Author: Diana Perri-Haneski

As I prepared for my week at The Onsite Foundation’s Triumph Over Tragedy workshop for survivors of mass shootings, I wondered how I would deal without having access to my phone, computer, or TV, to not be able to frequently call and check on my ailing Mom, or to have a cocktail. These are a few of the guidelines of the 6-day program. My sister couldn’t grasp how I could just go when I really didn’t know what it was going to be like. Who would be my roommate? What are the accommodations going to be? She asked, “Why do you have to go?” My answer was simple, “I was told they can help me, and that it would be a life-changing experience.” I needed to get back to me, the Diana I hadn’t seen in years.  The promise of healing, hope, and rest in a safe environment propelled me ahead. I most certainly needed a rest. Although I carried extra stress due to the Coronavirus making its impact here in the U.S. and not being with my husband Ray and precious therapy dog River, I still packed my bag and planned to leave for Tennessee. 

Since the awful day of the senseless shooting on February 14, 2018, I have been inspired by the 17 beloved Eagles that died. With them and their families in mind, I continue moving forward with love and kindness. I’ve learned about how my body reacted to the events of that day. How with 55 students and 4 adults, in the dark of the media center equipment room, waiting, quietly, praying we wouldn’t be seen or heard, I experienced fight, flight but mostly freeze.

I wondered how I could continue teaching while so many teachers and students were having difficulty at school. The anxiety of being there and the reminders after the shootings were pushed aside as I watched our students rise, speak up, and take action. Inspired by the March for Our Lives movement, I pushed myself to help my MSD family. Out of necessity, I created a space in the media center featuring self-calming activities. I named it ‘Rest in the Nest’, a place to learn and experience what can be done to help reduce anxiety and to help self-calm.  I spent time learning about the power of the breath and became certified with the Center for Mind Body Medicine (CMBM).  Through my work with CMBM, I learned how to feel better by breathing and shaking off bad feelings. I learned from tenacious educators like Yvonne Cech from Sandy Hook, Paula Reed from Columbine, rock star teachers who get it, told me to take care of myself and not to wait.  Counselors and doctors from around the country shared strategies, meditations, even oils and stones that helped calm me.  I then traveled to Massachusetts to spend time with trailblazers in the world of meditation, Sharon Salzburg and Shelly Sitton Tygielski, and learned the importance of meditation and self-awareness skills for myself, not just my students. I went to see Jon Kabat-Zinn and Allan Lokos when they came to south Florida.  Their words, strategies, and outlook on life helped me build a wellness toolkit, to stand, and to move forward with love and kindness.

When Amy Kenny, MSD’s Yoga instructor, shared The Onsite Foundation’s website and the opportunity to apply for a scholarship to attend their first workshop for survivors of mass shootings, I told her I wasn’t sure because I have been learning and doing so many things already and had already attended a workshop in the summer that helped.  She said this would be “life-changing” and I thought about it more seriously.  After all I had done, I felt better than after the shootings, but I still didn’t feel like myself. I was making progress but felt exhausted and knew I needed to pursue the opportunity for a scholarship. I pressed Amy for details, but she only repeated that it was life-changing explaining their program was amazing, featuring different modalities that I hadn’t experienced. Based on the information requested on the workshop application, and the promise of hope and healing, I knew I was in for something special. I didn’t have to wait long to hear that I was accepted and would be headed to Tennessee soon.

The travel day started before 4:00am and during the ride to and at the airport I got last-minute time with my phone. Another stipulation for participation in the workshop was to not have had alcohol for 15 days prior to the retreat.  I would drink on occasion and did find comfort in food and drink after the shootings. I had to make a decision to say no. This was the first of many times to come where I felt empowered by making a decision for me to be the best Diana I can be.

Twelve hours later I was getting off a bus full of strangers and walking on the serene Onsite property.  We had time to walk around the main house where three meals a day are served, peruse the gift shop for inspiring and informative gifts and books, and the property. I marveled at the majestic beauty of the horses around the stables and pasture as I walked to my accommodations for the week, a cabin-like large room with three queen size beds. I was glad that the bed I wanted was available and glad my roommate was kind and funny and a good match for me. After a gourmet dinner with many delicious choices, we gathered in a comfortable farmhouse decorated room that featured a sign over the door that said, “Trust the Process,” a phrase I heard throughout the week, came to believe, and now say myself.   Trusting the process is what I did to come to this workshop and what I continue to do now that I’m home.

I felt comfortable being welcomed by the staff, they seemed energetic and expressed their feelings of being honored to help our group, 40 people from across the country representing a number of mass shootings. As we gathered in a circle introducing ourselves, I wondered what is going to happen here? I felt a pang of regret when I saw there were dogs on the property that followed some of the therapists and faculty around.  I missed River. How could I leave her home? She would have loved it here.  My trepidation turned into hope as the leader, Miles Adcox, CEO of Onsite, spoke to us from the heart and introduced the staff of trauma informed professionals. I had been helped by Deanna, Director of The Onsite Foundation, and was so glad she was there for us the whole week. I was surrounded by good energy and people who looked at me, listened, and promised to help.  It felt like a cozy warm hug. I turned in my phone reluctantly, and soon after felt free not having it or keeping track of it constantly.  By the time I did get it, I really just needed it as a tool to check on family and my flight home. I expressed my sadness for not bringing my own emotional support dog River, to Kristine, Clinical Supervisor. She told me there was a recent attendee who brought her dog but had a hard time focusing on herself.  It’s what I needed to hear. River made everything easier at home where I wasn’t reaching out to people and doing the work, the therapy I was able to get with Triumph Over Tragedy.

At first, I thought what I am going to do here all week? The days were structured. I could start with yoga or a walk. A hearty breakfast was served at the main house, then a daily informed talk on subjects like the effect of trauma on the brain and sleep, and the importance of getting a dose of dopamine, and serotonin from physical exercise, good food and a good night’s sleep. Every day a talk was delivered by Cindy Westcott, VP of Clinical Programming at Milestones, the residential treatment center at Onsite. As a teacher, I marveled at how the attendees listened to her intently, they took notes and asked questions. It was a lecture we all wanted to attend and looked forward to daily. I learned more about trauma, PTSD, the brain, sleep, breathing, meditation and other significant aspects of what our bodies do and need, and how trauma impacts our behavior and ultimately, how we feel.

We met daily in small groups. I’d come to learn this was the healing, grief and trauma therapy I needed. We dug deep, looking way back on my life alongside a group of other women, who were strangers the first day and friends today. When you spend that much time with people, friendships are accelerated. The small group was led by Mary, who I named, Ninja Mary because of her quick ability to help you see yourself. One day, I asked about the meaning of codependency, a word I kept hearing and thought I understood.  As they explained, my eyes grew wide and I exclaimed, “Well, that’s describing my Mom!”  Ninja Mary and my group members looked at me and said, “Diana, that’s you!” Along with learning I needed to set boundaries, there were a few “Aha!” moments I realized at the Triumph Over Tragedy workshop. Mary’s gentle, yet on point, support guided me like an angel I needed that week. Someone said my enthusiasm for learning was infectious and they wanted to put me in their pocket and take me home.  I thought it was so funny until I realized I wanted Mary in my pocket or at least nearby.  The in the pocket reference is funny to me since one of the strategies I use daily is a rose quartz heart in my pocket. It’s become a comfort in my day, just as the aromatherapy oils and breathing exercises are there when I need them.

Once I, myself, began a routine that was focused on my wellness, on learning about the science of trauma and digging deep into myself, and surrounded by trauma informed professionals, that’s when I started to see the road ahead to getting back to me.  The clarity that came to me during morning coffee with my newfound friends would not have occurred if I didn’t take the time to look deep, be honest, and trust the process.

As author Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” Me, Diana, more self-aware and resilient moving forward with love and kindness. My memories of the week at The Onsite Foundation’s workshop will forever give me strength.  I know this as I sit at the keyboard, with my rose quartz heart, lavender oil, Onsite mug and a gentle reminder on my T-shirt: Just Breathe.

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