Zoe Pawelczak therapy horse

Zoe Pawelczak witnessed the mass shooting at last year’s Highland Park Fourth of July parade. She has turned to a form of therapy involving horses after being diagnosed with PTSD.

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After surviving Highland Park parade mass shooting, ‘some days ... it’s just really hard to still get out of bed and go outside’

A year later, Zoe Pawelczak and her father, Scott Vanden-Heuvel, are still trying to figure out how to live with what happened the day they ran for their lives.

At times, Zoe Pawelczak still finds herself being pulled back.

It’s been a year since a gunman opened fire at Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade. But the sight of lawn chairs being put out for a parade can do it. So can a scene of a crowd. Or a news report of another mass shooting.

All can take Pawelczak back to the moments when she and her father were running for safety from Port Clinton Square in downtown Highland Park, sure that some already were dead, unsure whether they’d end up among them.

“It’s very much not linear,” says Pawelczak, 29, who’d just moved back from Phoenix and was living with her dad in Algonquin. “The trauma aspect of it all — some days will be amazing, but then there’s some days that it’s just really hard to still get out of bed and go outside.”

She and her father, Scott Vanden-Heuvel, were among those who lined the streets around downtown Highland Park a year ago for the Fourth of July parade, a tradition in the North Shore community. Vanden-Heuvel grew up in Highland Park, and they’d been going to the parade since she was a kid.

This time, they ended up, like many others, running for their lives.

A year later, they are among the surviving witnesses who still are grappling with the trauma of what they experienced.

Daughter and father know they’re lucky: they were physically unharmed.

But they say that living with what they saw and heard and knowing what happened to others hasn’t been easy. It has taken a toll on their mental health.

It also has shaped their views on gun reforms.

“I was sort of middle-of-the-road with the gun rights thing,” Vanden-Heuvel says. “Knowing what I went through and what I’m still going through and imagining what people who had it a lot worse than me are going through — people have lost limbs from this parade — and it has changed my mind. I don’t think that there’s any place for guns in our society except for the police department and the armed forces.”

Pawelczak says she was glad to see Illinois ban the sale of assault weapons but thinks federal gun reform also is needed to make an impact across the entire country.

“It’s all too easy to just drive a car into another state and get an assault weapon,” she says.

What they’re experiencing isn’t uncommon. People who survive traumatic events like a mass shooting can expect to go through a range of emotions for years, and anniversaries of those events can be particularly tough, says Dr. Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association.

“Those emotions that people might have, such as shock, sorrow, numbness, fear, anger, grief, guilt for surviving — all those emotions could happen from day to day, from minute to minute,” Wright says. “And a lot of them could again be retriggered as we reach this anniversary.”

Recognizing what might take those who survived the parade shooting back to that morning can help figure out which coping mechanisms might help, according to Wright, who says they might include meditating or listening to music.

“We can often get into this mindset that we should be over something, that we should be grateful that we survived,” Wright says. “While all of that is true, you can be grateful for surviving and still feel all these other challenging emotions at the same time.”

Dr. Marcia Nickow, a clinical psychologist who lives in Highland Park, helps lead a free community support group that has met over the past year at Memorial Park and at Highland Park Presbyterian Church to help people work through the trauma of the mass shooting. Participants — some who lost loved ones, some who weren’t at the parade — have talked about the things they felt in the first months that followed. Now, they are working through how the experience will continue to affect and shape their lives, Nickow says.

“How do we not only heal from this trauma but also the resiliencies gained from this experience — and others that have come up from earlier times — how do those bring you to a place that enrich your lives even more than before?” Nickow says.

Dr. Stanley Selinger, a clinical psychologist who helps lead the group, says people often don’t realize the ripple effects that trauma can have on a community. Which is why some people in the group expressed guilt early on for how they felt because they hadn’t been shot or weren’t even at the parade. Over time, Selinger says, they’ve helped each other learn to cope.

“They created their own community,” he says. “It strengthens them to feel that they are part of the Highland Park community, and they are part of the survivors and resilience.”

Highland Park FOURTH OF JULY SUPPORT GROUP

FOURTH OF JULY SUPPORT GROUP


The support group led by Dr. Marcia Nickow and Dr. Stanley Selinger will hold a special session, open to all, at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, 330 Laurel Ave.


Pawelczak and her father say they were diagnosed with PTSD in the months after the the parade.

Early on, Pawelczak says, it was a struggle just to sleep or even eat. She felt a sense of guilt about surviving the shooting when seven people didn’t and dozens of others were shot and wounded.

Zoe Pawelczak Highland Park

Zoe Pawelczak is pictured days after the Highland Park Fourth of July parade mass shooting, when she already was having trouble sleeping and didn’t feel like eating.

Brian Rich / Sun-Times

Pawelczak was starting a graduate program a year ago in speech and language pathology. She was able to take a week off from school but soon resumed online classes and later moved to North Carolina to continue her program.

She says she doesn’t know how she made it through the first weeks after the shooting. She thinks it helped that she had something to do, something to focus on.

Vanden-Heuvel, 59, who now lives in Cary and works for a school district in the northwest suburbs, says he stayed calm in the days after the mass shooting. About a month later, though, he says he started having nightmares. They haven’t stopped.

“I’ve probably gotten five to 10 full nights of sleep since the parade,” he says. “I wake up almost every night screaming from a nightmare of some sort.”

Scott Vanden-Heuvel Highland Park

Scott Vanden-Heuvel, who with his daughter Zoe Pawelczak, escaped physical harm from the mass shooting at Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade last year, but has had nightmares and seen his mental health suffer.

Mark Black / Sun-Times

During the daytime, he says he’s able to do what he needs to do and continue his work. When he can, he tries to squeeze in an afternoon nap because he knows he probably won’t get much sleep at night.

He takes comfort in knowing he and his daughter survived the shooting together. That also means they have each other to talk to.

“We both get it,” Vanden-Heuvel says. “We both understand each other.”

He says he sought counseling but struggled to connect with clinicians who understand what he went through. When he can, he’s participated in a support group that meets regularly in Highland Park. He says that’s been helpful. He also has connected online with survivors of other mass shootings.

He says he takes comfort in the tattoo on his forearm that he got after the shooting. It has an olive branch going through a symbol meant to represent peace, symbolizing being a survivor of a mass shooting, he says.

“Looking at it, it puts me in a calm place,” Vanden-Heuvel says. “It makes me realize how lucky I am to have survived this whole thing.”

Scott Vanden-Heuvel tattoo arm

Scott Vanden-Heuvel shows off the tattoo that he says has helped him find a sense a peace. Hs daughter also plans to get one.

Mark Black / Sun-Times

His daughter has found comfort in animals. Pawelczak did hippotherapy — a therapy that involves horses — and now volunteers at a ranch that provides that service to children who have gone through trauma.

She had a service dog named Ziggy that followed her to class, but the animal recently died.

“Ziggy was the best thing because he helped me get outside, and we had to go outside quite a few times a day to walk your dog,” she says.

Pawelczak decided to pass the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting by visiting a friend in New Mexico and spend the Fourth of July getting out in nature.

“I just need a quiet place where I can feel safe,” she says.

Vanden-Heuvel plans to take part in the Highland Park community walk that will replace the Fourth of July parade this year. Then, he plans to attend a KC and The Sunshine Band concert in Elk Grove Village.

“Something a little more lighthearted and fun,” he says of his plans for the Fourth.

“There’s going to be crowds there, and I don’t ever want to be afraid to go places. I don’t ever want this parade to stop me from living my life to its fullest.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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