Pulse victim: How I learned the meaning of survival

Editor’s note: Brandon J. Wolf is the vice president of The Dru Project, a nonprofit which promotes LGBTQIA equality. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Only the strong survive, they say. Survival of the fittest. But in the past year, the reality of my survival has been a painful journey of guilt, reflection, and hope.

Mementos, flags, flowers and messages adorn a fence in front of Pulse nightclub south of downtown Orlando on Tuesday, July 19, 2016, more than a month after the deadly attack there.

On June 12, 2016, I escaped Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. That night had started like any other. Arm-in-arm with my best friends, Drew and Juan, we were racially intersectional and socially liberated. I was dancing with two left feet; I was safe. Moments later, the first shots rang out.

The stench of blood and smoke burned my nose while a dozen of us crouched in a dark corner of the bathroom. We listened to gunshot after gunshot. And when the second round started, I made a break for the door. I didn’t look right; didn’t look left. I just stared death in the face, praying for a way out. I survived, but my friends didn’t.

It wasn’t until days later that a sense of dread and guilt set in. Was it my fault? Could I have saved Juan and Drew? And what of my place as a survivor? There I stood, uninjured, but broken. I had no outward sign of suffering — I didn’t walk with a limp or need physical therapy. But somehow, I was still hurting. I kept asking myself: as a physically unscarred survivor, did I even deserve a voice at all?

It’s a question that still haunts me, a year later. That’s the trouble with pain: it’s never just a flesh wound. It’s raw. It burns. It wakes you up drenched in sweat and sends you to sleep in a flood of tears. And to be a survivor is to wrestle that pain in every waking moment. If you measured things by media coverage, you might think our healing is over. That the time limit on our grieving has expired. To some, our wounds were never emotional at all. We were “shot six times,” “crawled to safety,” or “lost our friends.”

I attended the GLAAD Media Awards in April of this year. That was where I learned what walking in these shoes as a survivor means. While I was standing on the red carpet next to a brave Pulse survivor who had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, a woman approached me. She stared into my eyes with brutal intensity. “You don’t even know how lucky are,” she said. I must have had a quizzical look, as she immediately began to add context. “You don’t even know how lucky you are to be standing next to such strength. That man is what bravery looks like.”

Then it hit me: To so many, survival is skin deep. A broken heart and troubled mind are masked by physical recovery. In that moment, it was as if my strength and struggle were an afterthought. An expectation. I mean, I had been lucky to survive, hadn’t I? Luckier still to be walking without a cane. But what about my crumbling interior? The sleepless nights? Were my nightmares as real as those of the unlucky? I was, at once, a prisoner in my own mind, forced to stand and smile next to real bravery.

When did it become inadequate to survive? And where did we learn to quantify others’ pain? Learning to walk again is not the hard part of survival; learning to live again is. Long after the crutches are gone, the heart is still healing. This year, the Florida Legislature approved $2.5 million for the University of Central Florida’s PTSD clinic in Orlando after it was threatened by budget cuts. And while the world celebrates a community that has healed and moved on, survivors and first responders are praising a lifeline that may mean the difference between life and death.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a survivor several times over, once said, survival is nothing more than recovery. For some affected by Pulse, that will mean therapy. For others, learning how to stand in a crowded room without breaking down in tears. I found my recovery in a balance between advocacy and self-healing.

Weeks after the attack, my friends and I launched The Dru Project, a nonprofit organization that sponsors Gay-Straight Alliances in public schools and helps send future leaders to college. And in August, I joined the board of advisers for a political action committee dedicated to ending gun violence. I wanted to do something to make the world a better place, and to use my own story of survival to inspire unity and courage. I wanted to show young people that in the face of adversity and fear, it is our challenge to respond with inclusion and love. Ultimately, I found healing in an acknowledgement of the pain that will haunt me and a refusal to accept it as inevitable for the next generation.

As we reach the one year memorial, I catch myself thinking about the long road ahead. I think about birthdays without my best friends. I think about learning to sleep with the lights off again. I wonder if I will ever feel safe. And I worry about the rest of this community that will face the same fears. For them, I hope the world never forgets. I hope that when the cameras leave and they put the crutches away, there will be people to support them through their heartache. My hope is that Orlando will never have to heal alone.

Only the strong survive, they say. But being a survivor isn’t about casual strength or innate bravery. Survival is about taking each step of the long road to recovery one painful step at a time. For us, surviving means we will never stop fighting for our lives.