A Conversation With a Columbine Survivor


Marjorie Lindholm is a survivor of the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Lindholm, who wrote a book titled A Columbine Survivor’s Story, spoke with WebMD about her experiences and shares her advice for school shooting survivors and their loved ones.

How are you doing? It’s been years now since Columbine, but it was such a huge event. I imagine you never really get over it, or do you?

I haven’t. I think some people may be able to. I think with Columbine, people don’t really realize, it’s kind of where you were at the school. If somebody was at the far end of it and ran out of the school right away, I don’t think they were as traumatized as someone who was stuck in the library or the science room or saw someone shot. So I think there were lots of different levels of trauma that occurred with Columbine.

And you were in one of the rooms just down from the library, is that right?

Right. I was trapped in the room with the teacher who was killed. We were giving him first aid for the entire time, like four or five hours, until we were able to get out with the SWAT team.

When another school shooting happens, how do you deal with days like that?

Not really well, actually. I dropped out of high school, and it took a lot of years to get courage to go to college, and I still can’t do it. I was trying to do [a] biology major, but you have to go to the classroom, and last semester I quit going again because there’s been so many shootings on the news, and every time you read the news and something like that happens, you kind of relive what you lived through. So I switched to an online degree, so that I don’t have to walk into a classroom anymore for the remainder of my bachelor’s.

How’s that working out?

[It’s going] well, so far, other than I don’t really like the subject matter anymore because it’s sociology instead of biology. But you’ve kind of got to go with the flow and do what you can. But it’s just really hard because my life was school right now and every time I hear about this, it brings up all of my issues. And then in another sense, you see all the victims on TV — or even the kids who kind of witness things on TV or on the news — and you know what they’re going to go through because it’s what I went through for the past nine years … and I feel so bad for them and there’s nothing anyone can do.

Have you talked with people — apart from the people at Columbine — have you talked with people who have gone through it somewhere else?

Absolutely. Usually, every time a school shooting happens, I try and contact at least one major news source and give out my email address so that the victims or anyone who needs to talk with me or anyone who’s lived through it can contact me. I’ve spoken with people who went through the Montreal school shootings [which happened at Dawson College in 2006]. I actually spoke with the actual hostages with the Bailey school shootings [which happened at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., in 2006]. There was a shooting in Tennessee a while ago that I have [been in contact with] people. And I still keep contact with some from Virginia Tech.

How do you manage to do that since it’s so upsetting to you each time?

It’s upsetting because it brings up my own issues, but in another way it doesn’t feel like you’re alone anymore. Not that I want anyone else to go through it. If they already have, it’s kind of like, now it’s us. We’re a group. And we can get through it together. Some days I have hard days and I need help from other people. … I lean on them some days and they lean on me, and I think that’s what you have to do. If you isolate yourself, then I think it leads to depression and anger and eventually a very unhealthy lifestyle.

Within the Columbine graduates, is there a group that gets together, or an informal network?

Not really. A lot of people from Columbine actually don’t acknowledge that it happened. And it’s just kind of a weird thing associated only with Columbine. The other school shootings, they seem to talk about it. Even with my friends whom I’ve had for nine years, I still don’t know where some of them were in the school and I don’t ask. So, some talk about it but most don’t, and none of my friends do.

What helped you heal when you were going through it? I know it’s a journey.

Not a lot did. I dropped out of high school and at that time, my parents divorced, so I didn’t have a whole bunch of support at home at all. And then it took five years for me to tell my mom where I was [in the school when the Columbine shootings happened]. But after that point, since she’s a counselor, she had mentioned that journaling helps, and so I started to that, because I couldn’t talk about it yet. But writing about it was different and I was able to do it. … And then eventually, I was able to talk about it. And that’s kind of where that book came from. And now, when I do interviews, it just kind of lets me release it more and more. And I think that it’s always … a process and it’s still going to be a lot more years till I’m at the point where I can really live with it every day and not be upset.

Are there things that you do on a day when a school shooting happens or an anniversary day — things you do to take care of yourself?

Absolutely. I really think on those days, you do need to find comfort in something. My thing is ice cream, of course, like most females (laughs).

Any flavor in particular?

Oh, cookies and cream, for sure. (laughs) I love it. But I just treat myself. Even after the shootings, for, like, six months solid, all I ate were Peppermint Patties and Mountain Dew. And although it’s unhealthy, to an average person, it mentally got me through it, and that’s what mattered. Because so many of my friends at that time got into drug use or alcohol use or even killed themselves. And it’s easy to do that when you go through something so traumatic at such a young age when you’re just not prepared. Anything you can do to keep yourself still on track I think is so good. So during my harder days or the anniversaries or even when another shooting happens … you know, my thing’s food. (laughs) So I just do that, the ice cream, and maybe take myself to a movie or call a friend. But definitely, I don’t push myself those days.

Do you think that this has marked your generation, including people in another part of the country that never had to go through a school shooting?

Unfortunately, yeah, it’s affected the generation just dramatically. Because if you notice the pattern of the school shootings, they were high schools and now it’s moving into colleges, which kind of means it’s following the age group. Even the younger shooters that are doing these crimes were old enough during Columbine to see the “cool factor” in it. … I think there’s a 10-year age period where this is a fascination and it’s absolutely horrible and I do hope that it stops. But unfortunately I don’t know that it’s going to.

What do you mean by the “cool factor”? That people are fascinated by it?

Absolutely. I think that the way that the way media portrayed Columbine right when it happened kind of set [shooters] Eric [Harris] and Dylan [Klebold] as these icons to so many people who were bullied and abused and with mental illness. And unfortunately that hasn’t gone away. I think a lot of people want to do copycat shootings, and I think a lot of people want to prove a point by showing that they can also do it. And unfortunately, out of a school of thousands of people, it only takes one person … to do this to everyone. So even those few people — and they are just a few people — can just devastate millions of people because as you see, it affects the nation.

What advice would you give to people who have just gone through a school shooting?

The best advice I can give them is not to isolate themselves. And that is exactly the thing you want to do. You don’t want to talk about it to your parents. You don’t want to talk about it to your family. And you really don’t want to talk about it to your friends because you kind of feel like they have no clue what you’re going through. I know there [are] cliques and there always will be, but if they could just be accepting for right now and make sure nobody’s alone, even the weird kid that sits in the corner. You know, you have to watch out for everyone right now.

What would you want to say to their parents or their family members or their friends who weren’t there in the building with them and really don’t have a clue of what they went through? What are the things they can do to support someone who’s gone through this?

I think the best thing they can do is not push them to talk about anything. Just be there for them when they’re ready, if they ever are. And also not to take it personally if there’s spats of anger or if the person changed. Because this is a life-changing thing. And I think patience is No. 1. I know that when I walked into Columbine that day and when I walked out, I was a different person. And my family has just had to accept that, and they have, and that has been wonderful for me. But so many families weren’t accepting of it that also adds to the isolation that the person goes through.

Is that because maybe some families, after a while, kind of want to gloss it over and go back to normal, or what used to be normal?

I think everybody wants to do that. Everyone wants to act like it didn’t happen. Everyone wants what they woke up with that morning — the normal family life. But unfortunately, once something like that happens, I don’t know how realistic that is. I mean, nobody wants to admit that this really has affected a person in such a negative way. And I think the reason why my family could do it is again that my mother is a counselor and my father is a Vietnam veteran, so we kind of understand trauma. But families that haven’t ever been exposed to it before, I don’t know that they know how to handle it. But I think they take it as they come, and if they don’t know how to handle it, reach out for support. They are always welcome to contact me [through] my myspace page. Anyone can contact me, and other Columbine victims are also available to talk. There’s a network of people that are ready to help if they reach out and look for them.

What else would you want to say about your process or what you would want people to keep in mind who’ve just gone through it?

I think one thing to keep in mind is this is not going to define who they are. Even though right now it feels like this is their whole world and it just came crashing down and their lives are shattered, they are going to go to lunch again one day and laugh with their friends and not think about this. And they’re going to get through it, even though it’s going to take some time. And they can’t be mad at themselves if it takes six months, a year, five years, 10 years, because everyone has their own pace in healing. But eventually, it will happen and if they keep that in mind, I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

What’s ahead for you? What are you looking forward to now?

I should be getting my bachelor’s next year. And then this summer, I’m applying to a master’s program for a physician’s assistant.

Congratulations. Do you think you’ll do another book?

This first book was really for a middle-school aged group, so the reading is really easy and I glossed over some of the other things because I didn’t really want to recognize them in myself at that time. But I think that now that I’ve gone through so many speaking engagements and interviews, I’d like to write a college-level type book, especially for people in my age group.