“To get through my PTSD, I have to accept that I’ve been shot and that my life has been completely altered.”
Joshua Nowlan, 36, Aurora, Colorado. Aurora theater shooting, July 20, 2012.
Joshua Nowlan worked at a cinema advertising company and considered himself a huge moviegoer. On the night of July 20, he went to a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” with his two closest friends. After being severely wounded in the shooting, Nowlan had to reckon with the physical repercussions of being shot, as well as anxiety and post-traumatic stress that made socializing daunting.
I’m prior military and I can definitely can tell the difference between a gun and something else. I was with my two closest friends and once the gun went off, my friend and I looked at each other. It was impossible to run straight to the exit from where we were sitting.
I hear bullets flying everywhere. I hear screaming and the movie is still playing. It’s dark and I’m looking through the spacing between the seats. That’s when the first bullet goes straight through my left calf. Then the second bullet hits me in the arm. The whole time I’m trying to focus on what’s in front of me. I’m thinking about my kids and praying to God and wondering when it will end. It felt like we were sitting on the ground for hours, even though it probably lasted less than 30 minutes.
The pain was just unreal. It was like being on fire and still being awake. I was in the hospital for three weeks and had five surgeries during that time, and two more surgeries since then. I’m about to have surgery number eight in January.
Every time I get a hospital bill, I just store it away and give a copy of it to my attorney and let them handle it. The last time I looked into how much everything cost, it was somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000 in hospital bills, physical therapy, medication and all that. Insurance picked up a lot. Donations from strangers and friends and family helped. My attorney helped. I was paying out of pocket through my paychecks at work. I finally got to the point where all my bills were taken care of through my insurance and my attorney. My next surgery is going to cost me a lot of money, so I’m doing everything I can to get myself ready for that financially.
During the first year, my PTSD was completely in overdrive. I couldn’t sleep. I’m an independent person, and it hurt to have my friends and family doing so much for me. I had an amazing support group, but it was still hard. Every time they looked at me, I could see that they were just staring at my leg and my arm.
I stayed away from most of my friends and faked a smile so people wouldn’t worry. I ignored Facebook posts and text messages or made excuses to friends and family and said I had other plans. There were a few times I agreed to go out with people and then canceled at the very last second. That’s when I decided to go see a therapist who specializes in PTSD and traumatic events.
I don’t really have a thing for counselors. I figured people just sit there and write down a bunch of stuff on a legal pad and say ‘How does that make you feel?’ I didn’t think that would do me any good and thought I would be just fine, mental-wise, but after I started noticing the trend of my walking away from my social life and ignoring people, I knew I needed to see somebody.
I still have PTSD, and I have good days and bad days and really bad days. To get through my PTSD, I have to accept that I’ve been shot and that my life has been completely altered, regardless of how I come out on the other end. It’s going to be with me forever. I had to learn how to approach every situation, like going to my first movie with my kids, or seeing a Batman poster and not constantly being reminded of what happened. I had to learn to confront all the little things that trigger my anxiety and PTSD. I even took myself to a gun range to hear gunshots again, so that I don’t run away every time I hear a loud banging noise.
To this day, if somebody drops a glass in a restaurant right behind me, I don’t jump out of my seat, but I turn my body and I look and I’m like, ‘OK, everything’s fine.’
I also suffer from neuropathy and chronic pain, so I’m always in a physical pain state. After I was discharged, I was pretty much on bed rest and the pain was unbearable. I was on so many different types of pain medications that it was hard to keep count. I’ve learned to deal with the pain as best I can through physical therapy, strength training and mental toughness, but I’m at the point where I can’t handle it anymore. In a few months, we’re doing a below-the-knee amputation of my left leg.
This is something I’ve been battling for years, and if amputation is the best result, then I’m going to go ahead and do it. My doctors are 90 percent certain that I will have very little to no pain at all. We have the surgery set for January 2018.
My life will change over again because I’m choosing to cut my own leg off. Mentally, I’ve had to accept that, because not very many people have to make that kind of a choice, where they decide to do something so traumatic. But I’d rather lose my leg than be in pain every day for the rest of my life.
As told to Erin Schumaker. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.