For Parkland survivor, a long road to recovery from trauma

May 6, 2022, 6:06 PM | Updated: May 7, 2022, 8:53 am
Eden Hebron, 19, right, and her mother Nicole Cook, talk about the family's years-long struggle to ...

Eden Hebron, 19, right, and her mother Nicole Cook, talk about the family's years-long struggle to help Hebron work through the trauma and mental health effects after she witnessed a gunman kill a close friend and two other students in Florida's 2018 high school massacre in Parkland, during an interview, Friday, March 11, 2022, at Hebron's parents condominium in Hollywood, Fla. Hebron's experience shows how many of the survivors have grappled with severe mental health issues that derailed their adolescence and greatly impacted their families.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — More than a year after she witnessed a gunman kill three fellow students and injure five others in her Parkland classroom, Eden Hebron came home from lunch to find a strange white car parked in her driveway.

Since the shooting, surprise visitors were rare. Eden had struggled to cope in the aftermath, and her family tried to protect her. Now, nearly 20 months after the Valentine’s Day massacre where 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a therapist had arrived to send Eden to a mental health facility on the other side of the country.

The intervention was her family’s latest and most drastic attempt to help their daughter. Eden, then 16, screamed and tried to reason with her parents. Her life was in Parkland — her school, her friends. She learned she’d be leaving in just a couple of hours; she’d have little contact with the world outside the California facility. She pulled out her cellphone to tell friends as quickly as she could, and a few were able to stop by for tearful goodbyes.

“I was freaking out. I was more scared than anything else,” she said. “I was like, ‘What’s going to happen?'”

Eden’s troubles after Feb. 14, 2018, and her long journey in recovery are not unique — students who survived the deadliest high school shooting in the U.S. have grappled with trauma for years. Even for the students who became vocal activists for changes in gun legislation, mental health issues have surfaced — delivering blows not only for them in their coming-of-age years but also for their families. Experts say that’s expected for survivors of mass shootings, especially those who are children or young adults.

In Eden’s case, her parents hoped the move to California would save her life. While her classmates — many in therapy themselves, some struggling but making it through their last years at Stoneman Douglas — went on to take exams, attend dances and find their way to graduation, Eden headed some 2,600 miles away.

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The days before Eden’s intervention were filled with angst. She wasn’t eating, she slept too much, and she’d turned to drinking. Sometimes, she broke down for no reason. Her friends worried. Her parents were even more alarmed — fearing Eden might harm herself, they hid all the belts in the house and checked on her every hour of every night.

“We really had no way to help our daughter,” Nicole Cook said. “She was unraveled. She was 100% unraveled.”

Local police intended to commit Eden to a psychiatric hospital because of the risk she presented to herself. But Cook held them off, promising she’d take steps to get Eden treatment. Within seven days, Cook had narrowed options down to the residential mental health center in California.

When the therapist arrived, Eden quickly realized through her tears that she had little choice but to cooperate — she was a minor. She packed her bags, and her father drove her to the airport. The two flew to Los Angeles.

Her phone and makeup were taken away, and most of her wardrobe was replaced with sweats. The center was really a big house, with a pool and its own cook. Five or six other teens were typically there, being treated for anxiety, eating disorders or other mental health issues. To Eden, it seemed like the Four Seasons of treatment centers, but she felt desperate and alone.

“I didn’t have my family. I didn’t have contact with anybody,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on, how long I’d be there. And I was just excruciatingly wanting to get out.”

___

At home, Eden’s family worried for her. The facility was their last resort — they’d all sought ways to help Eden heal, but nothing had worked.

Her mother wanted to develop resources for families of survivors, once holding a meeting at their home to make plans. But she was discouraged, in part by lack of funding — she said money was going to agencies that were already registered and had experience with disadvantaged youths.

“There was just nothing nimble about it. They couldn’t pay for therapy, they couldn’t pay for anything that people really needed,” Cook said. “They also had no roadmap. They didn’t know what to do with a community in trauma.”

Eden said she found stigma at school for those visiting the resource center or a new wellness facility — even after the apparent suicides of two students. Teachers suspected kids just wanted to skip class, she said.

Still, Eden continued to get straight As for a while, and she went to Homecoming and parties. But she was getting argumentative, suspicious and paranoid. She often felt scared and sad. When alone, she cried.

She turned to alcohol and bad relationships. She closed off but presented herself as a normal teenager, going through the motions. Her therapist even told her she didn’t need further sessions, Eden said.

“That was me trying to control myself, trying to manipulate myself, trying to take care of things that I didn’t have the power to take care of,” Eden said.

______

In California, Eden was angry. For the first few days at the treatment center, she was required to stay within a few feet of staff members at all times. She begged her parents to let her leave.

“But as much as I wanted to get out, my parents wanted me to get better,” she said.

Eden was allowed five minutes a day to call them. She continued school under Florida’s homebound program for students who are absent because of a medical condition. Between therapy and treatment, she watched episodes of “The Office” with the other teens, swam in the pool and played in the game room. A few times she was caught using the computer to send emails, so she lost coffee privileges.

Her parents flew in weekly to visit. In early 2020, Cook, an epidemiologist, started to worry about COVID-19. Anticipating a nationwide lockdown that would prevent visits, the family prepared to move to California. Eden had just transitioned into a group home, and her parents would be able to see her more. They arranged to work remotely and left their home in Parkland.

“We could see Eden was making progress, even though it was really slow, painful progress,” Cook said. “It was also nice to have distance from Parkland.”

On Wednesdays, the family would drive to Malibu, eat along the beach, practice yoga or go for a run. They saw Eden expressing herself more and enjoying her time with them.

When Eden turned 18 in February 2021, she left the group home and moved in with her parents. But the pandemic worried them, and they feared a relapse for their daughter, who was going out a lot even though vaccines weren’t yet widely available for young people.

“We were afraid of getting sick,” Cook said. “I felt she was going to make bad decisions.”

So the family moved back to Florida, but not to Parkland. They chose instead a house by the ocean in the suburb of Hollywood, about 30 miles away. Eden continued seeing her therapist in California remotely, and she finished school online. She started making plans for college — a future her parents could only dream of just a couple of years earlier.

The intervention, Eden realized, had indeed saved her life.

______

Today, Eden, 19, is studying in New Jersey, close to her aunt and uncle. She wants a degree in computer science or neuroscience.

“It feels free, in a way, to know that I have trust from my parents and that I have a lot of options for what to do,” she said.

Eden’s mother said the guilt of sending her daughter away for treatment — of being unable to help her on her own, at home — did not ease recently. And Eden admits she still holds some resentment for her parents’ decision.

Cook knows they are fortunate compared with those who lost children in the shooting, but the family is still healing.

“Of course, we are lucky and grateful,” she said. “But being grateful doesn’t take away the pain.”

As Eden navigates college life on her own, she’s aware of little things she needs to do daily to stay on track: She meditates, she sings and writes, and she avoids spending too much time in bed. She takes notes of things that make her proud. She’s in constant communication with her parents. She has a therapist and a life coach.

The 2018 shooting will never leave her — she understands there’s no magic pill for trauma like hers.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be fixed. I think those images don’t go away,” she said. “It’s just a matter of self-regulating and choosing the good things for me.”

Some of her peers have kept up their advocacy for gun control and mental health resources. They, too, are moving into adulthood and the next chapters of their lives. It’s hard for any to ignore the shooting or the drumbeat of headlines — jury selection for the death penalty trial of the gunman is underway, with lengthy proceedings expected to follow.

Eden wishes she could do more for her fellow students, and for all the teens who’ve witnessed shootings across the U.S. She knows not everyone has the resources she did, and it often makes her feel powerless.

“Some people are struggling,” she said. “People are really having a hard time. As much as I want to go and help people and save people, I need to focus on me because I know how it can get for me.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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For Parkland survivor, a long road to recovery from trauma