ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. (WCCO) – Pictures can quickly jog someone’s memory of an event.
“It was a really great experience, we had so much fun,” said Shelby Henderson as she held a collection of photos. She takes pictures to commemorate the good times, like her shared passion for country music with her sister, Sherilyn. The two are seen smiling in the photos of them attending concerts, but not all of them are linked to the best memories.
“I’m not gonna erase every photo from that night in Vegas,” she said. “I want to remember what happened, how I felt.”
The feelings started with excitement as she attended the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas in the fall of 2017, along with Sherilyn and Sherilyn’s boyfriend, but that all changed when the sound of song was interrupted by gunfire on the festival’s final day.
“You could just feel the crowd tense up. People were ducking and screaming,” Henderson said.
What happened that night – Oct. 1, 2017 – was a deadly mass shooting. A lone shooter fired shots from his hotel room window at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more.
“I don’t know if this is one shooter, I don’t know if this is multiple, I don’t know if this is a terrorist attack,” Shelby said of her thoughts as she ran to safety. Her one regret is that she escaped alone. “I didn’t even look around to see if my sister and her boyfriend were OK, I just ran away,” she said.
Luckily, her entire group survived the attack unscathed. But that doesn’t mean Henderson wouldn’t carry emotional scars going forward.
“When an event like that happens, you lose all sense of security in your life,” Henderson said.
To combat that, Henderson thrust herself back into normalcy. She focused on her new job and even attended concerts.
“We tried to overcompensate a lot for what happened to us by like, ‘No, we’re still gonna go out to more concerts, we’re still gonna go out and just like prove that we’re still comfortable,’” she said.
Gabriel Sims, a clinical counselor in St. Louis Park who specializes in trauma, said Henderson’s desire to quickly move on from the shooting without addressing her emotions is typical.
“When you first have the experience of trauma, all the feelings don’t come up at once,” Sims said. “The mind is going to protect itself, and so we can only do it for so long before too many triggers in the environment start to kick up what the trauma is. So the trauma actually has the event (the shooting), and then it kind of crests and then as it crests more and more things start to come up for the individual.”
After an extended period of time, Sims said anxiety continues to intensely build. For Henderson, that happened about four months after the shooting.
“I started dreading to go to work, started getting really anxious. I didn’t want to be in crowds. I didn’t want to be around people. I didn’t want to go out but I was still forcing myself to go out with my friends and everything was normal,” she said.
Henderson decided she needed a change. She quit her job, took her time off to travel, and at the advice of her father started to see a therapist.
“It took me a few weeks to realize like, ‘No, this isn’t like you failing as a person. This is you taking care of your mental health,’” she said.
With a new job and a strong support system through her family, Henderson now says she’s happy with her life one year after the shooting, even if the memories never fade.
“Things will come up,” Sims said of possible triggers for the traumatic memories. “They’ll have physical responses and a thought might creep in, but it’s not indicative of sliding back.”
It makes the photos of Henderson’s time at Route 91 no longer about where she once was, but how far she has come.
“It will always be part of your life,” she said. “It’s up to you if you’re going to let it change you for the better or worse.”
Oct. 1 is near the date of Sherilyn’s birthday. Henderson said it is part of why they went to Route 91. Their goal going forward is to always do something positive around this time of year and celebrate Sherilyn’s birthday in a fun way — possibly with a concert.
Sims calls their idea “cognitive restructuring,” which means taking what exists — in this case the anniversary of the traumatic shooting — then restructuring how you view it and handle it.