things that I was feeling.  I didn't want to let my friends and family down by telling them that what they thought (i.e. I was strong) actually wasn't resonating (I felt weak). So, I didn’t tell them I was struggling (first of many mistakes I made).  I learned that the that saying, fake it till you make it, doesn't apply here. I tried to fake being strong and it was harder in the long run.

Please feel free to send me any other questions you have. Sending hugs and love your way!

Letter from Columbine

A friend sent me the letter below with the message, "The inflight magazine was for you." 

Heather was one of the first donors to my GoFundMe campaign. Thank you Heather. Thank you for your donation, and thank you for the letter. #lettersofpeace