On April 20, 1999, Crystal Woodman, 16, was studying for a test in the library at Columbine High School when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked in and began shooting. For seven and a half minutes she hid beneath a table listening to screams, gunfire and the two teenagers’ laughter.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to live through this,’ ” said the young woman, now Crystal Woodman Miller, in a telephone interview this weekend from her home in Morrison, Colo., 15 miles from Columbine. “I’m 16 and I’m facing the reality of my death.”
When the two gunmen left the library to get more ammunition, she managed to escape without physical injury.
But the emotional aftermath was debilitating.
“I experienced nightmares all night, every night for two years,” said Mrs. Miller, now 30. “I was living in a paradox: I wanted to be around people, but I didn’t want people around me.”
Like many trauma victims, she found herself searching for exits and formulating an escape plan every time she entered a room. A friend followed her around with a box of Girl Scout cookies to make sure she ate something.
For young people exposed to gun trauma — like the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — the road to recovery can be long and torturous, marked by anxiety, nightmares, school trouble and even substance abuse. Witnessing lethal violence ruptures a child’s sense of security, psychiatrists say, leaving behind an array of emotional and social challenges that are not easily resolved.